Wonder Room, Redux

Lots of museums have creative play spaces primarily intended for families with young children. While the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity’s Wonder Room was designed with children 3 years of age and older (and their families) in mind, it serves as a place for visitors of all ages to engage in creative play amidst original works of art.

Scenes from the original Wonder Room:

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In its first iteration, the Wonder Room included the chance to create giant faces with magnetized household items, make constructions with sticks and rubber bands or plastic dinnerware, build a fort, and more. Our family and friends had a lot of good experiences exploring and experimenting in this room together over the past few years. But, I was happy to hear it was closing for an overhaul this Fall. We were ready for something new.

So it was with bells on that Rosa, Cora, and I went to the members only opening of the new Wonder Room this past Sunday. We had a great time exploring the new space and hanging out with some of the artists whose work is included. But, we’ll need to return a few times before we determine how it will best suit our needs. While the old space was a bit of an all-over design, the new room was designed around the idea of an enchanted forest. Anyone who has ever read The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, or The Lord of the Rings know that enchanted forests aren’t always happy places. The components work well in conveying this idea and presenting lots of great art from the museum’s collection, but I must admit that some aspects caught Cora off-guard and will take her time to get used to. The space feels, overall, darker than it was. In addition, many of the activities seem better suited for older visitors, like Rosa, than in the previous incarnation.

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For instance, Heidi Kambitsch, a local artist known for her Openheart Creatures, created capes and masks and wings and claws for dress-up. They are inspired and engaging, and a little creepy. Rosa loved wearing them but it took Cora some time to warm to the idea of dressing up as a hairy wild beast rather than a pretty princess. Kambitsch’s work is positioned beside Alex Andre’s Metamorphosis Project which invites viewers to position themselves on either side of a revolving wheel alternately made of mirror and glass. As the wheel spins, the viewers see flashing images of themselves – check out the videos on the link, it’s hard to explain. All I can say is, interacting with Andre’s work while wearing Kambtisch’s costumes is a trip. Whether its good or bad is all based on your perspective.

On a different note, the environmentalist in me will have to think more about some of the activities that use consumable materials. One of the things I LOVED about the first Wonder Room was the way it presented opportunities to engage in process art without producing waste. As I wrote in my review of Oliver Herring’s TASK, I have trouble fully engaging activities that create lots of trash; part of my mind gets lost in the landfill. Time will tell if visitors can create nests and niches that seem (to me) worthy of the materials they are made with. In the meantime, we’ll be heading back to the museum again soon to play with sticks and stones and cardboard squares. Hope to see some of you there!

A Photo a Day: The Most Perfect Dazzling Creature Ever

“They’re the rolling Baroque sculpture of an America that’s gone forever.” Robert Hughes

DSC_0013When I started this “A Photo a Day” mini-series last night, I promised to post six photos, one representative of each of the past weeks I haven’t written anything here. But tonight we honored a family tradition too exciting not to write about right away.

Every July, Goodguys Rod and Custom Association convene at the Ohio State Fairgrounds. Our family is happy to have our city play host to this somewhat motley crew as they give us great access to hundreds of hot rods and custom cars you won’t see on the streets everyday. It was a breeze convincing our Cars-loving Cora to come along for the ride to “the big car party.” She was visibly excited to see so many cars that looked like ones she’d only seen in the movie. It helps that her dad alternates between a 1972 Chevy pick-up truck and a 1970-something Honda motorcycle on the weekends. She and her siblings are growing up around old motored vehicles, much like their Dad did.

Many of Dan’s childhood memories seem to involve cars. His mom and dad met at a drive-In in the 1960s. His dad kept classic cars around and maintains a soft spot for Corvettes. He learned to drive on a 1964 Mustang. It’s funny that I find all this attractive since my preferred mode of transportation is my bicycle. But for some reason I do.

Part of it is the tradition. And part of it is related to art appreciation in the truest sense of the term. Dan and his dad can name a car by make, model, and year from a half mile off.  Sadly, his dad’s memory isn’t what it used to be, but when he was watching the cruise tonight, he seemed to remember clear as a bell. George is learning the language and may someday carry on the family knowledge. If not, Cora seems primed to become the gearhead her dad’s always dreamed of having for a child.

I remember the first time Dan took me to see hot rods. We were in a hotel parking lot about a mile from the house we now share. (Note: This is the best place to view the cars if you aren’t attending the show. Go in the evening and you’ll find cars cruising around, parked in lots and ready for in-the-round viewing (no touching please!), and owners happy to tell you all about the cars they treat better than some people treat their children.) Now, back to that date…

I was so amazed by Dan’s knowledge of the cars we encountered. I’d say, “I really like that green one over there.” And he’d say, “Yeah! Those _______ (insert make, model, and year here) are great. They had/added those _______ (insert part of the body, engine, or detailing here) that no other car had/has.” This nice Jewish girl from Long Island was smitten by all the talk of chrome and steel. And, if you listen to Robert Hughes talk about 1950s cars on American Visions, you’ll understand why. (If you click this video link, skip ahead to 9 minutes, 20 seconds).

Tonight, as we walked the lots and sat on a berm watching the cars roll by, we were all connected to one another and the folks around us by something that spans time and space. I loved listening to Dan’s mom go back and forth with some ladies nearby as they tried to recall the color of the 1956 Thunderbird Suzanne Sommers was driving in American Graffiti (it was white), and I’m happy our kids are learning to appreciate these Modern marvels.

Toddler Time @ The Columbus Museum of Art: Day II

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Well, the best thing about an action research experiment like the one I’m currently involved with at the Columbus Museum of Art, is that we can do whatever we like. We have no firmly pre-determined agenda and no funders or academic advisors to please.  All the participants are volunteers who are along for the ride, no matter the destination.  But, we are answering to ourselves, and those participants are my friends and neighbors.  I want them to be happy and satisfied with the time and energy they are putting into the venture.  And I want the museum staff to feel they have learned something that might translate into programming for other families in the future.

Last week I gave myself a few assignments, and this week I focused a bit on ways of addressing those objectives.

First was taking best advantage of being at the museum and working with its educational staff.  In the days leading up to this session, Amanda Kepner and I exchanged a few emails to iron out our plans.  I was thrilled when I read Amanda’s thoughts for our time in the gallery.  She planned something very similar to what I might have done, had I taken the time…

“I chose a book called Perfect Square which is all about a square that gets torn up and turns itself into different things (like a fountain, flowers, a river, etc.). It reminded me a lot of Froebel’s gifts (specifically this one http://www.froebelgifts.com/gift7.htm). I found a HUGE painting that is nothing but color blocks in the gallery that has large abstract art in it (Gallery 10). I thought after we read the book, we could look for all the different colored “squares.” I am really trying to keep the art looking to just colors and shapes.”

We got started with some stations, to maintain some continuity with the first session and to give people time to arrive, take their kids to the potty, and say hello, before moving up to the gallery.  This week the homemade Play-Dough was the most popular station and it seemed like nearly everyone wound up at that table, together, which was nice.  I brought various tools for making shapes – cookie cutters, old Perfection game pieces – since I knew we’d be looking for shapes up in the gallery.  I also brought back the lightboxes with various shaped colored acetate and covered a large sheet of butcher paper with simple shapes drawn in black marker with crayons for parents and kids to add to.

I am so glad we went to the gallery and I hope we’ll do it again – perhaps during our fourth and final session.  Next week I have big messy plans.  Even though I had a flashback to the day Cora did not sit down for a single moment in our music class, and nearly fainted when she landed a two-handed touch on the Color Field painting we were examining, it was truly grand to have this time with our friends in the gallery.  While I strongly believe that museums ought to be conceived as a community spaces and sites for participatory cultural exchange, I still cherish them as spaces set apart from the rest of the world – shrines to artists, images, and objects.  (I think I can trace this back to the first time I climbed the central stairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a field trip in elementary school, but that’s a story for another time.)  I think we feel and act differently when we are in a museum.  As Dissanyake (1988) suggested, art is “making special,” and we feel special in relation to it.

Our first venture into the galleries together was primarily focused on reading Perfect Square together in proximity to images that related to its content.  I’m sure if we had organized our time slightly differently, we could have carried that idea beyond the single work we looked at (by going on a square hunt, for example) but I know that such singular focus can be very effective for kids this age.  I know, because on our way to the studio yesterday, Cora showed me the impact it can have.

As we rounded a corner and entered a hall lined on one side with non-Western and folk artworks, she called out, “The dance!” and went running for a small ceramic sculpture from ancient Mexico.  Backstory: About two months ago I took Cora and her gal pal to the museum and we looked at this “Figural Scene” together.  I told the girls it looked to me like the figures were doing ring-a-round the roses and then we grabbed hands and did the dance ourselves a few times. Cora remembered it all. And as she did, she reminded me that it’s the quality, not the quantity of experiences that really matters. I think this is an especially important notion for parents of young children to keep in mind as we all try to offer our kids as many opportunities as time and budget can afford.  Sometimes less really is more.

[Final note: This is a great, short paper on “Looking at Art with Toddlers” which Amanda recommended.  It was written by another Ohio museum educator, Katherina Danko-McGhee, from the Toledo Muesum of Art.]

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