March 10, 2011  |  Events & Programs, Family & Kids
Making Discoveries: Creating Material Lab

Discovery wall in Material Lab. Photo: Michael Nagle

When my colleagues Cari Frisch, Kirsten Schroeder, and I set out to create our latest interactive space at MoMA, we knew we wanted to focus on artist materials—we just weren’t sure what kinds of interactive experiences to provide. Our main goal for Material Lab was to engage a broad audience through tactile, interactive, creative, and exploratory experiences, and to encourage discovery through experimentation. It was also important that the lab have a clear connection to MoMA’s collection, and not simply exist as a play or craft space.

Visitors get creative with Microsoft's digital painting application in Material Lab. Photo: Michael Nagle

We decided that we wanted to include a collage-based activity and something that would allow visitors to experiment with found and/or recycled materials and objects. We also wanted to address some of the tools and techniques artists use, such as paintbrushes and pencils. Including drawing tools was easy, but the space doesn’t have any sinks, so introducing real paint wasn’t an option. We quickly landed on the idea of including a digital painting experience in the space, and shared our ideas with colleagues. As luck would have it, we learned that Microsoft was developing a digital painting application, and we partnered with them to feature their Digital Art Technology Preview in the lab.

A visitor works with collage in Material Lab. Photo: Michael Nagle

Our biggest challenge in Material Lab was that we wanted to create a tactile experience with a wide array of materials, but— beyond simply touching—we weren’t sure what families would be able to do. We were further hampered by the fact that the lab is housed in a relatively small, narrow space, so the activity needed to be vertically oriented.

In the end we decided to create a series of “Discovery Boxes.” Each box features a touchable material, such as wood, paper, metal, or velvet, on the outside. Inside each Discovery Box is a container with a sample of the material and an activity card that provides information about that material and shows examples of how artists in MoMA’s collection have used it. The cards also have activity prompts that suggest ways visitors can explore the material themselves. Examples of such material explorations include creating a miniature cardboard chair from pre-cut shapes, matching descriptive words to an assortment of small painted canvases, or guessing what material artist Ernesto Neto uses by smelling an assortment of spice bags.

A visitor looks inside a discovery box in Material Lab. Photo: Michael Nagle

In creating the Discovery Boxes and the Lab in general, my colleagues and I were challenged every step of the way. We needed to figure out what materials to include, which artists and artworks to focus on, how to adhere the material to the outside of each box, and what to actually put in the boxes for visitors to explore, arrange, experiment, and/or create with.

We hope that each Discovery Box—and all of the activities in Material Lab—encourage visitors to make connections between artists’ choices and their own art-making experiences, and to look at materials in new ways. Come by soon and explore for yourself!