Monday, November 11, 2019

We Keep Secrets

I’m sorry, but we can’t tell you what is happening behind that closed door on the second floor of Kidcity!

Sure, we might say, “We’re building a new exhibit where our party room used to be.”

But we can’t tell you anything about it, and we definitely can’t tell you when it’s going to be done. That last bit is because we have no idea when it will be done.

And when it actually IS done, we won’t tell people either. We’ll just take the plywood off the door, some Tuesday or other, mid-afternoon, and let the next people who wander by be the first visitors inside, without fanfare. 

Anticipation and expectation change how people play, and that can be a good thing, but it can also be too much on a new exhibit. It’s such a pleasure to watch people explore a new room without the pressure of knowing they are the first.  

We learn a lot by watching our visitors interact with the things we have built, which often leads us back to the drawing board for a re-design. For especially complicated bits of exhibit wizardry, like the wheel in Middleshire, the fog bar in the Space Age Roadtrip, or the conveyors in the Fishery, we continue re-designing for years after the exhibit is open, until we finally settle on something that is both playful and sustainable. From that perspective, is an exhibit ever actually done?

Here’s the real reason we don’t tell what we are working on:  it’s because behind that door, we are playing pretend, with chalk and cardboard and bits of things that we find lying around. It’s like a giant sandbox, where ideas and words and images pile up until they start to sprout into real things made out of steel and epoxy and wood and paint and whatever else will help us bring that pretend play into reality. But while we are building, the essence of the exhibit is just vapor, and if anybody looks at it too closely, it dissolves like Eurydice walking towards her Orpheus.  

On a purely practical level, this unconventional method of exhibit design is made possible by two things.  The first is that Kidcity is a nonprofit organization, run by a board of directors. Without their faith in this process, we would never get to enjoy the wonderful possibilities that emerge without the constraints of deadlines or exhibit plans or budgets or learning objectives. And the second thing is that, since around 2003, Kidcity has been able to pay our bills from our earned income, including new exhibit construction, so we don’t have to rely on fundraising. We are able to build what we want for our visitors, instead of worrying about what donors might want. It’s not that these two perspectives are always in opposition, but they can be, and it can really throw a wrench in the works of creativity. And of course there is a third thing that makes all this possible, which is the willingness and the many different flavors of genius on the Kidcity staff, especially our exhibit artist, Scott Kessel, and our exhibit maker, Matt Niland. It’s an amazing group of people to play pretend with!

Even though we can’t talk about it, building an exhibit without imagining YOU playing in it would be meaningless! We can’t wait for that time to come. But both of us - builder and visitor - just have to be patient.

If you’ve ever baked anything, you know that there’s a moment when a certain aroma fills the kitchen and no matter what you are doing, you will stop and consider how delightful it will be to sit down and eat. But if you are the cook, you ignore that scent at your peril! Stop when it’s time to stop, even if you did not get to all of the sauces and side dishes you imagined back in those sunny days when you were sitting on the couch writing out menu ideas.

Remember this: although the moment when something delicious comes out of the oven is always sublime, there is no perfection in this work, and you will always be thinking about something new to try next time. In fact, all the possibilities that you didn’t get to explore are baked into that first bite. I think that if we ever actually finished all the ideas that bubble around while building an exhibit, the end result might be stale and overdone, and somehow, ordinary. Which is not to say that it is ever easy to stop when there is something else we would like to build.

So I’ll leave you with two words: Dragon Hatchery. 

No, that’s not what we are building behind that piece of plywood, but it might be someday!  

Here's an idea we played with in 2013...

And here it is in play, for real, a few years later.  (image credit Sassy Mouth Photography)