MoMA Material Lab



of an Exhibit

by Sara Boyle

Published on March 29, 2011 , Modified on March 30, 2011

  • Museum: Museum of Modern Art

  • Visit Date: March, 2011

  • Description:

    The Material Lab at the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, is a new and exciting addition for young museum visitors. The revamped space, which previously served as a Shape Lab and a Line Lab, opened to the public in mid-February. Since then, the Material Lab has been offering children and their families unique opportunities to create arts and crafts that directly relate to the rest of the Museum’s collection.

    Upon walking into the Material Lab, located below a stairwell in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, I was immediately struck by the whimsical and warm environment the exhibition exudes. The space itself is fairly small (between 30 to 50 visitors can occupy the Lab at one time), but this potential shortcoming has been well compensated for by the decorative touches of the exhibition designers. Lining one wall of the exhibition are a dozen “discovery boxes,” each of which features a uniquely decorated exterior. Wood, metal, paper, wire, and cloth are just several examples of these touchable materials. On closer inspection, the boxes turn out to be cabinets that open – inside each box are activity kits with materials and prompts that correspond to the decorative exteriors.

    I selected two discovery boxes to explore, and found both to be delightful and educational. The first box I picked focused on paint. As I unpacked my kit, I found nine miniature painted canvases, each displaying a unique painting technique (drippy, bumpy, and matte, to name a few). The accompanying activity called for me to match painting terminology with each of the canvases. My second box was especially fun – this time I selected one that focused on food as an artistic material – that’s right, food! This kit explained how artists sometimes incorporate food and spices into their work, and was complimented by five distinct spices for children to smell and consider.

    In playing with these discovery boxes and watching young children do the same, I was struck by how successful the activity seemed to be. The children I observed seemed very engaged with their kits, and I really appreciated how expertly MoMA integrated references to art in its collection within the prompts. After exploring the discovery boxes, I felt that the exhibition developers succeeded in designing a fun yet meaningful activity for children.

    The side of the Lab opposite the discovery boxes has large windows that look out onto the Museum’s garden courtyard. Here young visitors can engage in digital painting on several computers. The Lab’s facilitator told me that this activity is especially popular, and upon exploring it myself, I instantly understood why. The digital painting program is fun, easy to use, and incredibly realistic. From the perspective of an exhibition designer, this activity is a home run win! Children simply touch a paintbrush to the screen of the computer, and from there are able to create their own artistic masterpieces. The program allows users to select from a variety of paint colors, as well as brush sizes. It even mixes paints as you toy around with it, a feature that’s shockingly reminiscent to actually painting. Finally, the program allows you to zoom in as you work, thus offering a close-up view of the canvas.

    Around the Material Lab there are a variety of other stations and activities for young visitors to engage in. Rubbing and collage stations offer children opportunities for take-home art projects, and there is also an area where children can experiment with manipulating light. A large cabinet can be arranged with objects as children see fit, and this is meant to mimic the artwork of Joseph Cornell. To the rear of the Lab, an impressive bookshelf offers supplemental reading materials. As a final playful touch, the room features an “accordion chair” which can literally be bent, stretched and shrunk in dozens of ways.
    All in all, I found the Material Lab to be an absolutely delightful interactive space for children to explore. The facilitator told me that the target audience is children aged four to twelve years, but from what I observed, even very young children and adults can greatly enjoy the space! I found that in many aspects, the Material Lab reminded me of the Discovery Room at the American Museum of Natural History, the only major difference being a focus on art as opposed to the sciences.
    On the MoMA website, the exhibition’s creators describe their big idea for the Lab as follows:

    “Our main goal for Material Lab was to engage a broad audience through tactile, interactive, creative, and exploratory experiences, and to encourage discovery through experimentation. It was also important that the lab have a clear connection to MoMA’s collection, and not simply exist as a play or craft space” (, Accessed 27 March 2011).

    From exploring the Material Lab myself, I feel the exhibition designers unquestionably succeeded in creating a fun and meaningful space for young visitors to explore aspects of the Museum. All of the activities in the Material Lab are engaging and relate directly to the artwork at MoMA. I highly recommend other exhibition designers to visit the MoMA Material Lab as a source of inspiration, and would instantly recommend it as a weekend destination for families with young children.

Latest Comments (1)


by Eric Siegel - April 02, 2011

this sounds great, thanks for the heads up sara. I’ll definitely go by and check it out. There was a recent thread on ISEN that suggested that art museums are learning from science centers and other interactive museums. It sounds like this is something we could learn from.

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