Monday, June 6, 2011

Playing with ….. Mirrors

Stores get it. Preschools get it. Dance and exercise studios get it. Some restaurants get it. Museums don’t seem to get it. Museums don’t quite seem to get how to use mirrors as tools for enhancing experiences for children and adults as they explore exhibits and environments.
Museums often have funny mirrors, mirrors in dress-up areas, mirrors for face-painting, and walk-in kaleidoscopes. The Exploratorium plays well with mirrors in its exhibits. It has developed large and small cylindrical mirrors, the anti-gravity mirror, and all the mirrors in the Reflections exhibit. Some art exhibits focus on mirrors like Mirror, Mirror Then and Now at The Art Gallery at the University of Sydney. Anish Kapoor’s public sculptures use mirrored surfaces to play with place and light. No doubt about it, there are lots of mirror exhibits and exhibit activities.

Mirrors often are the subject, or the what, of an exhibit. What about using mirrors for the how of exhibits?

Rarely, it seems, do museums employ mirrors as a kind of experiential and interpretive strategy to strengthen an exhibit experience or goal in targeted–and hard-to-get-at–ways. I’ve been interested in this for many years and have suggested possibilities countless times when visiting museums. Nevertheless, I can find few examples from museums to share. Among my photos of 96 museums, I have found about 5 examples of mirrors being used to extend, complete, or enrich the experience.

Personally I am fascinated by infinity boxes and kaleidoscopes; by angled mirrors and writing or drawing while looking into a mirror; with illusions like “shake hands with yourself”; and with the spherical mirror that reflects an upside-down image. I virtually always see children and adults highly engaged with these exhibits.

To the collection of mirror exhibits let me add some less recognized possibilities of mirrors as interpretive and experiential strategies. Mirrors can help accomplish exhibit goals, act on what developers and designers intend, what text writers would like to mention; or what a well-prepared and experienced facilitator might highlight on-the-spot. Mostly, they are very simple ideas.

New Perspectives
Mirrors bring a new perspective to a place or an activity. They catch a new angle or introduce a new view that hadn’t been obvious before. A mirror hanging above a building platform offers children who are stacking and arranging blocks to grow a tower, build a castle, or lay-out a design a very different sense of their structure and what it looks like. Children almost certainly will notice an overhead mirror; the novelty of the perspective will take it from there. No sign asking how this structure would look from above is needed, nor must a staff person or volunteer be stationed at the build platform.

An overhead mirror makes two types of views possible, a plan view and elevations. These views can be related to one another; features apparent in one view can inspire building choices. The overhead view might prompt a question about why a tower that grows taller floor-by-floor doesn’t look different in the overhead mirror but looks very different from the side?

Similarly, mirrors around the perimeter of a building area also offer new views. How does the city or structure look from straight on? From the back? From the side?

Many years ago I walked into a larger banquet room with my then 4-year old nephew. The room looked out from a bluff above a lake and a lakeshore drive filled with traffic. The room’s ceiling was covered with mirrors. Immediately on entering the room, Matthew said, “Wow! Cars driving on the ceiling!” He was thrilled and fascinated by this amazing view which held his attention; he looked down at the cars then up at the ceiling mesmerized and for far longer than he would have looked at only the cars on the drive below. 

Children at the sand and light table captured in the overhead mirror 
(Chicago Children's Museum)
 An overhead mirror hung in many locations would introduce a new, different, and interesting view and, by its very presence, invite observations, prompt questions, suggest possibilities for play, and make concepts accessible. Imagine a mirror hung over a light table, sand, or water tables, or over train tables, or bringing in the view from the street below the museum.                                                              
Completing the Experience
Years ago when I visited The Exploratorium, I climbed up on the giant chair as my husband photographed me sitting there. Several weeks later (i.e. pre-digital camera days) when the photo was developed, I finally could see how I looked as Goldilocks or Edith Ann. This March I was at the Science Museum of Minnesota to observe prototypes for the Math Moves exhibit. I sat in three chairs of different sizes–each with a mirror opposite it. Placement of the mirror completed the experience for me, giving me first-hand and immediate feedback about size relationships I couldn’t otherwise have. 
In the Earth World gallery at Minnesota Children’s Museum that magical moment of becoming the turtle just wouldn’t happen for a child without the mirror opposite so she can see herself as a turtle. It may be great to imagine this, but seeing your own face craning out of a giant turtle shell is there for others to see as well. 

To become the turtle, you must see yourself as the turtle (Minnesota Children's Museum)
Mirrors underneath showing the sewer system beneath the 
lake and nature area (Lakewood Nature Center)
Have you ever looked at an object, a beautiful bowl, for instance and wondered what it looked like from below or behind? I have seen that done only once–and wish I had a photo of it. It suggested the feeling of the volume and the fullness of the bowl. Thoughtful exhibit designers took something like that into account when they created a model to show how storm water gets to Wood Lake in Richfield, MN. A mirror underneath shows all the pipes and culverts that aren’t visible and provides information about the complex network of pipes that a sign never could convey.

Making Learning Visible
By their nature, mirrors make things visible, such as learning, developmental changes, and insights about others.

Friendly playmate? or Me? (Portland Children's Museum)
People often ask whether a baby knows that she’s looking at herself in the mirror. We often do see babies playing in front of mirrors in museums. In fact, a mirror can reveal an important shift in a child’s identity development. From 6 to 12 months, a baby looking at herself in a mirror simply sees another baby. At about 18 months a baby usually begins to recognize the reflection in the mirror as her own. This change can be observed by putting a dot of cream or lipstick on a baby’s nose. Babies younger than about 18 months will try to wipe the mark off the nose of the baby in the mirror. Six or so months later, recognizing that the baby in the mirror is “me” a baby will try to wipe the mark off her own nose. Besides being an engaging place for a toddler to play (see, point, pat, turn around, look at, etc.), playing in front of mirrors can make an important developmental milestone visible to parents, grandparents, and caregivers, as well as museum staff.

Getting to know children getting to know materials (Art Sparks)
Mirrors can also reveal insights about how someone goes about solving a problem, explores materials, or makes choices. Imagine a mirror placed along the back edge of a table, a work surface, or an activity station in an exhibit. Positioned this way, a mirror would reflect the face of a child or adult at the table to someone sitting behind. From there a parent or other adult can observe a child’s facial expression as she concentrates; does she stick out her tongue? Furrow her brow?  Is there a moment when she’s about to get frustrated when a helpful suggestion would be well-timed? Perhaps the child is approaching a completely new material. How does he go about it? Does he jump in or approach it cautiously? These are insights parents or a teacher would be eager to have about a child in order to be able to customize experiences, find challenges, remove obstacles, or just know and enjoy their child.

Looking Into Mirrors
Why does this use of mirrors feel so important? Exhibit planners have many worthy and often ambitious goals that can be difficult to accomplish especially through direct, first-person engagement. Too often, in the end, an unrealized concept is slapped with a text panel or, as available, a staff person at that spot on the exhibit floor.

Mirrors are a smart and simple way to increase exhibit resources and exhibits as resources. Mirrors are relatively inexpensive and are very versatile. They reveal views and introduce perspectives in countless ways. At the same time, they support intentions and beliefs museums value. They readily multiply interactions between people and objects, between objects and their settings, and among people. And, mirrors ensure that everyone will see themselves reflected in the museum. 
More to the story (Greenspoon Day Care)

Look into this.
• If you walked through your museum, where might you find places to put a mirror that would accomplish something you have been trying to do but couldn’t do well? Think about placing mirrors overhead and down low; change the view or the context with mirrors. Experiment with the location and size of the mirror and what you see and don’t see.

• Do you have any examples of mirrors being used in ways that extend and enrich an exhibit or program experience? Make something otherwise invisible visible? Complete an experience? Or another way in which mirrors help fulfill the intentions of exhibit planners rather than using text or facilitators? If so, please share and spread the word.


  1. Really interesting post! As an exhibit designer, I'll admit that I haven't used this device to its full potential, thanks for proposing so many possibilities!
    It reminded me of an old exhibit device, the Pepper's ghost, which uses reflection in glass or plexi to create a ghostly illusion. Maybe there's further potential in using not only mirrors but reflections in other ways as well? Ironically, designers often spend time trying to eliminate reflections on display cases, maybe we need to think more about how to harness them.

  2. As you have just pointed out, there's GREAT potential for mirrors in exhibits. It does take some playing around and purposefully putting mirrors to work. Harnessing reflections in display cases could be very interesting.