Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Managing Materials for Making and Tinkering

Although museums are no longer cabinets of curiosity, filled with rocks, relics, artifacts, and instruments, they continue to be characterized by authentic objects and materials at all scales and classifications and across museum types. Art, science, history, natural history, and children’s museums are object and material-rich environments that are also distinguished by the opportunities for object-based learning that they offer. 

Everyday in large museums and small, educators, exhibit techs, explainers, docents, playworkers, and facilitators are at work checking, distributing, and replenishing materials in galleries, exhibits, classrooms, and studios. They stock activity carts with sketchbooks, pencils, viewfinders, and magnifiers and pack bins for outreach programs. They refill exhibit components with metal washers, eyedroppers, and paper cups; reunite puppets that have migrated; and restock the grocery bins. Someone checks for missing pieces, small objects, and choke-hazards; another staffer checks the wire cutters. A group of staff assemble to offload flattened cardboard boxes that have just arrived. Perhaps a disbelieving colleague second-guesses the written directions as to whether 10,000 sticker dots to ‘dot the space’ are really intended.

Enthusiasm for found, reclaimed, and re-purposed materials has been building in museums, assuming many forms. Tinkering, maker spaces, and DIY initiatives are inspiring activities, creating exhibit-program hybrids, and putting authentic materials and tools in the hands of children and adults. My delight with the recent rise in material-rich experiences and settings is probably no surprise considering my expressed enthusiasm here for loose parts, good messes, and exploring materials. Yet, as promising as these trends are for visitor engagement, creativity, thinking, and learning, importing massive amounts of materials into museums also exerts new pressures such as encroaching on limited space, adding new tasks to full workloads, and affecting operations. Quantities of materials can also dilute the quality of projects or just produce such a jumble to make materials hard to find, use, or unappealing.

Judging from the opportunities and challenges I see more of in museums and hear about at conferences and also reflecting on my own experiences in this area, it’s clear that managing– perhaps curating–materials sits at the heart of successful tinkering, DIY and maker efforts in museums. Managing materials is a complex, multi-part, and collective process, more like a set of systems. Tapping the possibilities of materials requires extensive organization, system support, and appreciation for the beauty of materials.

Layers of Material Management
In the early 80’s, I worked at The Teachers’ Workshop, a teacher center for professional development in Madison (WI) that included, along with other resources, a recycled materials center. Housed in a double-classroom, it was filled with bins, barrels, and shelves of discards and by-products from area businesses and industry as well as teacher contributions. Displays by teachers and students using these materials from math manipulatives, to games, to art projects, added to the material richness, intensity, and sometimes, scrappy mess of the space. The push of gathering, sorting, storing, displaying, and restocking materials was relentless, inspiring, and rewarding. Looking back, I see that too often we were simply thrilled to get stuff, less driven to be resourceful with storage, and only occasionally attuned to presentation.

At that time Boston Children’s Museum had a recycle center store. On visits to Boston, we carefully noted the museum’s inventive and practical solutions for storage, display, and access to wooden game pieces, foam shapes, plastic caps, and many objects that eluded labels. The museum’s ingenuity and design expertise helped broker the competing demands of a recycle center. Storage solutions not only accommodated bulky and unusual shapes of objects, but also allowed children and adults to experience and explore materials, accentuated the delight of discovery, and contained the chaos of abundant stuff.

Managing materials is also part art. Along with quantity, variety, and smart storage, order and beauty are necessary to convey the materiality and possibilities of materials. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the material rich ateliers, or studio spaces of the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT). A tightly connected, coherent pedagogy rests solidly on a set of principles including the environment as the third teacher, creativity and aesthetics, and an appreciation of materials to engage children’s investigations of the sense and meaning of things and explore their own creativity. Attention to detail, arrangement of objects on shelves and tables, light from windows, mirrors that reflect children, small surprises, and displays of children’s thinking in their work contribute to the beauty of the spaces. Remida, the creative recycling center in Reggio, is a joint project of the Centers and Schools and Iren Emilia, a multi-utility working in neighboring provinces. When I visited in 2000, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Remida also had an artist-in-residence as one strategies for fostering new opportunities for communication and creativity with materials. Had we only imagined that at The Teachers’ Workshop!

Curating Materials
Enthusiasm for massive amounts of materials is not evenly distributed across a museum or even within a department. Last year I overheard two people from science museums talk about integrating loose parts into an exhibit on which their museums were collaborating. Their conversation went: “Loose parts are not going to happen at our museum; maintenance will see to that.” The other person replied, “They’ll just have to get over it at our museum; loose parts are what we need.”

Amping up material use or introducing loose parts requires building ownership, collegial consultation, developing systems, anticipating others' concerns, and good manners.

There was much buzz and enthusiasm from self-identified “material nerds” at the recent ASTC 2012 about managing materials for maker spaces, tinkering studios, and take-apart labs. Some suggestions were more obvious than others, but ingenuity and trial and error with materials, storage, presentation, and collegiality had clearly gone into clarifying relevant steps, managing stuff, and figuring out solutions in the material stream. Steps, like sorting, happen repeatedly: in gathering, as part of storing, preparing activities, and putting materials out though the focus shifts.  At every point, order, beauty, visibility, and findability guide decision making. In the  practices below that I found helpful, naming the steps is somewhat arbitrary.

Gather materials, re-used and upcycled, physical resources and digital media resources, from multiple sources. Post signs at work asking co-workers and repeat visitors to bring in materials. Place a bin for drop-off, specifying requirements such as clean recyclables. Work with pre-school teachers. Take things apart such as timepieces and toys. Check out on-line sources, find the local recycling center, and locate scrap exchanges in the area.

Store materials based on clear, shared criteria. Frequency of use is a basic one with two broad categories. Back-up storage holds large quantities of materials that are drawn down to replenish at-hand storage for easy access during activities. The next challenge is finding the right containers within these two categories to hold objects and make them visible. Smart solutions use a systems approach: containers fit within and next to containers efficiently and can be prepped ahead of time. For instance, hotel steamer trays hold materials on tables and carts, are easy for visitors to use at worktables, and can be filled in the morning for quick resets. Milk crates hold smaller containers like tennis ball tubes hold stacked portion cups–and are easy to carry.

Tracking materials, or monitoring the constantly fluctuating quantities of materials that a museum has/doesn’t have/needs/the available quantities is the trickiest part of the process. A binder can include things that are needed and ordered. A dry erase board, used at ¡Explora!, can show when an item is “out”, but it doesn’t show what’s available now. Development of a searchable database is underway at the Exploratorium.

Preparing or gathering materials for a project is often based on a list of materials required for the project that have been tried ahead of time. The material nerds recommend that projects are framed and prototyped so that the materials and tools are scoped, materials are collected, bagged, and organized to support and deepen the tinkerer's investigation. Estimating quantities and planning for easy at-hand storage happens here. Set-up involves putting out materials in ways that are visually inviting and recognizable, accessible, and suggest possible starting points. A partially set up project can suggest where one tinkerer went with the materials or encourage a newcomer to capitalize on it, repeat, or jump off in a new direction.   

Projects on display require plenty of forethought and preparation. Encouraging tinkerers to leave something behind that has value to them (and perhaps to the museum) can be difficult. Prompts may be required to suggest that visitors label their project and leave it behind with, “This is my gizmo.” Visitors might scan their creations and publish them on the museum website. Staff may also move around and photograph what’s happening and ask visitors to comment on photos, and display images and comments. Notably, questions persist about how to encourage tinkerers to document their own projects.

Return to the material stream. The recycle life cycle of yogurt containers, hanks of wire, paper, corks, and cardboard tubes is evolving. While initially extended by recycling for tinkering, it can be further extended by dismantling reused materials and sending them back to storage. Other materials will meet their end in the museum’s trash until someone finds better uses for them at the tinkerers' table. 

More for Tinkering and Making
The enthusiasm of these tinkerers reflects a love of materials, an appreciation for solutions that accomplish multiple objectives, an interest in persistent challenges, and a generosity–including these tips.
• Think through every step and what visitors need, how to keep a tinkerer focused on the project and not distracted by string rolling away.
• Both variety and abundance of materials are needed to get the right “dooda”to deliver the best solution in an activity.
• Look for inspiration in managing quantities of materials in settings that do it well: Ikea, container stores, Remida, Reggio studios, and hardware stores.
• To find out more about the data base that Lianna Kali at the Exploratorium is developing, contact her at: lkali@exploratorium.edu

 Also, check out Paul Orselli's recent blog, Good Bye Columbus, Hello Makers, on ExhibiTricks

1 comment:

  1. Lianna Kali at the Exploratorium is developing a data base for materials and is willing to connect people to it. Contact her at: lkali@exploratorium.edu Thank you very much, Lianna!