American museum educators are trying a more playful approach

Museums across the US are rethinking how they do art education, upgrading facilities and programmes with an emphasis on play and interactivity. This pedagogic shift is occurring as museums struggle to draw visitors in numbers comparable to their attendance before the pandemic—which brought on layoffs and furloughs that took severe tolls on many institutions’ education departments. Now, as those departments return to full capacity, some are re-evaluating their activities and upgrading facilities accordingly.

This month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will inaugurate its 81st Street Studio within a renovated 3,500 sq. ft space in the Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education. Featuring science and art programmes for children between the ages of three and 11, the centre will be open to school groups (more than 200,000 schoolchildren visit the Met each year) and the public, kicking off with a celebration on 9 September filled with play-making activities and a silent disco for kids on the Met’s rooftop.

“We don’t want this space to be an appendage of the museum but for it to reconsider how we interact with kids and caregivers,” says Heidi Holder, the Met’s education chair. “The next area of growth for educational spaces in museums is to stop thinking of ourselves as art museums, but rather think about what other disciplines can be integrated with the arts. The Met has science, research and education departments, so this project brings together our true expression as a place where art and science meet.”

Deep Field, an augmented reality simulation by the artist duo Tin&Ed, has been introduced at both the Getty Center and the Art Gallery of New South Wales James Horan Photography

The centre has been designed by Koko Architecture + Design, a firm with experience developing projects for children. The core of the space’s programming deals with materiality—physical and chemical properties—through a mix of hands-on and digital activities, using objects from the Met’s collection to illustrate concepts related to art and science.

“As an institution that is object-based, the main thing we look at is materials, so the programming will allow the audience—the child and the caregiver—to come explore materials and artists and understand how art-making actually works,” Holder says.

Holder joined the Met in 2020, previously serving as the director of education at the Queens Museum (QM), where she focused on expanding the interactivity of the museum’s programmes as it prepares to open a 15,000 sq. ft educational centre for children in 2024. Next summer, the artist Cas Holman’s exhibition, Prototyping Play, will take over the lower atrium of the museum with pop-up “stations” exploring themes related to art and technology.

Making space for play

Holman—who has designed playgrounds, learning materials and popular toys like the award-winning Rigamajig building kit—has worked extensively with children’s and science museums. However, working with art museums on large-scale commissions is still a new frontier for most designers, she says.

“For years now, the QM has been thinking specifically about how an art museum and a children’s museum can co-exist,” Holman says. “How can an art museum approach families and children, and how do art and childhood come together in an institution? Those are exciting questions to unpack, and my answer to everything is play.”

The pieces, or “prototypes” in the exhibition, are intended to last the run of the show—as “the lifespan of things that get played with is pretty short”, Holman says—and most of the design will be finalised and reworked as needed when the installation process begins. There will be some large-scale objects that children can move around, and a smaller focus on digital components.

The project is going to allow the museum to see what it’s like to have people really playing in there

Cas Holman, artist

“It’s so empowering and fun for children to move big objects, but we also want to think about how we can encourage them to look up at the skylight. So, there’s a rough and tumble, or a mix between gross-motor and fine-motor storytelling to accommodate all different moods and all different kids,” Holman says, “The project is going to allow the museum to see what it’s like to have people really playing in there for the first time as they work towards completing the children’s centre.”

The children’s centre is part of the QM’s $69m expansion to add 50,000 sq. ft of exhibition and educational spaces, as well as storage and conservation facilities, which is now in its second phase. Before the pandemic, the museum hosted an average of 25,000 schoolchildren annually.

Digital pedagogy project blossoms

Meanwhile, in July the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney jointly debuted an interactive augmented reality (AR) experience by the artist duo Tin&Ed, made up of the Australian artists and technologists Tin Nguyen and Edward Cutting. Called Deep Field, the simulation invites kids (and participants of all ages) to reflect on the interconnectedness of living organisms and the beauty and fragility of nature.

The experience paradoxically happens indoors. Participants use a custom iPad Pro drawing app and an Apple Pencil to sketch plants and flowers that bloom three-dimensionally on the walls, ceiling and floor, which are visible through a LiDAR scanner. After the drawings are uploaded to a global database, the space begins to fill with plants drawn by other participants from both museums, evoking the mathematical patterns that appear in nature, from fractals to the Fibonacci sequence.

In both museums, the work began with a mini-tour of the collection, with a guide teaching groups about two to three works in which artists have represented nature. In Sydney, the tour focused on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island collections, while in Los Angeles it delved into various areas of the Getty’s collection, including the museum’s monumental central garden designed by artist Robert Irwin.

“We asked participants to think about real flora and fauna because we need to connect the work to what is happening in the world right now,” the artists said in a joint statement. “But the work also asks kids to draw from their own experiences and imagination. Both are important.”

The app features an ultraviolet mode allowing users to navigate the world from the perspective of pollinators, revealing patches of pollen that would be invisible to humans, and a multichannel soundscape layered with sounds from endangered and extinct species and other natural sounds like melting glaciers and marching ant colonies. Following its presentation in Los Angeles and Sydney in July, the work will be shown in various locations across Europe and Asia, including the ArtScience Museum in Singapore.

“It’s part educational, part workshop and part immersive experience,” the artists add. “Collaborative art-making is a powerful way to allow people to feel connected through this act of creation, to empower people and to show that their voice is important.”

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