Thank you for being a friend to the Lemelson Center! We hope you had a festive and inventive holiday season. Remember to visit our new website in 2015!
It’s 11:45 p.m. local time when I land in Delhi, India. After nearly 20 hours of traveling, I’m happy to have arrived at my final destination. (I’m also jetlagged—there’s a nine and a half hour time difference and I’ve slept very little. And I’m hot—though it’s nearly midnight, it’s still about 90 degrees.) But mostly I’m excited since I’ve traveled all this way to help open our newest Spark!Lab.
For the past year, the Lemelson Center has been working with partners in India to establish a Spark!Lab in Gurgaon, a city about 30 minutes from Delhi. I’ve had several phone calls and traded lots of emails with Arti Agarwal, the leader of the Spark!Lab India project, but I’m anxious to meet her face-to-face.
The next day, Arti picked me up at my hoteI and took me to see the newest member of the Spark!Lab “family.” Unlike our U.S.-based labs and the temporary installation in Kyiv, Ukraine, this Spark!Lab is not in a museum. Instead, it’s an independent venue, housed on the sixth floor of a high-rise building. I was unsure how this set-up might affect the atmosphere of Spark!Lab, but once inside the doors, Spark!Lab India feels just like our other sites—fun, dynamic, and full of possibility.
Over the next week, I met with Arti and her team to train them on the Spark!Lab pedagogy and educational philosophy. They worked through invention challenges I posed for them, and became experts on each of the individual activities. We talked a lot about how to make the experience culturally relevant to the kids who would visit, and how to keep the Spark!Lab experience fresh for repeat visitors. As always, I feel like I learned as much from my Indian colleagues as I taught them. A favorite moment was learning how to make a traditional Indian kite, and then discussing how we could integrate this technique into an existing Spark!Lab activity that challenges kids to design their own kites.
The highlight of the trip came when we invited the first kids to visit Spark!Lab. While our team was excited and prepared, I sensed a little bit of uncertainty. Would people come? Would kids have fun? Would the activities really work as they are designed to? Yes, yes, and yes!
Our pilot group of Spark!Lab visitors had a great time exploring the different activity stations, creating, testing, and tweaking their inventions, and collaborating and problem-solving with one another. In many ways, it felt just like Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian or in Reno or Ukraine, and reminded me that no matter where we live, we are all inventive and creative.
On January 17—which happens to be Kid Inventors’ Day—the Lemelson Center launched the 3rd Annual Global Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge. Hosted in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, the contest challenges children ages five to 18 to create an invention that solves a real-world problem. Alone or in groups, kids must work through the invention process, identifying a problem, researching possible solutions, sketching designs, building and testing prototypes, and creating ads to sell their ideas.
Though this may sound a little daunting, young inventors have access to lots of support on the Challenge website as they tackle their projects. Past winners, including Chase Lewis, are serving as Student Ambassadors, answering questions and offering tips to their fellow inventors. Questions like “Where did you get your idea from?” and “How do you know if other people have done your invention?” have generated great advice from the Ambassadors already. Other message boards allow kids to share invention-related books and websites with one another, and even share their invention ideas to get feedback from their peers. (That board doesn’t have any traffic yet, though. I wonder if kids are fearful of their great ideas being stolen…)
As we await this year’s entries (the contest closes on April 11, 2014), here’s a look back at some of the most memorable inventions from the first two years. If these are any indication, this year’s Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge will generate a collection of inventions that are creative, innovative, fun, and inspiring.
The Cycle Umbrella
The Hands-Free Safety Straw
The Heating Bathing Suit
The Rescue Travois
The Sports Storing Device
The Sunshine Hat
The Turbo Scraper
Over the past two years the Lemelson Center team has been working diligently with exhibition designers at Roto and museum evaluators at Randi Korn and Associates (RK&A) to develop and test our next exhibition, Places of Invention (POI). If you’ve read previous Bright Ideas blog posts, you may know that this exhibition is scheduled to open in the Lemelson Hall of Invention when the National Museum of American History’s West Wing reopens in mid-2015 after extensive renovations.
The POI exhibition will take visitors on a journey through time and place to discover the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new. POI features six American communities—Hartford, Connecticut, late 1800s; Hollywood, California, 1930s; Medical Alley, Minnesota, 1950s; the Bronx, New York, 1970s; Silicon Valley, California, 1970s-80s; and Fort Collins, Colorado, 2010s—representing a surprising array of people, places, time periods, and technologies. The exhibition examines what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together.
In July 2012 and then again in March 2013 I wrote blog posts reflecting on how our exhibition development process mirrors the inventive process. Continuing the series, I’d like to share more updates here about recent POI project activities, particularly about our latest round of evaluation with visitors.
By May 2013, we completed the exhibition’s conceptual design phase (known at the Smithsonian as the 35% design phase). Roto submitted renderings and design specifications for official review by various Smithsonian departments regarding accessibility, security, lighting, electrical needs, conservation issues, and more. Museum director John Gray and senior staff members reviewed and approved the exhibition content and conceptual design, giving us enthusiastic thumbs up to proceed.
Since then the design development phase (called 65% design) has been underway. During this period the Center’s exhibition team has been collaborating closely with Roto to hone the look and feel of the POI exhibition, focusing on design details, developing more interactive elements, finalizing objects and images, creating exhibit case layouts, and writing exhibition labels.
We conducted round two of formative evaluation with RK&A at the Museum on July 8-10, 2013. Evaluation is funded by the POI project’s National Science Foundation grant. Following up on similar testing done for other interactives during round one in January 2013, the objectives of this evaluation were to explore:
- how visitors use three prototype interactives;
- how visitors interpret these prototypes;
- whether there are any barriers to visitors’ use of the interactives;
- whether visitors understand the relationships among people-place-invention and 21st century skills (e.g. collaboration, creativity, communication, flexibility, and risk-taking); and
- how visitors interpret what this POI exhibition is about.
Roto set up three stations of prototype interactives, with minimal contextual materials, in the first floor East corridor of the Museum. Stanchions and moveable wall panels demarcated the small testing area, with an introductory panel about the exhibition displayed right outside. RK&A evaluators recruited walk-in adult visitors who were alone or in groups of adults and children to participate in the study.
The activities we tested were:
- an interactive about how early pacemakers worked for the 1950s Medical Alley, MN case study about the invention of the external, wearable pacemaker;
- an activity to try out DJ scratching as part of the 1970s Bronx, NY case study about the birth of hip-hop music;
- an activity for the exhibition’s Hub called Build Your Own Place of Invention, where visitors were encouraged to think about the conditions needed for their hypothetical place of invention, such as what people, spaces, or resources they would need.
For three days, the RK&A team observed and interviewed 48 groups of visitors (78 adults and 55 children ages 6-17) as they tried the different components without any coaching. Roto and Lemelson Center staff members were on hand to fix any mechanical issues and generally observe visitors as unobtrusively as possible. At the end of each testing day, we met with RK&A to debrief about visitor actions and interview responses and then made tweaks to the interactives for the next day’s testing.
In August, RK&A produced a final report based on the data they collected, providing information about their interviews and specific recommendations for further interactives development. The report addressed both successes and challenges, including what visitors considered the most enjoyable, least enjoyable, confusing, and intriguing aspects of the exhibit interactives, and their understanding (or lack thereof) of the exhibition messages. Finding that “place” is still conceptually difficult for many visitors, RK&A shared recommendations about how and where to define and visually represent place in the exhibition to reinforce our interpretation of “place” and its relationship to inventors and invention.
The evaluation process has been extremely informative, productive, and—for me as the project director—essential. Although the exhibition budget is tight, the money spent now on formative evaluation means the designers and fabricators will need less time and money to tweak and revamp the exhibition components in the future. Observing and talking with visitors on the Museum floor really pushed the Lemelson Center and Roto to rethink assumptions about how they use and interpret our creations. The resulting tweaking process—incrementally during the testing days and ongoing since then as we continue to build upon the report’s recommendations—will make the final exhibition much more meaningful and engaging for our visitors.
What happens when you put museum experts and hip-hop community members in the same room? The Lemelson Center found out when we hosted a hip-hop discussion day in July.
The day was organized as a culmination to Goldman Sacs fellow Martha Diaz’s summer at the Lemelson Center. Martha is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University. The Center cultivates hip-hop scholars, teaching artists, hip-hop advocates, and social entrepreneurs to encourage the incorporation of hip-hop into the way teachers educate students. She is also a scholar-in-residence working on an upcoming hip-hop exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Martha came to the Lemelson Center to learn more about museum practices and to share her knowledge of hip-hop with us as we continue research for our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention. When the exhibition opens in 2015, it will include the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970’s as one of five case studies that represent various characteristics of a place of invention.
We had intended the meeting as a wrap-up event for Martha’s fellowship. Little did we know that instead it would be the start of some great collaborations. Participants from the hip-hop and cultural/performing arts communities in D.C. and New York contributed to a robust conversation that covered a variety of topics.
One issue that surfaced is that many pioneering hip-hop artists feel that current histories of hip-hop do not present a full picture—they discussed how important it is to emphasize that hip-hop was created in spite of the environment in the Bronx. Our participants also felt that it will be important to capture hip-hop’s conflicting history while the most prominent figures are still living. This is an issue that the National Museum of American History’s Jazz Oral History Program has struggled with and can serve as a good case study for the hip-hop community.
The hip-hop community voiced the desire for institutions to be more inclusive. They observed that institutions tend to cater toward other institutions, but reminded us that it’s important to reach out to community members, even thought this often the more difficult path. This is something that the Lemelson Center is familiar with. In partnering successfully with the skateboarding community on a recent event about inventions and innovations in skateboarding, we learned that while there are often vocabulary barriers and differing working methods that make collaborating more challenging, ultimately if both collaborators are committed to the end product, then success is achievable and inevitably more meaningful.
Perhaps the most surprising comment to come out of the meeting that this was the first time the hip-hop artists participating had been asked to participate in a meeting like this—of D.C.-based groups working on hip-hop projects. The energy and enthusiasm from people was apparent and has translated more quickly than I anticipated into the creation of collaborative projects. We are currently awaiting the results of an application co-written by Martha Diaz and Deborra Richardson, the chair of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American, to fund the creation of a Smithsonian hip-hop group that would coordinate hip-hop related projects at the Institution. It is hoped that part of this may be the founding of a hip-hop oral history program and a book about documenting hip-hop’s history.
Another direct outcome of the meeting is the negotiation of long-term collaborations between the Lemelson Center and two pioneering hip-hop artists. These artists would help us tell the story of hip-hop through our exhibition, website, book, and programming. The artists will be featured at the Smithsonian, and gain exposure to a different type of audience, and inspire new generations. There have also been discussions with all of the people in the D.C. hip-hop community who participated in the meeting about future programming collaborations, allowing the Lemelson Center to tell a fuller story of inventions in hip-hop beyond the walls of the exhibit, and for other organizations to find new inspiration in the museum’s exhibits and collections. These collaboration will give us all the opportunity to interest people who may have had no previous interest in hip-hop.
Without knowing it the meeting was a kick off to fruitful collaborations with other people, organizations, and communities they represent. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!
Editor’s note: This post is by Natalie Scavuzzo, an intern in the National Museum of American History’s Office of Public Affairs. Natalie is a junior at the College of William and Mary majoring in Film and Media Studies.
One of the highlights of my time interning at the National Museum of American History was the opportunity to help work on the Lemelson Center’s Innoskate event, where I met Cindy Whitehead. Cindy hails from southern California and has been active in the male-dominated pro vert skateboarding circuit since the 1970s. Cindy is one of the only women ever to be featured riding vert in the centerfold of a skateboarding magazine and, following her skateboarding career, has been working professionally as a self-proclaimed “Sports Stylist.”
After meeting Cindy in person at Innoskate 2013, I asked her about her unique skateboarding and career experience.
How did you get into skating?
I grew up in a beach community in southern California. A lot of people surfed and, eventually, skateboarding became popular. I’d go to the beach with friends to hang out and cruise and do tricks. My favorite parts of skateboarding were being with my friends, being outside, and enjoying that freedom. Just being able to push off and seeing where you end up.
Did you ever feel like the skating scene you joined in on was a “boys club”?
Well, we were always jumping in and joining the boys club whether or not we were invited or not! The boys were always welcoming and couldn’t have been nicer or more excited for us to participate. More girls should join up!
There are people out there in the world that sometimes do not believe that girls belong in certain things, like sports or upper level management. That is just a very, very antiquated way of thinking.
Are there any organizations pushing for girls to get out there and skate?
Yes. There’s plenty—my own Girl is Not a 4 Letter Word, Skateistan, Long Boarding for Peace, there’s so many out there. More girls skate abroad than skate here. Skateboarding gives skaters a lot of freedom and girls are finding out what boys have known all along. Skateboarding gives them somewhere to go, to hang out, to do a sport, and go outside.
Do you have any words of wisdom for girls looking to start skating?
Some people don’t think you belong, but the majority of people think you do. Believe. Go out there and do what you want do and push ahead. It’s fine, there will always be a few naysayers in anything you decide to do.
What does it mean to be included in the Smithsonian?
We’re all still talking about it, still amazed that we’ve been embraced—it’s an honor. To be honored here alongside the guys, it’s an amazing thing.
I believe Cindy is a great example of a woman who proves that you don’t need permission from “the guys” to achieve success. By staying true to herself, Cindy is a trailblazer for female skateboarders and women in general.
APPLY NOW BEFORE THE SEPTEMBER 1ST DEADLINE!
Become a part of this new model for the co-creation of exhibition content!
Join other Affiliates eager to share the different ways people, resources, and geography came together in their communities to forge hot spots of invention.
Selected Affiliates and their community partners explore the central message of the Places of Invention exhibition—that invention is everywhere and sparked by unique combinations of people, resources, and surroundings. Teams, led by Affiliates, are asked to apply these themes to their own communities and create multiple deliverables, including videos, oral histories, and public programs.
Video deliverables include one or more short pieces synthesizing team findings. These pieces will become featured stories on the POI exhibition’s dynamic, large-scale interactive map in the center of the gallery. The map will be accessible from both the exhibition and web, allowing it to grow exponentially as visitors read, tag, and comment on Affiliate stories, even make use of the option to add their own images and videos.
Current stories being developed include:
With your participation, we hope to have videos representing all regions of the United States when the Places of Invention exhibition opens in 2015 at the National Museum of American History.
WHAT KINDS OF INVENTION? ALL KINDS!! We’re interested in any new or improved way of doing things; in interdisciplinary stories of STEM-based invention and innovation through cross-pollination, including the bustling social spots where people shared and refined ideas; in the ways local people lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new.
We’re interested in a wide range of innovation: in green energy, medicine, education, transportation, and robotics; in the ways that art and music can intersect with technology, as with the electric guitar; in civil engineering, architecture, and construction; in agriculture—from seed cultivation to harvesting processes; in biotechnology that changed the way we eat, treat disease, and create alternative fuels; in communications and fiber-optics; in fabric technology—from 19th-century textile mills to high-performance synthetic fabrics worn by athletes today; in computers, software engineering, web technology, and social media; in business and advertising; in aeronautics, military production, and urban planning; and in the mass production of any kind of goods. Stories can be about current and historic innovation, as well as cycles of innovation spawned by a community’s infrastructure and natural resources repurposed over time.
Must be a Smithsonian Affiliate to be eligible
Application Deadline: September 1, 2013
Winner Notification: October 4, 2013
DC Training: December 6, 2013
Final Deliverables Due: December 8, 2014
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Contact Anna Karvellas, Places of Invention Affiliates Project Coordinator, via email or by calling 202-633-4722.
Access her presentation from the Places of Invention panel at the 2013 Smithsonian Affiliations Conference, as well as those by the following Affiliates:
Documenting Gaming in Greater Seattle, Julia Swan, Adult Public Programs Manager, Museum of History and Industry
Inventing the Pittsburgh Sound, Kate A. Lukaszewicz, Lead Educator, Senator John Heinz History Center
Editor’s Note: This post is by Joel Pelovitz, an intern working on the Innoskate and Places of Invention projects. Joel is a recent graduate from Muhlenberg College with a degree in history and business.
As a returning intern this summer, I had the pleasure of aiding in the preparation and materialization of the museum’s first ever Innoskate event, which occurred Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22. By gathering together some of the world’s most pivotal and influential skateboarding icons—both riders and industry gurus—the Center hoped to gain valuable insight into key innovative strides in technology, skating technique, and cultural impact/adaptations since the sport’s inception. What resulted was a captivating and thought-provoking experience that drew crowds of all generations and backgrounds. The participants—a group consisting of skaters, including famed skaters Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen; designers; media personalities; and engineers—donated their skateboarding history to the National Museum of American History’s collections, held discussion panels on invention, and gave skateboarding demonstrations on a ramp built specifically for the event!
Traditionally, skateboarding has not been considered academic and is often negatively represented in conservative culture as a result of its association to punk movements. The nature of the event—a supercharged fusion between scholarly inquiry and heart-pounding visual display—allowed for the participants to be accurately represented as inventive minds by sharing their collective knowledge and experiences. As a former skateboarder, Innoskate intertwined my interests for history and skateboarding, creating new perspectives that I had never before considered! My involvement has also evoked further interest into the themes of progress and ingenuity that skateboarding embodies. As for the participants, I have never met a more compassionate, down-to-earth, and appreciative group of people. For the future, I hope that this event not only helped the public reevaluate skateboarding as a constructive endeavor, but also compels us to recognize and appreciate the creative qualities that exist everywhere, especially those beyond our conventional perceptions.
Today we host a lecture by noted historian and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson in which he will explore Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.
In a blog post on Gotham Center, Carlson writes about Tesla’s place of invention, Manhattan:
Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California. Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device. For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.
Let’s start with something obvious: I have a cool job! Here at the Lemelson Center, I spend most of my time thinking about American independent inventors, or Places of Invention like Hartford and Silicon Valley. However, I recently had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Museum’s incomparable jazz collections. Let me explain…
One of my job responsibilities is to coordinate the Lemelson Center Staff Projects Initiative, an internal grant program in which the Center makes modest grants to our NMAH colleagues to stimulate new research, exhibitions, and programming on innovation. One of our grantees is the Create: Smithsonian project, directed by Susan Evans and Amy Bartow-Melia in the Museum’s Office of Education and Public Programs. With Create: Smithsonian, Susan and Amy developed a yearlong series of six workshops designed to inspire a Smithsonian organizational culture of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking, while having fun and building esprit de corps with our colleagues. The workshops draw upon literature (like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen) suggesting that, in order to foster innovation, organizations must create opportunities where smart people from diverse backgrounds and experience can collaborate. This mashing together of disciplines, techniques, and perspectives can spark unlikely partnerships, leading to all kinds of creative outcomes. So it’s been fun to attend the Create: Smithsonian workshops to see how the grant funds are being used and find out what happens when the Smithsonian’s zookeepers, fundraisers, housekeeping staff, vertebrate biologists, art historians, and docents all come together.
On January 31, I attended the latest Create: Smithsonian workshop, which focused on what we as an organization can learn from the history and artistry of jazz. We were treated to a talk by Dr. John Hasse, the NMAH’s jazz curator extraordinaire, who described the various leadership lessons we can learn from jazz masters like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. For example, it sounds basic, but in jazz (and on your work teams) you must listen closely to your band mates. Bandleaders must recruit and nurture great talent—like when Miles Davis recruited sax greats Cannonball Adderley AND John Coltrane to play on the seminal Kind of Blue. Finally, team leaders, like bandleaders must create a basic structure for the tune, but loosen the reins and let their best players improvise occasionally.
John then walked to a table where he described some of the treasures of the NMAH’s musical collections. He picked up a pair of black sunglasses and said casually “So these are Ray Charles’ Ray Bans….”—there was an audible gasp! Then he showed us Ray’s special chess set for the blind and his Braille copy of Playboy magazine—he really did read it for the articles! Then it was on to Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy and Duke Ellington’s conducting baton—real treasures of American musical history.
Then we got a DEMONSTRATION! A trio from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—Ken Kimery (drums), James King (bass), and Chuck Redd (vibraphone)—played a few selections, demonstrating how to listen, how to lead and sometimes follow, and how to improvise. But the most amazing part of the performance was Chuck’s instrument—he was playing the vibes donated to the museum in February 2001 by the late, great Lionel Hampton!
I play the drums and have dabbled a bit in the other members of the percussion family, so it was thrilling to think that I was so close the same set that Lionel himself had played “The Price of Jazz” and so many other classic tunes. I left the Create: Smithsonian event feeling even more energized than usual about working at the Museum—clearly the grant funds were going to good use!
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), and we do it in style here at the National Museum of American History, with a full schedule of donation ceremonies by jazz legends, talks on jazz history, and several live performances. Lionel Hampton is featured on the 2013 JAM poster and to kick things off on April 9, his vibes again emerged from the Museum’s vaults to be played in a tribute performance by members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Quintet.
So, like I said at the top, I have a cool job. For a music buff like me, working at the Smithsonian is Seriously Amazing!