Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Interview with Chris Sancomb

Recently MuseumCorps educator Kevin Broydrick sat down with Chris Sancomb, Museum exhibit designer and fabricator, to talk about Underland, the newest Museum exhibit opening in June.

Tell me about your role at the Museum.
I’m the exhibit designer and fabricator. When we plan new exhibits I design all of the components and the environments. I also build all of the exhibits or contract local artists or craftspeople to help me with the fabrication of everything and then I maintain those exhibits.
Chris at work in the shop, on a mastodon skeleton

What makes Underland unique?
Underland is so much about the pretend play environment, with lots of loose parts and components that inspire pretend play. It’s less about components that stand alone. The environment is very sculptural and rich and there’s a lot of carving and art in this exhibit. We’re making all sorts of tools and utensils that can be used for pretend play. We’re having great costumes made so kids can become the creatures that live in this area. Everything is native; it’s all animals that would live in this region.
Carved wooden chairs and utensils

What have been your inspirations in designing Underland?
In content, a lot of children’s literature inspired it. Stories like Beatrix Potter’s and Watership Down, any kind of underground creatures that generate this fantasy world. Visual influence has been everything from Pan’s Labyrinth to one of the Narnia movies where there was a badger living under a tree, even more recent things like The Fantastic Mr. Fox – anything that can shape that visual environment. The natural world in general had an influence. There’s so much good visual material in the natural world, it was easy to start taking that and putting it all together.
A mural of the burrow wall

Tell me about the team of assistants and volunteers you have helping you design and fabricate the exhibit.
I’ve got a couple of people I’ve hired and several who are volunteers. I’ve got people with backgrounds in sculpture and carving, wood carving and stone carving. I’ve also got someone who’s a painter so he’ll be helping with a lot of the finish on certain elements. I’ve even got a volunteer who came to me with experience working with LEDs, which is exactly what the chandelier is made of, so this ready-made expert walked in and took our idea and has been helping with the development the whole way through. We put out a call for artists and found three Rhode Island artists who are designing various components. It’s very “Rhode Island” through and through, and it’s got a good feeling to it.
Chandeliers in progress

What’s your favorite aspect of Underland?
All of the natural wood is fantastic. We’re using an organic linseed finish on everything so it’s a very healthy exhibit in a lot of ways. It’s great being able to work with natural material as opposed to, say, cabinet making where you’re using a lot of plywood and solvent-based finishing. All the natural material coupled with the imaginative aspect of the pretend play environment is going to make this exhibit really fun.
Underland raw materials

Click here to learn about the process of planning this new exhibit. And stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes Underland updates!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Year of Growth

Last night Museum Board members, staff and volunteers celebrated the tremendous accomplishments of 2009 at our annual meeting. It's always exciting to look back at what we've done in a year but last night made us especially proud because we responded to a time of great uncertainty with creativity and innovation, which allowed us to welcome a record number of visitors, expand our reach in the community, and further our advocacy about the importance of children's unstructured play.

Take a look at some of last year's highlights, in words and photos:

Click here to download our 2009 Annual Report and get the full story on last year's accomplishments.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hitting the Nail on the Head

This story was shared by Museum Early Childhood Program Developer Mary Scott Hackman.

For a Museum woodworking program, I set up three stations: one where children sanded blocks of wood, one where they created things with different-sized pieces of wood, and a third station that consisted of a tree stump (a real one with the bark removed), some nails and a bunch of adult-sized hammers. I wondered, what will happen if a child hits his or her thumb? What will our adult visitors think? At some point, will I have to remove the stump and reduce the children's experience to just two activities?

Well, the stump turned out to be the hit of the program! Once a child had a hammer, he or she did not want to give it up. A mom noticed her 9-year-old daughter at the stump. Not only was she doing a superb job of wielding the hammer, she had taken it upon herself to line up nails for the smaller children to drive. She was the queen of the stump! She knew what she was doing and she knew how to help the younger kids gathered at her side. I observed the young children's faces, watching in awe as the girl set up the nails, one by one, giving directions as she tapped another nail lightly into place, saying, “Now, you can drive it the rest of the way in,” and handing her hammer to someone in the crowd.

These kids could have been standing in a factory. They could have been out in the yard, fixing the fence. But they were here at the Children's Museum, looking powerful, taking charge with a hammer and nails, not getting hurt, just getting into the experience and looking just a bit taller at the stump!

As an educator, I have learned that I need to take risks if children are going to take them. As I stood at a slight distance taking in the scene at the stump, I heard a mom remark, “Look what I can do with things from our backyard!” When we step aside, provide real materials for children to use, they rise up and direct their own experiences. We need to give them room. Kids want to be big. We need to get out of their way. And if they occasionally hit their thumbs, so be it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Talking Back - Kitchen Play

How does your family play together in the kitchen? Here's what some of our visitors – adults and kids – had to say, on the Talk Back board in Play Power:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tales of the Lost & Found

And now, for some belated April foolishness... Recently RI Monthly contacted us to find out about our most unusual lost and found items for a feature in their April issue. (We made the top of their list!)

So I asked staff, “What interesting, weird (or wet?!?) things have you seen?” Here’s what they had to say.

From former Experience Coordinators with particularly vivid (and shared) memories of some of our stranger sightings in the Lost & Found collection:

The strangest things I ever found: a (clean) baby diaper filled with sliced apples, a floor-length fur-trimmed coat, and many, many single shoes.  These were often larger then toddler size, meaning some 6-year old walked out of the Museum wearing only one shoe.

I mean, we had a lot of kids turn up there. The mainstay was sippy cups and princess-related accessories, but I do recall finding a single shoe and, on another occasion, a tiny pair of underwear. Oh, and Cheerios.

My favorite was definitely the giant fur coat!

I can only remember the gory stuff...used nappies, full lunches with mold and a green curly wig?

A white, floor length fur coat!  It was quite formal.  How do you forget your fur coat?  And why do you wear it to the Children's Museum?
–Laura H.

A necklace with a baby tooth as the pendant.
Lots of earmuffs. Lots. I felt like I was drowning in earmuffs.
–Laura N.

And some tales of unusual things seen in exhibits by our current staff and AmeriCorps members:

I found the pelvic bone from Bone Zone on a child's head as a crown. I don't know if that counts!

One day walking through Coming to Rhode Island I noticed that the Colonial gallery looked rather empty. Where was the furniture?  Across the time tunnel, the mill house was also devoid of furniture.  I checked out the ship and there it was - the Colonial settle, stool and butterchurn, the mill workers' chairs, bench and washtubs - all piled up in the hold of the packet ship! 

I've seen ALL of the Coming to Rhode Island food spilling from the ship's pot. And as I began to put it away, a band of kids formed to help me reorganize. I think they liked feeling like they were behind the scenes and responsible for the Museum.

One time a man was here with his very young daughter (just over a year old).  During their visit, she lost a little pink shoe and as they left they asked us to be on the lookout for it.  About a week later, I was cleaning under the ship and spotted the shoe in the crate with the chicken!
– Carole Ann

A couple of weeks ago, I found a clam from Coming to Rhode Island floating down the tubes of the toddler tank in Water Ways.  I found it funny, but also very fitting

Check out some other surprising discoveries, made when we dismantled our exhibits during building renovations.