Design Lab Progress

When we first started working on Design Lab, we invited a number of exhibition firms to come in to talk to us about how we might collaborate on this project.  This process helped us to realize that we were not really creating an exhibition space per se, but rather an armature or environment that would support design-based learning activities.  We would not be trying to tell a unified story through the space, but rather inviting visitors to build things, to test them, and to evaluate and share their work.  The predilection of exhibition design firms to design…well…exhibitions made it difficult for us to communicate the nature of the space we were looking to develop.

Through extensive discussions we ended up by engaging an interesting, brilliant, and complicated team of two design firms with very different skill sets.  We are working with Local Projects, a growing shop that has a focus on digital media; and Situ Studios, an artisan shop of architects/builders who pride themselves on building what they design.   We are just ending the concept design phase, and are at a moment of thinking…wow…this is actually coming together.  And the Design Lab team has been so deeply gratified by the success of this unconventional pairing. 

Local Projects was started by Jake Barton, a graduate of the ubiquitous ITP program at NYU.  It first came to prominence with the revolutionary and inspirational StoryCorps kiosks that opened around 9/11, and Local Projects has continued to grow and innovate through projects such as the 9/11 Memorial, the BMW/Guggenheim Lab project, work with digital media in museums, parks, and other public venues.  Increasingly they are being asked to work on experience design more generally, but their core competence is around digital media, interactivity, and story telling.  They have devised some really creative approaches to working with collections in museums as well as a suite of media education tools for the Jacob Burns Media Arts Lab

I first encountered Situ Studios through a group called Solar One, an urban environmental education group that operates Stuyvesant Cove Park on the East River of Manhattan.  I serve on the Solar One Board, and was blown away by a series of installations that Situ did in the park for community environmental arts days.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one, because these installations ended up by being adapted for public arts/environments festivals around the country.  Here are some images of this work

We have reached the end of the concept phase, and the amazing thing is how the two firms are gelling as a team.  The image at the top of this post suggests the kind of integration of digital and physical that we are planning.  Without going into too many administrative details, there was a lot of contract negotiation that went on to delineate the role of each team.  The conceptual design phase was let as one contract with LP in lead and Situ working collaboratively with the LP team.  The design development/cd phase, as we are currently planning it, will be two separate contracts as each firm’s work becomes more specific.  So it will be up to us to integrate.

In the mean time, we have been prototyping activities with the public.  You can see more about this in the Design Lab blog .  This month we had visitors creating and sharing shadow puppets in conjunction with an installation of Design-io’s wonderful Puppet Parade interactive( see Design-io’s blog for more on our work with them).  Its worth mentioning that the combination of Puppet Parade, the traveling exhibition from OMSI called Animation, and our design based activities, we have had record visitorship, with 4,100 people coming on one day, 50% higher than our previous record.

This week, we have been harvesting staff comments from the operations, public programs, education, and development staff on the Design Lab concept documents.  There have been some really valuable and substantive responses.  For those of you reading this who are at NYSCI, please feel free to go into the North Wing Conference Room and look at the drawings and connect with Peggy Monahan or me with any comments and questions. 

For those of you reading this offsite, we will make selections from the concept design phase available online.

Going after the big game

We have been working intensively with Gigantic Mechanic, a NYC based game design firm to create a social game for our Great Hall exhibition on the theme of sustainability.  We have spent a lot of time with dice and cards (my response was to make a game where you build a house out of the cards and dice…) in small groups designing games that we share with each other, then tearing them apart. Once we went into one of our large galleries with a bunch of numbered ping pong balls and created a “Waste Monster” game that had us running back and forth with the balls, trading them, shouting out numbers, trying a “hunter/gatherer” game.

We are trying to create an experience that visitors would come to on a scheduled basis that invites them to play for 20 minutes that would convey some key themes of interdependence, resource trade-offs, collaboration vs competition.  This would all happen in the context of an immersive and responsive environment created by Design-io, who are artists in residence at NYSCI in March-May.  We were drawn to their work through their piece Funky Forest where water flows across the floor, the walls sprout with trees, and who knows what all.  Actually. we have a prototyping session coming up for that immersive environment tomorrow. 

I am really excited by the spark that seems to be kindling between these two very different design firms.  It would be awesome if we could create a large scale immersive 

environment in the Great Hall that responded to visitors and supported the intense interaction that characterizes social games.

That would be a big enough challenge, but we also have to make it so the immersive environment stands on its own.  And we have to make it so the space can be used for other purposes like rentals or Bjork. 

So it is really a huge challenge, but for the first time I am beginning to get a sense of how this might work out. 

The folks from design io and gigantic mechanic have been great, and we have added an awesome new project manager/developer Geralyn Abinader.  She started and ran the digital media program at AMNH for more than a decade, so she is really a huge addition to our team.  Another huge addition in a different way is Leilah Lyons, a PhD computer scientist specializing in embodied interactive experiences.  She is joining us from U Illinois in Chicago.  So there is a lot of new great brain power on this project.

Teen HOMAGO Heaven

YouMedia Chicago

[YOUMedia in Chicago, Teen HOMAGO Heaven}

The MacArthur Foundation does more than just anoint underappreciated geniuses every year.  For the past several years, the Foundation has been cultivating and promoting a pretty radical approach to learning among teens that goes under the rubric “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” (or HOMAGO, as they call it).

I just came back from a couple of days in Chicago with a group of people funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the MacArthur Foundation to create “learning labs” in museums and libraries.  Though way too much of the time was spent listening to people talk (don’t they realize that we are informal learning people because we don’t learn well by listening to others talk?), there were several revelatory moments.

The MacArthur Foundation has decided, at least for the moment to focus on out of school learning.  Like the Internet, which famously routes around obstructions, the MacArthur folks found liberation in focusing on the majority of the time that young people spend with their friends, their families, their computers, and other virtual and meatspace companions.  They commissioned a book, a collection of kind of ethnographic articles about teen’s informal learning lives, called Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out. You can grab the book here.

Its a compelling read in its way, more descriptive than prescriptive.  The gist is that kids learn along this kind of axis or overlapping venn diagram that includes the most casual (Hanging Out), proceeds to a more active and engaged, if still very diffuse mode (Messing Around), to a more focused and productive mode (Geeking Out.)  The authors, led by Mimi Ito, are at great pains to say that these aren’t a linear progression, that this is not a hierarchy where you want kids geeking out…again, it is more descriptive than prescriptive.

An example might be: a bunch of you go to a friends house to watch tv (hanging around), you might decide to do cartwheels or throw a nerfball around (messing around), and some of you might be taking video, editing a collage or mashup with some music that you like, and putting it on facebook (geeking out.)

This is all good, and has the pleasant buzz of putting something familiar into the larger context of what we think of as learning. So the next step MacArthur took is that it connected with some visionaries to create a physical space in which HOMAGO is leveraged to create an inviting space for teens in Chicago. 

Enter YouMedia.  This place is a trip.  If you walk into the pretty vast Harold Washington Library in the Loop in Chicago the way we did, from a door right under the El, you immediately encounter the large space (probably about 5K ft2).  We got there at around 5, a bunch of middle aged gringos after a long day of meeting, and at least I felt a weight lifting off me.  This was a place where a teen age kid could pretty much do anything or nothing as s/he prefers.  Couches, computers, music equipment, video equipment, all laid out in a way that was both casual and purposeful. 

I gravitated toward the music production station.  Nothing fancy, a midi keyboard, a synth that wasn’t working, a korg and an akai loop station for creating hip hop beats and an incredibly welcoming and cool “mentor” named JoVia Armstrong.  She studied percussion at Michigan State, and I studied percussion and composition at the University of Michigan, so we bonded.  Her music is here

As we heard over and over again, the mentors (typically hired from the teens who were homago’ing, and graduated out) are one of the lynchpins of a successful teen program like YouMedia.  But also is the incredibly low barrier to entry, you can walk in, no pressure, and get involved in what interests you.  Go check out the YouMedia it shows the whole deal far better than I can write.

The IMLS/MacArthur grants are the next step in the HOMAGO campaign, to see how this model might be transposed to different institutions.  The ArtLab in the Hirschorn Gallery, pioneered by the resourceful Ryan Hill, is an early reflection of this model.  Ryan’s presentation was really useful as he shared how the YouMedia model might be adapted to very different circumstances…while the Hirschorn has the benefit of being free, it has the drawback of being part of the Smithsonian bureaucracy, which makes radical ideas hard to implement.  But Ryan seems, conditionally, to have this up and running, so its worth checking out.

The grantees comprise a dozen or so consortia of libraries and museums in cities large and small throughout the US.  We are all beginning our planning, this was kind of a kickoff meeting for the grant.  We’ll share NYSCI’s progress with its maker space over the coming months, and I hope we will learn about others’ work as well. 

While I was sitting in the meeting, I was a bit distracted, so here are some remixes of our maker space…

"Comic book Maker Space"

bjork at nysci: learning to take chances


Many colleagues have asked about the why’s and how’s of bjork’s appearance at NYSCI.  Some of you have seen the NY Times article about this, which was pretty cool.  Dan Wempa, NYSCI’s VP for External Relations who really made it happen is kind of an guy, and he pointed out this review in SPIN, which I really liked.

Here is the story.  I hope it is interesting not just documenting this particular high profile event, but also how an institution like ours learns to take chances.  The story parallels in many particulars the unfolding of our relationship with Maker Faire.

As Bjork was finishing Biophilia, she expressed interest in making it a performance, and in doing that performance at several european venues along with 2 venues in the US, SF and New York (where she lives part of the year with Matthew Barney, the film maker of Cremaster fame).  Bjorks “people” reached out to science based venues in SF (the Exploratorium and the Cal Academy) and in NY (NYSCI and the American Museum.)  They sent random feelers into NYSCI and didn’t get a response until Rob Semper from Explo and Scott Snibbe, the artist who did many of the apps, suggested they contact me.  I was immediately enthusiastic, so we began discussions. Bjork came to  NYSCI and fell in love with our amazing Great Hall and effectively said “we will make this happen.” 

When Bjork says “we will make this happen” a cadre of people start working.  We had a production design in weeks, and the logistics and budget stuff got sorted.  Live Nation came on as the producer of the event, insulating NYSCI from any financial risks.  Dan worked through all these logistics and our operations staff put together a plan for dealing with this new audience.

During this same time, senior staff attitude ranged from neutral to bemused…why would we want this pop star at NYSCI.  There was one particular senior staff meeting where the CEO asked why this is worth spending time on, and Dan gave a very focused and impassioned response about how this will raise our profile as an adventurous, cutting edge institution and continue our work of broadening our audience.  Everyone agreed after that spiel that we should continue to pursue the possibility with Bjork.

All along, Bjork had been talking about integrating Biophilia with our exhibitions and programs. In Reykjavik, we learned, Biophilia was being integrated into the science curriculum.  About two months before the first show, the first discussions began about programming.  A small team of Karla Calderon, who is leading our maker work, Erin Thelen, and our Explainer team created a music and science after school club on the spur of the moment, with no funding, on top of everything else they are tasked with.  We recruited students through our NYSCI Neighbors outreach program led by Tania Tiburcio . The first camps ran this Monday, I haven’t yet heard how they went.

A few of us from NYSCI walked around with Bjork and a group called the Creators Project to look at specific exhibitions that could be highlighted to connect with Biophilia.  After an hour or so walkabout, we came up with about 10 exhibits that could be associated with the songs (with sufficiently elastic bands).  Dark Matter?  Well we have great cloud chamber that reveals invisible matter…Cosmology? the Eames planetary motion vortex reveals how planets orbit a central mass.  etc etc.  I wrote the labels, and I am still not sure if they are installed.

I couldn’t make the first show, but I heard it was a great evening of rich complex music.  Dan said that Bjork said that the Great Hall at NYSCI was the best place she had ever played.

Kudos to a lot of staff for energetic and positive attitudes about working across boundaries.

The moral of the story…taking chances can be powerful for audiences and transformative for the staff.