Invention at Play

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Gretchen Jennings

Published on June 07, 2007

  • Description and goals

    Developed by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, this exhibition aims to bring a fresh perspective to the topic of invention, exploring the marked similarities between the ways children play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology. It provides visitors with opportunities to:

    • Learn how play fosters creative talents among children as well as adults;
    • Experience their own playful and inventive abilities; and
    • Understand how children’s play parallels processes used by inventors

    The exhibition features three main areas:
    • The Invention Playhouse, where visitors of all ages can engage in four types of play that foster inventive thinking: exploration /tinkering; make-believe/visual thinking; social play/collaboration; and puzzle play/problem solving.
    • Playful Approaches to Invention, offering textual narratives, interactive devices, and artifacts that support explorations of the many ways that inventors have used playful activities and skills in their work. Five main inventors are featured, clustered with abbreviated stories about a wide variety of other innovators who have used similar creative techniques.
    • Issues in Play – Past, Present, and Future: What kinds of toys did inventors play with as children? Is the quality and quantity of children’s play changing? How do new technologies affect children at play? This area, with its artifacts, video, and experimental playthings from the MIT Media Lab, encourages visitors to reflect upon these and other questions concerning the history and future of play.

    Goals of IAP Project
    • To broaden awareness of the work of the Lemelson Center on a national level as a key resource for the documentation, interpretation, and dissemination of information about inventors and the processes of innovation in American history
    • To offer a fresh, interdisciplinary perspective on the topic of invention through its relationship to play and creativity
    • To depart from iconic representations of inventors as extraordinary “others,” geniuses, people who are not “like us,” by presenting the stories of both famous and lesser-known historic and contemporary inventors from diverse backgrounds
    • To encourage public audiences to understand and explore the relationships among play, creativity, and invention.

  • Development process and challenges

    We faced two challenges in developing an exhibition about invention. The first was to create an exhibition that looked at invention in an innovative way. A review of exhibitions about invention, commissioned before embarking on this exhibition, found that there have been at least 25 exhibitions on the topic of invention over the past 25 years. We wondered how we could approach the subject matter in a fresh, new way. Our second challenge was to create an exhibition that would encourage visitors to make connections between their own lives and abilities and those of inventors. Front-end evaluation indicated that visitors were interested in the topic of invention and in the personal stories of inventors, but did not see their own creativity as related in any way to the creative activities of inventors.

    Examining the role of play in the invention process allowed us to address these two challenges. It did seem to be a take on invention that had not been explored before in an exhibition, and it allowed us to connect an everyday familiar process with invention, which many people seemed to hold in awe.

    As we worked on the exhibition concept, we had more questions than firm ideas. A Lemelson Center symposium in fall 2000, “The Playful Mind,” had invited historians, inventors, developmental psychologists, artists, primatologists, and educators to consider the role of play in the invention process. The daylong discussion convinced us that there was some rich material to mine, but we wondered how the topic would hold up as an exhibition. Did inventors really think of themselves as playful? Were we short-changing the invention process by comparing it with play? How could we connect play with a pursuit that is often both physically and mentally demanding, risky, and fraught with failure? Actually, we realized, that description does sound like play – a human activity that is deeply satisfying, but not always “fun.” At times arduous, scary, and time consuming, play is something that human beings engage in spontaneously, wholeheartedly, and for its own sake. This is especially true when we are young, but in fact most of us continue to play in some way throughout life. It seems that this is especially true of inventors.

    To answer our questions, we studied the historical record for life stories of inventors, examining their notebooks, sketches, and models. We searched the literature on child development and creativity, and we interviewed living inventors. This latter source proved to be especially fruitful. Far from being insulted when we asked them about play, most inventors made immediate connections between their childhood play and their current work. They also resonated with questions about the playful approaches required for their work as inventors – tinkering and “messing about;” simulation, modeling, and prototyping; brainstorming; convergent problem solving (using what you already know) and divergent problem solving (breaking out of old assumptions).

    Through play we develop certain “habits of mind”—curiosity, persistence, imagination, communication, problem solving—as well as skills in manipulating and understanding the properties of the material world. Our research has shown us that this array of abilities has been and continues to be an important part of the inventor’s tool kit. These four kinds of play and the corresponding approaches of inventors became the conceptual framework for the exhibition. This interrelationship of play and invention is explored in a variety of ways in the three sections of the exhibition

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    Because the Science Museum of Minnesota worked with us to prototype so much of the exhibition in the year before opening (both at the Museum of American History in Washington, DC and at their museum in St. Paul, Minnesota), we did not have any major disasters when we opened.

    However, even though they had been tested before opening, there were still several interactives (the Sailboard Simulator; the Magnet Ramp; Bell’s Phonautograph)that kept breaking down. We also found that the phone mechanisms installed to provide audio accessibility required a great deal of maintenance. For one thing, we discovered that nearly everyone, and especially young children, used them. For young children who cannot read, they actually provided a useful substitute for labels. We had made provisions in our contract with the Science Museum for remedial work, and they had also provided a very complete technical manual that our staff could follow. These decisions made at the contracting stage made it possible for SMM and our staff to fine-tune and repair the exhibits so that most were more robust by the time the exhibition began to travel. The phones continued to cause problems and eventually were replaced with a newer product discovered when the smaller version of the exhibition was built.

    We worked very closely with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop and include examples of a newly developing aspect of play and invention- the creation of playthings that interact with each other and with the outside world using sensors and other digital technology. A number of these playthings were included on a mobile cart that was staffed by specially trained facilitators. Other examples were included in the section on the Future of Play. Eventually all of these have had to be eliminated from the exhibition as interactive elements because they are still in such an experimental stage that they cannot withstand the constant heavy use of an exhibition. They are more suited to a workshop format where their use is more controlled and trained staff are there to assist. The exhibition still contains examples behind cases and a film that discusses these elements as part of the digital age. For more information on these types of activity, visit the PIE Network website listed below.

Latest Comments (3)

Invention at Play

by Kelly Brisbois - August 18, 2009

I appreciate the groundwork and thought that went into this exhibition — it paid off with an outcome you delivered that is both useful and educational to the families visiting this exhibit. A process that can be replicated, hopefully, at all levels of exhibition development, and funding levels. Thank you for your case study.

Hosted the small version of this exhibition

by Dave Stroud - February 16, 2010

We hosted Invention at play at the Discovery Gateway children’s museum. This was a very good exhibition, and we received a lot of positive feedback from guests about it.

The “tinkering” aspect of it appealed to our audience and held their attention. The “pinball” style obstacle course was a huge hit, as well as the pinwheels.

The benches and informational panel tables were in near constant use, and have influenced my own exhibition design mentality since seeing them.

We also added some exhibits of our own to the Invention at play exhibition. The Most important focused on Art Fry, inventor of the Post-it Note, and one of the inventors in the included written material.

We created a large panel describing the history of the Post-it, supplied Post-its to our guests, and asked them to draw or write what they might invent.

The thousands of pastel colored responses included solar cars, homework machines, quiet siblings, and … stickier post-it notes.

On the critical side- The audio hands sets had issues, kids climbed the motorcycle cut out, and the popular pinball obstacle course required twice daily maintenance. Pretty much standard type issues for rentals.

I would rent this exhibition again, I felt it was a good value.

Update about Invention at Play

by Monica m. Smith - March 08, 2011

Note that the original, 3500 SF exhibition completed its national tour and returned to the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in November 2008 when the Museum reopened after a 2-year renovation. IAP is on display in the Lemelson Center’s Hall of Invention at NMAH and continues to attract crowds.

Per Dave Stroud’s comments above, we had problems with the audio sticks too and ended up removing them completely from the exhibition. In addition, in the large version of IAP we have a heavily used, full-body physical interactive called the Sailboard Simulator that recently broke down completely after 9 years. Fortunately, we just contracted with former SMM production manager Chris Krumm to repair and revamp the Simulator so it can continue to serve audiences well for the remainder of IAP’s run.

Log in to post a response.