Ancient societies would often pass down their traditions to the next generation through oral storytelling. These stories, memorized and told generation after generation, communicated important information and mindsets, forming a particular way of living in the world. They are the building blocks of any distinctive culture or civilization.
With the development of the written language, accounts and stories could be kept for many future generations. The ability to read and write at first was limited to a privileged few. Today there are myriad ways to capture ideas or experiences and communicate them directly to others. The sheer number of stories being told, with diverse points of view, truly boggles the mind.
This onslaught of narratives makes it increasingly difficult to manage, prioritize and curate the stories that bind us together. Some suggest the democratization of communication/information is liberating; however, it is simultaneously disrupting the modern institutions charged with protecting and curating those stories and understandings. We see the government, media, schools, libraries and various organizations struggle to craft relevant narratives as the fabric of our common understandings is being pulled apart.
Museums are right in the middle of this conundrum. What work or information should be kept and protected for future generations? Who is involved in making these important decisions: trained professionals, donors, artists, the general public? What ideas, motivations and principles should guide these decisions? The institutions that curate our common stories and understandings have never been more important.
These are some of the questions student’s were asked when they participated in a UNLV Downtown Design Center grant to help the Las Vegas Springs Preserve re-consider the Origen Museum. The museum was built 10 years ago with the thought that most visitors would be tourists; therefore it was designed to hold a variety of permanent exhibitions.
As it turns out, locals make up the overwhelming majority of museum guests and the overwhelming majority of those local visitations are made by children between the ages of 5-15. The museum asked the UNLV Downtown Design Center, under the direction of Steven Clarke, to explore what it would take to place a greater emphasis on interactive, traveling exhibits.
Museums are uniquely positioned to provide immersive, interactive experiences. These experiences no longer need to be passive but can involve the visitors in open-ended exploration. Through technology visitors can remained tethered to the experience that began in the museum. These explorations should not only be entertaining but should enrich the visitor in some tangible way. A curator’s job is to conceive and organize these experiences; unfortunately, facilities originally designed with another intention can often hinder their efforts.
UNLV School of Architecture students threw themselves into a rigorous project based learning process. They took photographs, interviewed staff, examined visitation statistics, researched the latest trends in museum design, examined the mission of the Springs Preserve and the role it plays in our community. They meticulously modeled the facility, analyzed the existing building, and then, finally, proposed ideas that they thought would help the Origen Museum fulfill its mission well into the future.
One intriguing proposal was an interactive vertical garden. The 20-foot-tall garden wall would be tended by a computer controlled multi-tool that is capable of planting seeds, watering, feeding, photographing, and monitoring the plants vitals. Visitors interact with the garden wall through a touch screen, selecting their seed and designing a regimen of care.
After the visitor returns home, they can continue to monitor their plant and make changes to its care on their computer or smart phone. They will automatically get updates and details regarding their plant’s health and perhaps suggested actions to take based on the thousands of ongoing experiments. Researchers and classroom instructors can also query the database. The longer the wall is used and as the number of experiments increase the data will become more significant.
The process of repositioning a museum can take several years: visioning, fundraising, designing, and construction. The healthy fear that any good designer has is that their vision is too small, and when it finally gets implemented the world has moved on. For projects that are this important, organizations must think big or go home. The young girl in the photograph above is waiting to see what stories this community will tell her about the world she lives in.
Architecture professor David Baird teaches courses in design and research methods. He is an awarding winning architect and artist. Excerpts of Baird’s Visual Journal and more of his thoughts are available on his blog.