In April 2019 the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh opened MuseumLab. According to the museum “MuseumLab is a place where kids 10+ can work with makers to create everything from furniture to apps, experiment with cutting edge technology in the creation of art, climb three stories on a unique sculpture, collaborate on one-of-a-kind art installations, and more!” MuseumLab is located in the former Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny and retains many of the original features of the 1890s structure.
On a rainy summer day they kids and I decided to take a mini road trip across the city to check out the new MuseumLab at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The highly interactive exhibits utilize both high tech tools such as VR, and low tech tactile makerspace activities and have been featured on everything from the BBC to Archinect.
Science in VR
VR is experiencing in bit of a resurgence in the museum world. Museumlab currently features two VR experiences. The first is a program that allows users to pluck atoms out of the air and construct molecules. My 10 year old was excited to pop on the headset and play with the particles. To control the expereince he had to look at his hands, then his hands became the controllers to manipulate the VR “atoms.” The ability to use his hands to control the VR space was fantastic because it didn’t require another controller. It took a second to get the hang of the program, but numerous staff members were around to help direct the experience.
The second VR option was akin to drawing in space. This program used two controllers, one to draw with and one to manage option selections. This program was a hit with my 6 year old who loved the ability to draw in an infinite space. Overall this exhibit appeared very popular with guest of all ages because it was simple to use and understand.
Art in Action
When a person looks at a painting up close they often see something unexpected. At Museumlab, when you push, pull, or poke at “paintings” something unexpected happens. Digital versions of famous paintings by Rene Magritte, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and more have contraptions attached to them which cause interesting effects when kids manipulate them. Turn a handle and a finger pokes the paining subject. Pull a lever that the Nighthawks cafe fills with water. Keep pulling and a beach ball will drop in to the newly forming pool. Pull up and down on a pump and the apples in Magritte’s painting inflate like balloons. The exhibit was highly entertaining for both the kids and I. My oldest tried to “push” the exhibits as far as they would go and to his delight if he gave it his all the apples would pop, the tank would fill to the top, and lots of tiny mustaches would fly off paining subjects. It was quite delightful. From a museum management perspective that the installations are tough because from the older kids they will receive a lot of very vigorous attention.
Details, Details, Details
While all the interactive tech is fun, the building itself is architecturally stunning. Much of the detail in the ceiling and brick has been preserved. Given the age, there are many tiny places where the brick has worn down. Inside these tiny crevices the museum has tucked little bits of art. Walking through is like a treasure hunt to see what his hidden where. It is a fun bit of low tech discovery that is quite delightful. So keep your eyes open and who knows what you shall see!