Spark!Lab is the Lemelson Center’s hands-on invention studio. Given the invention focus of the space, things in Spark!Lab are always being thought up, created, and tweaked. If you have visited us you might be thinking, “That's what I saw museum visitors doing.” The thinking, creating, and tweaking I am talking about today are centered on the work we do as a team to keep Spark!Lab fresh and interesting.
Each year, Spark!Lab undergoes what we call our “August rotation.” At that time, not only do we change the activities (which happens three times each year), but we also change up our object wall, which sets out the three themes we will invent upon during the year. The graphics on the wall define each theme and describe the museum collection objects we use to inspire invention. This year, the three themes for Spark!Lab are Produce, Perform, and Protect. Let me take you through the process of the change, while trying to tally how many people it takes to rotate Spark!Lab.
About ten months out, we choose the three themes for the year. This typically starts with a group consisting of four core Spark!Lab team members. Once that team has some theme ideas, they present them to a team of five to eight people from the Lemelson Center, our home unit at the Smithsonian. Together, we narrow down the themes, taking into consideration visitor trends, Lemelson Center initiatives, and what is most likely to work in our exhibition space.
After a few meetings, we lock in our themes. With those in place, we begin searching the museum’s collection database for objects that represent each of the themes. We have three collection object cases to fill, so, in any given year there will be a total of ten to eighteen museum collection pieces spread across the three cases. Two constraints affect our artifact selection: the cases that house our objects are only eight inches deep and the pieces will be on display for a full year. These two factors greatly influence what we can select.
Once we have an idea of what objects might be a good fit for the themes, we contact museum curators and archivists. Around January we sit down with curators to talk about the themes and objects from their collections that we think would fit well. At this point the curators help us to better understand the artifacts that we selected—and they quite often suggest objects that may better support the theme. How many curators we work with differs from year to year, but at least four to eight members of the curatorial staff are usually involved with the August rotation. It never ceases to amaze me how much the curators know about their collections and the stories connected with many of the objects.
While we are talking to curators about objects, we are also working internally to find inventors to profile for each theme. Each theme has two inventor profiles. For the year, that comes out to six profiles. This process involves some basic and, at times, deeper research. In Spark!Lab, one of our core beliefs is that everyone is inventive. With this in mind, we work to select a diverse group of inventors for the themes. This can be challenging at times as information on diverse historical inventors is not always readily available. This part of the process usually involves three or four staff members, who search for good candidates to be profiled, as well as work on obtaining rights to use the inventors' images for the display.
By February, we have usually picked out the objects we want to use. At this point, these objects go through a team of no fewer than four people before going into our space. This team includes conservators, collections managers, mount makers, an exhibit designer, and surely many more people that I am not aware of. There is also a project manager behind the scenes orchestrating the timing of this flow.
Along with the museum collection objects, we also use props, which are things that we buy, borrow, gather from the museum’s teaching collection, or find. This year we reached out to the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) for a prop for the Protect case. The props we select also support the theme, allow us more flexibility in our choices, and reduce the workload on the team involved with the collection objects.
Early in the summer, we come up with a list of potential “props” for the cases. The museum collection objects fill three large cases and the props fill the other sixteen cases in our wall. As the props are collected, we design how they will be displayed and create mounts to make that happen. This year, we had two interns helping create the mounts for the props. The process of finding props usually involves three staff members, along with a call out to eight members of the Lemelson Center team, and our fifty plus Spark!Lab volunteers.
While selecting props, we are also finalizing the text for the inventor profiles and museum collection object descriptions. This process involves an exhibit designer, three or four internal editors, and at least four National Museum of American History staff, who edit the text for content, tone, and accuracy. Once this text is finalized, the exhibit designer lays it out and sends the layout to the museum’s graphics team. This team usually involves at least three people, and, when needed, may involve one or two people in the museum’s exhibit shop to create backings for the graphics.
All the while, we are preparing the activities for the upcoming August activity set. Activity development involves our four facilitators, myself, and two or three other Spark!Lab associated staff members, not to mention a finance person to place the supply orders.
We finally reach the rotation date! On this one day, a team of at least five to ten people will transform Spark!Lab from last year’s themes to this year’s. It is a very busy day to say the least, but in the end the outcome is new and refreshing.
So, let’s take stock. As our “August rotation” approaches, I began to think about everyone involved—which I like to think of as “how many people does it take to rotate Spark!Lab?” In adding this up, I will focus on people only, not tasks. Some team members handle multiple tasks. With that in mind I would say conservatively that it takes more than twenty-five different people to accomplish a Spark!Lab August rotation. To all those people involved—many working behind the scenes—I would like to say thank you for making this happen!