Paper Making/Recycling


of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on September 28, 2010, Modified on October 01, 2010

  • Description:

    For years I have had a memory of a creative studio space where kids could shred and pulp old newspapers, mix the results with water, and then use gobs of it to create paper pucks stamped with embossed images. So I was thrilled to stumble upon the exhibit at the Minnesota Children’s Museum during a recent visit.

    To me, this recycling/paper making area is an example of a particularly successful exhibit style: one that mixes messy, creative making with real world problem solving. I appreciate that this exhibit uses real materials, and engages visitors in a version of a real process. And I love that the steps are designed into a series of stations that can be used independently of one another, or as a whole start-to-finish experience.

    These characteristics allow visitors with different interests, learning styles, skill sets, and points of reference to be successful and find meaning in the activity. They support first time visitors as well as repeat visitors, and a range of attention spans and planning skills. The humble materials communicate accessibility and possibility – we can all do this at home! While at the same time, the museum’s ability to play with the scale of the real recycling process, and to construct a social learning environment, sets it apart from what you could do in your own kitchen.

    After recalling the exhibit as so successful I was glad to have a chance to take a second, careful look around. What I noticed were some opportunities to tweak the exhibit, without losing the wonderful core. From an aesthetic point of view, the workspace is without context – tables in a white room. Other exhibits in the same building wing are about systems and process – there is a water area, and a crane and conveyor belt component – but it took me a while to get that there is a bigger idea connecting these activities and I wonder how many visitors make the connections.

    Maybe more importantly, the tables are pushed up against walls meaning that kids’ backs are to their parents and that they are working in parallel with others rather than collaboratively. PISEC’s work in the mid 1990’s showed that something as simple as a round table can create more conversation, engage parents more with their children, and support greater collaboration all leading to deeper learning. Through conversation, PISEC showed, visitors make connections, pursue inquiry to new levels, and build learning relationships.

    I also had a question about the degree to which the system had been pre-determined. Although engaged in a very interesting making activity, visitors aren’t themselves engineering anything. The exhibit is designed to work time and time again, and the element of experimentation and trial-and-error has already been solved by the design team. It wouldn’t take much additional material or add much complexity to let visitors mix different kinds of paper to see how it changes performance, or collaborate with other visitors to create something they can’t make alone – the whole space working as a paper-recycling machine with multiple parts sync’d together. But it would require a willingness to let visitors make mistakes, and it would shift the focus from participating in the production line to something more around problem solving.

    The only reason I’m exploring the opportunities in this exhibit at all is because I really like it and want more. I want opportunities for collaboration at a larger scale, things to do with your piece when its done (like dry, shellac, paint, display – maybe this happens in programs?), ways to customize the end product by making your own presses, inspiring examples of paper made from many different materials hung as art on the walls, opportunities to experiment, and influence the product – MORE. Because it’s a great exhibit and the kind of experience I would like to see more of in children’s museums.

Latest Comments (1)

Minor changes to end process?

by Ji hui Lim - October 03, 2010

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any way to introduce creativity into the process of making recycled paper, but I think flexibility can be found in the end product.

Instead of making flat pieces of (embossed) paper, maybe the visitors’ imagination can be excited by letting them construct recycled paper cups, greeting cards, boxes, etc. This in effect reminds them that a 2-dimensional piece of paper, while already bountiful with possibilities, can become so many more things when the 3rd dimension is introduced.

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