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Playing with art: Kids help museum design new interactive gallery

Apr 03, 2009 By Elizabeth Leland
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The children played, and the Mint Museum watched.

For its new museum under construction in Charlotte, the Mint is testing prototypes of exhibits for a Family Gallery. Who best to get feedback from than the kids for whom the exhibits will be designed?

At ImaginOn in Charlotte through May 10, children are encouraged to try out exhibits and let the Mint know what they think.

Aleksander McIntosh, 4, reaches around and tries to pet the dog in this reproduction of a 19th-century painting while exploring the "Get in the Picture" display at ImaginOn in Charlotte, N.C. Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT
Aleksander McIntosh played, and Leslie Strauss watched.

Inside a tiny one-room house called "Memories of Mecklenburg," Aleksander picked up a coffeepot that resembles a pot in Romare Bearden's "Evening of the Gray Cat" collage. A picture of the collage greets children as they enter the house, which simulates being inside the collage.

"Everybody want coffee?" asked Aleksander, 4.

"I would love some coffee," his mother, Diane, replied.

Eaim Pressley, 2, glances up from the "Get It Together" exhibit. "It's been thrilling for us to work with the Mint," said Melanie Baron, exhibits coordinator at ImaginOn in Charlotte, N.C. "This gives everyone a little peek into the museum process. There's research and thought that goes into the exhibits." (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
With the earnest expression of someone hard at work, Aleksander tipped the pot above a plastic cup, and it didn't take much imagination to see coffee pouring out. Asked later what he thought of the house, Aleksander said, "I love making coffee!"

Strauss loves that kind of feedback. She is family programs coordinator at the Mint and will be spending time watching children play.

"We want them to use it and have fun," she said of the exhibit, "but we want their ideas."

The Mint's new museum is to open in October 2010 at south Tryon and First streets. It will include a 1,900-square-foot interactive Family Gallery to introduce children to the Mint's collections of American art, contemporary art, and international craft and design.

Eaim Pressley, 2, glances up from the "Get It Together" exhibit. "It's been thrilling for us to work with the Mint," said Melanie Baron, exhibits coordinator at ImaginOn in Charlotte, N.C. "This gives everyone a little peek into the museum process. There's research and thought that goes into the exhibits." (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
But how to design the Family Gallery?

Strauss was talking with Melanie Baron, exhibits coordinator at ImaginOn, and discovered the library was scouting for an exhibit. They decided to team up, and "Art Under Construction" evolved. Call it an exhibition-in-the-making. It's on the first floor at ImaginOn and includes several different interactive play stations that could end up in the new Mint.

Among them are a 19th-century portrait with face cutout where children can pose, a giant weaving wall, and wooden blocks for making sculptures. An early favorite among the exhibits is a table with colorful magnetic plastic squares and triangles that emulate forms used in glass sculptures at the Mint.

Eaim Pressley, who is 2, worked silently as he built a small box with the plastic squares, then deposited several extra pieces inside. He stepped back, eyed his creation and clapped his hands. No words were necessary.

In this bird's-eye view of the Romare Bearden house, Jennifer Halstead and her 19-month-old son, James, play on the magnetic wall. "I love it," Halstead said. "For toddlers it's a very feasible concept." The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., owns the largest public collection of Bearden's work and wants to introduce it to children and allow them to manipulate Bearden's motifs. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
"I'm having as much fun on this as he is," mom Kelle Pressley said. "And the Bearden house, it's absolutely fantastic. It's very creative."

It's important to the Mint, Strauss said, that the exhibits appeal to adults as well as children. "There are great children's museums, but often adults don't feel comfortable being able to step in and get involved," she said. "We wanted the Bearden house to be big enough so adults can participate. They want to be in on the action."

Bearden (1911-1988) was born in Charlotte, and "Memories of Mecklenburg" pays homage to a series of collages he created about childhood summers spent here with his great-grandparents after his family moved to New York City.

The floor of the house is the same green as the tile in Bearden's collage. Along one side is a table with plastic bowls and fruit. On the other, a magnetic wall with big magnetic cutouts that look like different items in the collage, including a table, a bowl, a lantern.

The "Memories of Mecklenburg" house at ImaginOn in Charlotte, N.C., gives children a chance to experience the art of Romare Bearden. Lela McMichael "pours" a drink for Tresia Bryant as they play with Ellie Wilkins and her brother, Crandall. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
THE WALL NEEDS WORK

Marco McMichael gravitated toward the magnetic wall and reconstructed part of the collage while his daughter, Lela, who is 4, played with a bowl of plastic fruit.

Her verdict?

"I like the food!"

Strauss mused about why many kids don't seem particularly interested in the magnetic wall. Should the magnets be smaller? Or three-dimensional? Should there be better signs explaining what to do?

Over the next two months, with lots of help from children, she hopes to find the answers.

[From McClatchy Newspapers]
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