The Material Lab at MoMA: Great Interactive Space for Kids!

The Material Lab at the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, is a new and exciting addition for young museum visitors. The revamped space, which previously served as a Shape Lab and a Line Lab, opened to the public in mid-February. Since then, the Material Lab has been offering children and their families unique opportunities to create arts and crafts that directly relate to the rest of the Museum’s collection.

Photo by: Sara Boyle, “The MoMA Material Lab.”  March 28th, 2011.

Upon walking into the Material Lab, located below a stairwell in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, I was immediately struck by the whimsical and warm environment the exhibition exudes. The space itself is fairly small (between 30 to 50 visitors can occupy the Lab at one time), but this potential shortcoming has been well compensated for by the decorative touches of the exhibition designers. Lining one wall of the exhibition are a dozen “discovery boxes,” each of which features a uniquely decorated exterior. Wood, metal, paper, wire, and cloth are just several examples of these touchable materials. On closer inspection, the boxes turn out to be cabinets that open – inside each box are activity kits with materials and prompts that correspond to the decorative exteriors.

I selected two discovery boxes to explore, and found both to be delightful and educational. The first box I picked focused on paint. As I unpacked my kit, I found nine miniature painted canvases, each displaying a unique painting technique (drippy, bumpy, and matte, to name a few). The accompanying activity called for me to match painting terminology with each of the canvases. My second box was especially fun – this time I selected one that focused on food as an artistic material – that’s right, food! This kit explained how artists sometimes incorporate food and spices into their work, and was complimented by five distinct spices for children to smell and consider.

Photo by: Sara Boyle.  “A Sample Discovery Kit Activity.”  March 28th, 2011

In playing with these discovery boxes and watching young children do the same, I was struck by how successful the activity seemed to be. The children I observed seemed very engaged with their kits, and I really appreciated how expertly MoMA integrated references to art in its collection within the prompts. After exploring the discovery boxes, I felt that the exhibition developers succeeded in designing a fun yet meaningful activity for children.

The side of the Lab opposite the discovery boxes has large windows that look out onto the Museum’s garden courtyard. Here young visitors can engage in digital painting on several computers. The Lab’s facilitator told me that this activity is especially popular, and upon exploring it myself, I instantly understood why. The digital painting program is fun, easy to use, and incredibly realistic. From the perspective of an exhibition designer, this activity is a home run win! Children simply touch a paintbrush to the screen of the computer, and from there are able to create their own artistic masterpieces. The program allows users to select from a variety of paint colors, as well as brush sizes. It even mixes paints as you toy around with it, a feature that’s shockingly reminiscent to actually painting. Finally, the program allows you to zoom in as you work, thus offering a close-up view of the canvas.

Around the Material Lab there are a variety of other stations and activities for young visitors to engage in. Rubbing and collage stations offer children opportunities for take-home art projects, and there is also an area where children can experiment with manipulating light. A large cabinet can be arranged with objects as children see fit, and this is meant to mimic the artwork of Joseph Cornell. To the rear of the Lab, an impressive bookshelf offers supplemental reading materials. As a final playful touch, the room features an “accordion chair” which can literally be bent, stretched and shrunk in dozens of ways.

Photo by: Sara Boyle.  “The Amazing, Bendable Accordion Chair!” March 28th, 2011.

All in all, I found the Material Lab to be an absolutely delightful interactive space for children to explore. The facilitator told me that the target audience is children aged four to twelve years, but from what I observed, even very young children and adults can greatly enjoy the space! I found that in many aspects, the Material Lab reminded me of the Discovery Room at the American Museum of Natural History, the only major difference being a focus on art as opposed to the sciences.
On the MoMA website, the exhibition’s creators describe their big idea for the Lab as follows:

“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” (, Accessed 27 March 2011).

From exploring the Material Lab myself, I feel the exhibition designers unquestionably succeeded in creating a fun and meaningful space for young visitors to explore aspects of the Museum. All of the activities in the Material Lab are engaging and relate directly to the artwork at MoMA. I highly recommend other exhibition designers to visit the MoMA Material Lab as a source of inspiration, and would instantly recommend it as a weekend destination for families with young children.

Opening Today at MoMA - “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse”

Today is a very exciting day (that is, if German Expressionism rocks your boat)!  The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd Street, between 5th & 6th Avenues) is opening its new exhibition “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.”  In displaying over 200 prints from their collection, MoMA will give visitors an opportunity to view some fantastic examples of Expressionist artwork from the beginning of the 20th century.

I’m particularly excited for the series of woodcuts by Käthe Kollwitz, one of my favorite artists of all!

Käthe Kollwitz, “Widows and Orphans” 1919.  Image from:

Of course, there are plenty of other Expressionist prints on view to satisfy many dark hearts and dreary souls:

Emil Nolde. Young Couple. 1913. Lithograph.  Museum of Modern Art. Image from:

Museum of Modern Art.  Image from:

After I get an opportunity to visit the exhibition, I will be sure to post a review of it.  If anyone else gets an opportunity to go, I hope that it’s enjoyable!

Here’s to hoping that the MoMA won’t be packed like a sardine can as is typical.  Also, I’m making sure to bring my museum ID because I don’t have 20 bucks to drop on just getting through the door! Yeesh!

More information about the MoMA and this exhibition can be found by visiting their website.

The Brain Exhibit at AMNH

At the beginning of last week, I was finally able to attend the much anticipated exhibit “Brain: The Inside Story” at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street). 

I must start off by admitting that I’m a big fan of AMNH - I really feel despite their size (they are a veritable behemoth in the New York museum scene), or perhaps because of their size, AMNH puts a lot of care and attention into designing exhibitions that appeal to a diverse range of visitors.  The Brain exhibit was no exception to this, and overall I found it to be a successful and informative science exhibit.

My positive experience with the exhibit began immediately upon entering the space: I thought that the light circuit display, shown in a New York Times photograph below, was an enchanting and clever way to start the exhibit.  These light circuits, designed to represent brain synapses, were an innovative entry point for reflecting on the brain. The minimal signage which accompanied this display caused me to contemplate how the brain functions and personalized the experience (one sign declared, “as you read this, your brain is analyzing, making connections”). 

Photo by: Todd Heisler/The New York Times.  “The Entrance to the exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.”

As I continued to weave my way through the exhibition, I noted several interactives that I felt enhanced the show.  Particularly memorable was an assortment of spools of thread, which when viewed from the proper angle reveal a portrait of the Mona Lisa (the point of this is to demonstrate how the brain picks up on patterns and constructs images).  I also noticed a large crowd gathered around a film showing a dancer preparing for an audition (during this sequence, portions of a brain lit up to illustrate how brain activity differs depending on activity level, emotions, and other factors). 

As I continued through the exhibit, I made careful notes about what seemed to interest the children and school groups present.  For the most part, younger visitors seemed to be engaged and enjoying their time, especially when opportunities to touch objects and participate in brain-exercising games presented themselves.

Admittedly, the AMNH exhibit does have several factors that could potentially mar a visitor’s experience.  Foremost among these: the exhibition was frustratingly crowded with people.  The result of this overcrowding was that it was sometimes tricky to focus, and lines would queue up for the most popular interactives.  Additionally, the Brain exhibit is very text heavy, and I doubt that younger visitors will take much away from the plethora of signage (which at times seemed downright overwhelming!).  Finally, while I found many of the exhibition highlights to be interesting, the section exploring the brain and emotions was quite a disappointment.  I thought that with more interactives available in this area, AMNH could have made an exploration on emotions much more interesting.

Those critiques aside, I thought the exhibit was mostly a success, and I enjoyed my time spent at AMNH learning more about the brain.  In speaking with one of the exhibit designers, I learned that one of the major goals of the show was to appeal “to both a seven year old and neuroscientist.”  Since during my hour in the exhibition I observed visitors of all ages that seemed interested in the content, I would say that in this respect the Museum succeeded. 

The exhibition “Brain: The Inside Story” will be open through August 14th, 2011.  For more information, check out