New Children’s Museum

Interview with Lauren Lockhart by Kate Clark on March 21, 2012 |

How did the New Children’s Museum begin?

NCM opened in 2008. We were formerly the San Diego Children’s museum, which opened more than 25 years ago in La Jolla, and eventually moved to a warehouse that was on the same site that we are in now. A local architect known for his sustainable building practices, Rob Quigley, designed our beautiful, green building that opened in 2008. The former museum always had an interest in working with artists and commissioning original work, but when we reopened and changed our name to the NCM we made a decision to use contemporary art as our primary vehicle to deliver content to our visitors. Today we describe ourselves as a hybrid institution, a contemporary art museum and a children’s museum. As far as we know we are unique in the world in that we identify ourselves as a children’s museum, but we exclusively commission contemporary artwork in all media, that is always highly participatory, in order to develop our thematic, museum-wide exhibitions.

How would you describe the engaging of contemporary artists in developing work that is specifically for intergenerational communities?

It’s a challenge of course, but I have found that the artists we’ve had the good fortune to work with have been incredibly open and excited about making work for children and families. I think the exciting challenge of my role here is to support the artists we work with to help them realize work that is absolutely reflective of their work but that is also mindful of and responsive to the specific needs of our audience. We show work that is complex, that has many different access points. I love the idea of a family coming together and the parents being able to appreciate different levels of the work than the children do. My hope is that every visitor will walk away from an experience at NCM feeling that contemporary art is approachable, fun, and relevant to his or her life.

In terms of developing work that is safe and built to withstand the physical attention it receives from visitors, durability is a critical issue. We are striving to become material experts here so that we can help artists to source materials that will hold up to thousands of little hands and feet, but still reflect their desired aesthetic for the work. We never want to tell an artist, we love your concept, we’ll just need to coat it in plastic to protect it!  Sometimes we budget for things to be completely rebuilt halfway through the show in order to avoid that route. It’s hard to communicate to artists who haven’t made artwork for this audience the incredible strength of children. One example I always share is of a beautiful work called Texture Forest by Tanya Aguiñiga in our first exhibition. The work had what resembled cattails coming out of a pond, which were re-bar mounted into concrete—and a toddler pulled one out! I remind artists that however strong they think they’ve built the work, it can always be stronger.

Reminds me of the strength of an ant colony! How does being an intergenerational space play out in the curation of a museum?

Well, contemporary art is such a wonderful way of communicating with all ages because it addresses issues that impact everyday life. The work that we show here appeals to multiple generations of visitors because it’s accessible, and touches on topics that are relevant to them. What makes it really exciting, is that the open-endedness of the artwork we show allows a five-year old and their grandparent to both have a meaningful engagement with the piece, though of course each has a drastically different take away from the experience. When we receive a proposal from an artist, I do my best to consider what the takeaway from that artwork will be for visitors of all ages. With our current exhibition, TRASH, several artists actually collaborated with our members in developing or prototyping their piece, which was incredibly informative for both the artists and our staff in terms of helping us to understand what’s meaningful to them, and what types of experiences are most effective in communicating the content of the work. If a proposed artwork feels as if it only has one entry point, or one interpretation to be found, or really would only be relevant to select members of our visitorship, we know that it’s not the right project for us. As an intergenerational space, we want families to play together. We’re a children’s museum, but we want to show art that excites and involves the parent just as much as the child.

So there’s a big push towards the experiential rather than the didactic?

Yes, absolutely. The former museum had the privilege of collaborating with Allan Kaprow on multiple projects, and his approach to the experience of art, his emphasis on the viewer activating an artwork, is something that we continually look back to and strive to model here. Many of our families are first time museumgoers, so it’s critical that the work we present draw them in, and make them feel welcome and confident in their ability to engage with the artwork. We hope that our visitors feel that all the experiences and interpretations they bring to a work are valid, while still providing interpretive tools that address the artist’s intent. KC: It’s interesting to hear that you are setting a precedent for Children’s Museum in the push towards the experiential form of curation, since you see that is becoming the norm for contemporary art spaces.

Could you talk about why this place does feel like an anomaly in the world of children’s museums?

The work that we are doing is building on Kaprow’s legacy and of course reflects the trend relational aesthetics in the broader contemporary art scene. And although many children’s museums collaborate with artists occasionally, we are the only children’s museum using the model of working exclusively with contemporary artists, designers and architects to realize our exhibitions. Many children’s museums rely on a proven and successful model of core exhibits that allow children to enact and practice everyday life skills through pretend play, such as the grocery store display, or the costume space that lets children try on various professional uniforms. At NCM, we share the belief in the value of learning through play that traditional children’s museums advocate, but we’ve made a conscious decision to create unstructured play opportunities through original artworks. Frankly it’s been a challenge. At times, some people have been perplexed by the idea of contemporary art for kids (laughing). But we are proving that it works. Unlike adults, children don’t come to the museum with any preconceived ideas about what art needs to be, which makes them so receptive and open to contemporary artwork.

You are setting up works that have lots of different levels of approachability, but on the opposite side, you are curating shows with specific, directed themes. Could you talk about the decision making process that goes into that?

We have to insure that the themes we choose to focus on are appealing to our audience, and ideally, that visitors have a personal relationship to that subject, that it is a part of their everyday life. Equally important, the topic has to be a rich subject for artists to respond to. Our current exhibition TRASH has the added benefit of the subject not just being of interest to artists today, but also having a long art historical tradition to draw upon and illustrate for our visitors. It’s also critical that the exhibition theme have as many interdisciplinary applications as possible to make it relevant for families and educators. My hope is that the artwork we commission will give visitors new, complex, and playful perspectives on the topic and challenge their assumptions about that topic. When we get this right, it leads to families talking and thinking about the theme long after they leave the museum, and hopefully, returning again and again to the exhibition because the artwork offers so many vantage points from which to consider the subject.

Stacked Stories designed by Woodbury University School of Architecture

Stacked Stories designed by Woodbury University School of Architecture

In terms of contemporary themes that are important to address, what other themes are you tossing around for shows?

It’s not official yet, but I am working on an exhibition proposal related to food, which, as a subject of course has been reaching a fever pitch of debate and discussion for many years now, but it’s an especially complex and rich subject for artists. It’s also incredibly interdisciplinary. Artists are using food as a means to explore issues of politics, ecology, sociology, economics.  Our exhibitions themes have to be flexible in terms of how an artist can approach it.  Even with a topic like trash, we’re certainly not the only museum to deal with this theme, but we hope we are coming at it from a new angle. For example, I found a lot of people asking “Oh, so it’s about recycling?” and we would say, “yes,  it will touch on recycling, but it’s called TRASH for a reason. We didn’t want to reiterate lessons of the 3 “Rs” that children already hear in school. We wanted to invite artists to introduce our visitors to trash issues that aren’t discussed as often, and to reveal the ability of art to transform discarded materials.

In a way, it seems like you are following the traditional model of children’s museums in that you are taking these building block themes and expanding them so it still continues a need to educate and expose basic life processes.

Yes, in that way we are building upon the approach of traditional children’s museums. What distinguishes us of course, is that while we may address a building block theme or topic, because contemporary artists are the ones interpreting that theme, our exhibitions are not didactic, not intended to offer visitors a comprehensive understanding of that topic. Rather, we hope that looking at this theme through the lens of contemporary art prompts questions, and sparks meaningful conversations among families about what role trash, for example, plays in their life.

Could you talk about your experience of working with researchers and scientists for these interdisciplinary exhibition themes?

With these interdisciplinary themes, we want the core of the exhibition to be really open ended, but we also feel a responsibility to provide our visitors with some factual information on the topic. In preparation for launching TRASH, we consulted educators and scientists from the Birch Aquarium on issues of plastic trash in the oceans, a public information officer from the Mirarmar Landfill who toured myself and multiple artists through the landfill, and architects and urban planners to understand how trash is dealt with in different regions. These experts were instrumental in helping our exhibition team become better informed about what happens to our trash once it leaves the curb. I want to consult as many sources as possible to educate myself on the issue, and to be able to offer our artists useful contacts they could reach out to as needed.

How do you sense children’s museum adapting or evolving over time?

I think that the shift of involving artists, designers, and creative individuals in all aspects of museum programming will continue to grow over time. This is such an effective strategy for infusing new ideas into a museum’s operations. We recently invited Machine Project, a collaborative run by Mark Allen in LA, to design a pneumatic donation machine for the museum. It has been hugely successful, and I think proves that museums should be consulting artists for innovative approaches to everything that we do, from how we engage our visitors to how to fundraise.

What is the benefit of having a fixed space for people to return to as compared to having a program that goes into public schools? What is the role of an architectural space for people to return to?

Clearly we need both. Our hope in having a permanent site is that we want to be a community center for visitors. We want to offer a space where families want to return to often to learn and play together, but also to relax, to celebrate, to experience a unique setting that was designed with them in mind. There’s a father and son who come here every Thursday to work on homework together in our café. That’s the kind of usage of our space that tells me we’re doing something right, when a family not only wants to play here, but they find the environment we’ve created to be a great setting for everyday activities as well.

We are in the process of developing our first formal outreach program for schools, which will be a critical step for us in bringing our unique programming to underserved communities and audiences that may not be able to visit the Museum.

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New Childrens Museum
200 West Island Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 233-8792

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Lauren Lockhart is a former Assistant Curator of Exhibitions at the New Children’s Museum in San Diego, California.

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