Dancing with WONDER at the Renwick Gallery

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When I think about “interactivity” in the design of museum experiences – something I desire as both a patron and as an educator – I tend to think about my desire to interact by touching or manipulating in some way (e.g. a robot arm, a computer simulation) an object or system. I also want to interact with objects I can’t touch through digital augmentation (e.g. augmented reality, text overlays, opportunities to participate through making my own creations).
Today, however, I was challenged to explore how my highly interactive visit to the Smithsonian’s Renwick Museum was achieved, even though I could neither touch the art nor experience it through a digital layer. It turned out the key here to interactivity was my body, and the challenge to keep it in a state of motion.

 

The exhibit is called WONDER. Each room features a single installation that evokes a sense of wonder (and an awareness of the materiality of the art). There were only 5 rooms (pieces of art) available when I visited. Words won’t do this justice, but in short, one room contains monumental towers of index cards that evoked shapes familiar to those who have visited southern Utah, the next offered an ethereal rainbow created through string, light and interference patterns, and the final room on the 1st floor filled with flowing willow branches shaped into something suggesting homes for tree-dwelling humans, with doors to enter and windows to look through. The second floor offered two overhead pieces – one was an orderly row of hung silver rods, in a grid, with lights twinkling on and off, up and down them, together creating the illusion of movement through shifting patterns, the second piece being a woven expression of a tsunami above a carpet filled with people lying down to view it.

 

Signs said not to touch any of the art and for most of the experience (the exceptions I’ll address at the end) there was no digital layer of interpretation. But with each piece I felt a sense of connection with the art and, as intended, a sense of playful wonderment that pervaded my experience within the museum. How was that achieved?

 

With the index cards, I found myself walking around and amongst the towers, looking at each one, closely then afar then close again, constantly changing my position, and noticing how it changed as my body moved around it. I later learned the artist was trying to create “a field of visual activity.” So while the art was static, the details created activity to engage my eyes while the mysterious process of visually decoding how ordinary objects were turned into something wondrous engaged my mind like a well-designed puzzle.

 

The string rainbow gives the unusual sensation, due to interference patterns, of creating another sense of movement – when you move your head one direction the patterns in the strings move the other. Have you ever heard your voice repeated back to you during a phone call, but with a momentary delay? There’s a dissonance that draws attention to the thing itself. But in this case, it caused me to view the rainbow with amazement – my mind knew there was something physical before me but my experience suggested it wasn’t really there. Like a rainbow. And to experience it I had to move around and tilt my head this way and that. As with the index cards, I interacted with the rainbow – in fact, I created the rainbow moment to moment – through how I moved around it and how my movement changed what I saw.

The human nests (as I like to think of them) are designed so visitors can see others through the windows and feel welcomed to enter them.  There is a space for one person per nest, and once in, the beautiful wood smell of the material surrounds you. To experience the art you, once again, one has to interact with it through movement – by walking around them, or entering them. Once in, I felt or, rather, sensed the organic and stretching lines of the nest, as if the wood were frozen in a dance, as if they were inviting me to join them in movement, to sense the curves with my own body, as if partnering with the art but only in parallel, never directly. So I raised my hands and moved with them.

 

The rods on the second floor – they too required me to interact with the light show through movement, changing my vantage points and experiencing how my perspective offered me a uniquely personal show.

Meanwhile the overhead woven piece give me a room that allowed me to view art in my preferred position: lying down, amongst strangers:

I’ve experienced this at the Tate Modern, where an exhibit unintentionally created a space where visitors felt compelled to lie down and look up. This one did the same. The simple act of turning 90 degrees, from vertical to horizontal, was all the interactivity required to bring this art to life.

 

The WONDER exhibit makes conceptual art accessible by offering an interactive experience that encourages visitors to sense their body in space, and in relationship with the art, to create a heightened sense of wonder. It also reaffirmed the importance of museums as spaces that can offer such experiences (one now challenged by the emergence of virtual reality devices, but that’s a topic for another day).

 

Throughout the exhibits, another form of interactivity was encouraged and promoted: photography. Each room has a prominent display encouraging the taking of photography and the use of the Museum’s twitter handle. An adjacent room featured a single monitor promoting recent (curated?) posts, with the explicit encouragement to share one’s own. The urge to interact through personal photography was embraced by the exhibit, recognizing that each room offered fascinating and unique photo opportunities and that the creation of one’s own art could enhance, rather than detract from, the exhibit, and in fact might be shared with others to become a part of it.
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This is even sold as a temporary tattoo in the museum store, reifying its role as part of the exhibit.


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Through our movements through the Museum and our shared photo taking/posting, together we in the museum were collaborating with both artists and institution to create the Exhibit and bring it to life.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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