The Power of Children
of an Exhibition
by Nina Simon
Published on May 12, 2009
Visit Date: April, 2009
In April, I sat in a half-empty classroom in the middle of the day with an actor and a bunch of visitors and cried. I was in a children’s museum. I wasn’t injured. I’m not imbalanced. The Power of Children exhibition is just that good.
I visited The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis during the Museums and the Web conference with some colleagues from the science center world. I love the museum, but was particularly struck by The Power of Children, a newish addition to the institution (built in-house) that focuses on three courageous children in history—Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White—and their ability to rise above adversity to contribute to the world.
The Power of Children is an attractive object- and story-rich exhibit. The floor plan is open enough to let you relax as you deal with stressful concepts like death and bigotry—not in the abstract, but as they actually impacted real kids (two of whom died before adulthood). There were a few excellent interactives, including an interesting version of the “you be the reporter” teleprompter activity in which visitors not only read the news but listened and responded to the ongoing story as it developed. We watched a girl do it for at least 20 minutes. There were also some misses—jigsaw puzzles installed for the smaller kids that have little relevance to the overall topic.
But The Power of Children shines most in its extraordinary use of live theater. There are three spaces in the exhibit that can transition from open exhibit space to closed theater space via a couple of strategically placed doors. There are several 10-15 minute shows in the exhibition per day, each of which features a single adult actor. We watched one of the Ruby Bridges shows in an exhibit space designed to simulate the classroom in which Ruby took her first grade classes alone. Ruby is the black girl immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting walking to school between two US marshals. She spent a year going to school by herself because all the white parents chose to remove their children from school rather than have them contaminated by an African-American classmate.
In the show we watched, a male actor portrayed one of the US marshals, reflecting back on his time protecting Ruby as she walked to school. The piece was incredibly written. He bridged past and present, fiction and reality, in a way that allowed the experience to feel emotionally powerful but also respectful of our intelligence. There was some interactivity, and he used historic props (photos from the time, artifacts in the room) and questions to connect us with the story and the real person. It was the most gentle, elegant piece of theater I’ve ever experienced in a museum. I spent about half of the time with tears in my eyes.
What made the show so successful? Having a room to itself was fabulous. There was zero distraction from outside the play, and yet the fact that the room transitioned in seconds into an open exhibit space meant that I didn’t feel like I had to decide to move into a special theater space to experience the show. It also meant that after the show, I could explore the artifacts and props in the space in greater detail without being rushed out.
Clearly, the show was also developed to be appropriate to its audience both in terms of duration and complexity. The museum chose to use adults instead of kids as actors and that contributed to my comfort level with the intense content being presented. It also meant that the museum did not try to create representations of the children presented in the exhibit themselves, which I appreciated (it made them less of a caricature, more respected real children). Because the actors were “outsiders”, we as audience members could relate to their experience and confront our own reactions to the story. I wasn’t asked to BE Ruby Bridges—I was asked to be a citizen at that time, scared, confused, uncertain. The use of adult actors also made me feel comfortable approaching the actor with questions after the show. I’m not sure whether a kid would feel similarly about having an adult as the actor. There were only two kids in the show with us and they were minimally responsive.
At the end of the exhibit, there is a large metal “tree of promise” where you can make a digital promise at computer kiosks for what you are going to do to make the world a better place and watch it float up into screens in the tree. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a nearby post-it wall was much more active than the kiosks. It’s still easier—and more satisfying—to write a promise and stick it right up on the wall with your friends and classmates alongside you than to wait to click through a series of screens and type in your thoughts. Interestingly, this component originally launched with a custom social network where people could track and share their stories, but it was closed due to lack of use and a conclusion that the children’s museum audience was too young for it to be valuable.
The promises displayed at both the kiosks and the post-it wall were of comparable quality. By a quirk of the open floor plan, the beginning and end of the exhibit are co-mingled, and I saw several people start their visit to The Power of Children by making a promise. In this case, it’s probably a visitor participation activity that can happen just as easily at the beginning as at the end of the exhibit visit.
The Power of Children is a much quieter exhibition than the rest of the Indy Children’s Museum. It felt luxurious to enjoy the reflective space after winding through mirror mazes and crowding around dino skeletons (which I also loved). I’m grateful that Indy felt it worthwhile to develop an exhibition that is outside their target audience and typical content and design style. I can’t recall the last time I saw an exhibit about history so powerfully, personally, and thoughtfully rendered.
With thanks to Sarah Stewart, who answered all our questions, and Kevin Von Appen, who took most of the photos.