In 2012, the Lemelson Center took Spark!Lab on the road to Kyiv, Ukraine. For the month of September, Spark!Lab was open for business at Art Arsenal, a contemporary art museum in the heart of the city. With more than 32,000 people visiting during the month, Spark!Lab Ukraine was a smash hit. Kids and families—and even adults—had fun engaging in the invention process.
Once Spark!Lab closed, Art Arsenal decided it needed a permanent hands-on learning space for kids and families. In late 2013, the Lemelson Center hosted two members of the Art Arsenal staff and, over a two-week period, worked with them to conceive and prototype different activity ideas for their space, Arsenal of Ideas. Like Spark!Lab, Arsenal of Ideas is designed as a place for kids and families to enjoy hands-on activities and engage in the creative process.
When I got the chance to return to Ukraine last month, I was excited to see Arsenal of Ideas. Art Arsenal is a huge facility (it is, after all, a former tank factory) and I was immediately envious of how much space they can devote to hands-on learning. There are a series of labs, each focusing on a different discipline: reading, art, physical science, biology, innovation, and even finance. Each area offers a variety of hands-on activities around its theme, and also incorporates related art installations and plenty of space for visitors to hang out and relax.
While I was in Ukraine, Art Arsenal held its first-ever family festival. Most events are held in conjunction with large art exhibitions or other seminal events at the museum. This festival, however, was a stand-alone affair, simply intended to welcome families to the museum for hands-on fun. The museum invited all sorts of partners to participate in the event to provide activities for their visitors. There were music, dance, and theater performances, workshops, vendors selling kid-friendly items, and of course activities in Arsenal of Ideas. It was great to see so many families exploring, discovering, creating, and having fun. It was also heartening to see staff and volunteers welcoming visitors, facilitating activities, and interacting with children and their families with ease. When we first introduced Spark!Lab in 2012, it was a brand new concept for Art Arsenal (and, indeed, for Ukraine). While the staff embraced the idea of hands-on, creative learning, it was also somewhat overwhelming—and so different from the very structured, teacher-led programs they were used to hosting. So I was pleased to see how far they’ve come as an institution—in many ways they are leading the way for museums in Kyiv, especially in terms of informal education—and how easily the staff now embraces the Spark!Lab style of museum learning.
In addition to working with Art Arsenal, I spent my two weeks in Ukraine giving a series of presentations about Spark!Lab and how we use open-ended, invention-based activities to encourage creativity in kids. This sort of hands-on learning is really new for Ukrainian museums. Most museums are still primarily exhibits with objects behind glass and long labels. Those museums with education programs are apt to offer teacher-led workshops (Master Classes, as the Ukrainians call them), rather than open-ended, free-choice learning opportunities.
Through my presentations I was able to share the Spark!Lab philosophy and educational goals, but more importantly, I was able to engage participants in hands-on learning. Working in small groups, I asked participants to develop and prototype an activity for kids. The activity could be around any subject or theme the groups chose, but had to be open-ended (with more than one way of approaching the activity) and be appropriate for kids of all ages. While the groups were unsure at first, they ultimately did an incredible job developing fun, engaging activities around themes as diverse as the four seasons, imaginary friends, world cultures, and space travel. It was fun to see the groups—made up of artists, student volunteers, parents, and museum professionals—tackle the assignment and come to a new view of what museum-based learning could look like.
I made my first trip to Ukraine in October 2011. Three years later, I have really come to love the country and its people, and I appreciate how willing museum professionals, educators, parents, and others are willing to embrace new ideas and strategies for learning. I have seen tremendous growth in the educational programming at Art Arsenal specifically, but also in the way the Ukrainians I have met think about education and the role that museums can play in developing the next generation of innovators. It is exciting to be playing a part in this transformation, and I look forward to seeing where the museums of Ukraine go next!