Reinventing Spark!Lab

Since my June 2012 blog, we have been hard at work planning for a new Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History. I have formed a great team of colleagues from around the Museum to help develop a space that meets the needs of our (very diverse) visitors, ties Spark!Lab to the expertise and collections of the Lemelson Center and NMAH, and offers a truly innovative experience. Our planning team is made up of curators, educators, and historians; fundraising professionals; a public affairs specialist; and an accessibility expert—not to mention the all-important project manager who keeps us on schedule and within budget. It’s great to have a team with such wide-ranging knowledge and experience, as each member brings his or her own perspective to the planning process.

As we plan the space, we are using the Spark!Lab mission to provide a guiding framework:

In Spark!Lab, we help visitors connect invention to their own lives and to the American narrative, and offer opportunities for visitors to engage in the invention process and recognize their own inventive creativity.

Three core educational messages are also helping to shape the Spark!Lab 2.0 experience:

  • Invention is a process. 
  • Everyone is inventive.
  • Invention and innovation have been—and continue to be—an important part of the American Experience.

As we think about the visitor experience, we’ve been working to develop a new thematic structure for Spark!Lab so that all of the activities will tie to a common theme. Our idea is that themes will change throughout the year and will reflect the vast collections held by NMAH. To get inspiration for themes and related activities, our team has been taking “field trips” to different collections areas in the Museum. These visits are seeding great discussions among our group as we think about how to incorporate history into hands-on, invention-based activities for kids and their families. (This is also one of the great perks of working for the Smithsonian. Where else can you see such cool stuff?)

To date, the team has visited the Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences collections—or, really, parts of them. Most collections at NMAH are enormous and many are stored in multiple locations, some on- and some off-site. But we’ve been lucky to see collections items—many of which have never been or are rarely on display—that reflect various aspects of invention and innovation throughout American history.

Here are a few highlights from our visits:

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.]

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.

The National Tuning Fork Collection.

The National Tuning Fork Collection. The tuning fork, invented in the early 1700s by a British trumpeter, is an acoustic resonator. When struck, it will vibrate and resonate at a constant pitch. The specific pitch depends on the length of the two prongs or tines of the fork. Tuning forks have a wide range of scientific, medical, and technological applications.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the right (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the bottom (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

Our team has had a great time visiting these and other treasures at NMAH and, in the coming months, looks forward to visiting more collections. Next on our list are Photographic History to see cameras, lenses, and all things photography, and Work and Industry where we’ll get a chance to see the wide range of robots in NMAH’s collection!

Just this week we also kicked off the exhibition design process for Spark!Lab, so we’re not only thinking about the activities visitors will do but what the environment will look like and how the space will really function. So expect more (and more frequent) updates as we further develop and design Spark!Lab 2.0. Though we won’t reopen our doors until 2015, we’re already excited about welcoming visitors back to Spark!Lab and seeing them create, collaborate, innovate, problem-solve, and of course, invent.

Sourcing Materials in Kyiv

In the months leading up to our trip to Ukraine, my colleague Steve Madewell and I stockpiled the materials and equipment we would need to operate Spark!Lab for a month. Using an Excel spreadsheet as our guide, we placed orders with school, office, and craft supply companies; we collected tools and materials from the hardware store; and made more than one visit to Target. In May, we shipped 13 crates of materials to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, but we knew there would be a few things we’d want to get “on the ground” in Ukraine—either because they were difficult to ship or simply to provide some local flavor to Spark!Lab.

When we arrived in Kyiv in late August, our shopping list looked like this:
On our second full day there, Serhiy, a member of the U.S. Embassy staff (and a purported DIY-er), collected us from our hotel in a State Department van and off we went.  The main focus of our trip was finding supplies to build our Spark!Lab Percussion Sculpture. We needed lumber, buckets of different sizes, rope and string, nails and screws, and a cordless drill that could be charged in Ukraine’s 220-volt outlets. Our first stop on this adventure was Epicenter, a giant Home Depot-Walmart hybrid that’s two stories high and nearly 100 aisles long. Described as a “hypermarket,” Epicenter can be a little overwhelming. Thankfully, Serhiy was there to guide us, interpret for us, and help us navigate the checkout process.

To complete the drum sculpture, we really wanted to add some locally sourced (and surprising) elements. The sculpture we had in Spark!Lab in DC included old reel-to-reel film canisters from the Archives Center, a colleague’s retired briefcase, and a large tin can that once held peaches (donated by the cafeteria workers at NMAH). We wanted to add similar elements to the sculpture at Art Arsenale—items that would reflect the culture and that could be repurposed to make sound. Where better to find some local flavor than a Ukrainian flea market?

Here, we found (and successfully haggled for) an old fishing buoy, the side mirror from a Russian car, metal disks from an old meat grinder, and a small cast iron “door” from a stove. All of these items made interesting (and surprising) noises and found their way onto the percussion sculpture in Spark!Lab, much to the delight of our visitors!      

Once Spark!Lab opened, it became clear pretty quickly that we would need to replenish certain supplies on a regular basis. Construction paper, craft sticks, tape, straws, rubber bands, marbles, yarn, and plastic cups were all hot commodities. I made one other trip to Epicenter, but because it was far from the museum and my hotel (and I needed a State Department escort to get there), I had to find other places to buy supplies. My go-to spots became places that were within walking distance: the local pharmacy, Billa (the grocery store), and a stationary supply store in one of Kyiv’s many underground malls.

I managed to find most things I needed, but some items eluded me. While it was frustrating at first, I soon realized that I needed to start thinking more like an inventor. Most inventors don’t have every single supply available to them in their workshop or lab. Instead, they think creatively about how to use materials and are often inspired by what’s around them. As I spent more and more time in Ukraine, I began to be less driven by a specific list of supplies and more inspired by what was easily accessible to me. When we ran out of the gravel we were using to make maracas, for example, I went out and collected chestnuts that had fallen from the trees surrounding the museum. When I couldn’t find craft sticks and rubber bands to make kazoo-like instruments called Sound Sandwiches, I challenged visitors to create different musical instruments from materials we had in large quantity. And when we began to run low on marbles for the Soundscapes activity, one of my Ukrainian colleagues had the idea to use large, round beads instead.

All of these were great alternatives to the original materials and, importantly, allowed our visitors to successfully create, invent, test, and tweak their ideas. The simple challenge of having to find alternative materials for Spark!Lab also made me realize that inventive thinking isn’t just something to encourage in our visitors; it’s something to encourage in myself, as well. If I truly want to “live the mission,” as we often say in the Lemelson Center, I need to think like an inventor. I need to be flexible, creative, and collaborative in my work, and willing to try new ways of doing things. Whether it’s trying out new supplies in Kyiv or developing a whole new Spark!Lab here in DC, there are great benefits and rewards that can come from inventive thinking—for me and for our visitors.

Reflections Going Forward

After returning from an incredible, fun-filled trip to set-up and help kick off the first international Spark!Lab in Kyiv, Ukraine, I returned to Washington, D.C., just in time to pack up and move the last boxes of Spark!Lab supplies and equipment. We had to clear out before demolition crews arrived to tear down the original  exhibition to make way for the new one. Part of me was ready to celebrate. The other part…the sentimental part…wondered if I would be able to survive without Spark!Lab until the opening of Spark!Lab 2.0 in 2015. I decided to take one last contemplative stroll through the old exhibition. As I surveyed the space formerly known as Spark!Lab, devoid of its brightly colored purple, green, and orange-hued optimism, it occurred to me that the thing I will miss most is the steady flow of inspiration, creative uses of materials, hilarious kid logic, and out-of-the-box ideas the staff and I received from visitors on a daily basis. While I thought some quiet time without Spark!Lab might make it easier to think, I’m actually finding it harder to be creative without the 110-decibel swarm of enthusiastic young inventors busy sketching, creating, trying, and tweaking their inventions around me. At some point, Spark!Lab transitioned from innovative museum exhibition into a real community of invention.

As we move forward developing and prototyping Spark!Lab 2.0, I realize that one of the most important concepts to carry over from the original Spark!Lab can’t be found in a box in storage. It is the simultaneous exchange of inspiration between and among Spark!Lab visitors and staff, the freedom to fail gloriously before reaching success, and the sense of community unique to the Spark!Lab experience. While this magical Spark!Lab experience is not something that can easily be replicated by a formula or recipe, we’ll make sure to bring it to Spark!Lab 2.0. Prepare to inspire, and prepare to be inspired.