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Story 03: Birth of Playspace

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March 14, 1978

Written by Jeri Robinson

Our first meeting with D&P (Andy Merrill and John Spalvins) was disastrous. At this point there was no budget allocation. Elaine said money could be allocated from Wharf development funds since the project was a tryout for the Wharf. This was the first time the word "tryout" was used and it was to become my battle cry for the remainder of the project.

By "tryout" I was to understand the exhibit would be constructed as cheaply (in materials, time and labor) as possible. We later learned there would be many trade-offs in this plan, almost resulting in the exhibit idea getting totally lost. It was difficult to understand how D&P functioned: if something personally interested them, they would enthusiastically brainstorm suggestions; if they were less interested they would toss it off as "something that probably won't work out." Their time was the most important factor discussed: Why were we going to so much trouble for a nine-day exhibit? Elaine thought there was a lot we could learn in nine days and that we should try out as many ideas as possible. To my surprise, Elaine agreed to building some of the pieces. She felt it was worth spending the money to help us to learn more about the "final" exhibit.

We had all decided that it would be better to have all the activities related to the exhibit happen in the same area, so the sit-around was chosen. Andy and John were given a copy of our proposed exhibit pieces. After agreeing to make a floor plan of the sit-around, these were their suggested changes:

  • The crib would now be approximately six by eight feet, the size of a standard sheet of Tri-Wall. For safety reasons it would need to be built of wood, since children might want to climb on it. We all agreed that for this first go-round it needn't be raised, but could be built on the floor with a heavily padded rug to serve as the mattress. One side would be railed like a real crib, with the bars (two-inch dowels) spaced at four-inch intervals. Andy figured this would give the correct perspective. The other side of the crib would be a painted wall to simulate a nursery crib's bars. One end would be high (the headboard) and the other would be low, approximately eighteen inches. This would be the end where the visitor would enter the crib.
  • Safety concerns prohibited us from stringing anything across the crib, so anything in the crib would have to be attached somehow to the sides. Things to be included in the crib were to be discussed at the next meeting. Robie and I agreed to gather some prototypes or pictures of the other things we wanted to include.

We talked about the possibility of using a couple of pictures blown up to life size with the heads cut out so that people could stick their heads through the holes and see themselves in "fun house" fashion, reflected, as they might have looked as infants. Originally Robie had hoped that the cutouts could be used to put kids into a sequence of pictures about sharing. I thought kids would probably miss the point, since they would find it funnier just to see themselves as babies. The others (Elaine, Andy, Janet, John) agreed, but also thought the sharing photos would be fun to do but expensive. Robie said that the cost of blowing the pictures up and mounting them would be donated by Henry Gordillo, the photographer of the book, if we thought the idea was worth trying. Everyone agreed it would be a great addition, and since there was a mirror available that could be borrowed from the existing Fire exhibit, we should choose two pictures to blow up.

The "Famous People" photos in Before You Were Three presented no design problems; the only problem was getting a decent variety of famous people. It had already taken over a month to track down the baby pictures of three people—all white males. We were concerned about getting pictures of women and minorities. Several were suggested including O.J. Simpson, Ella Jenkins, Buffy St. Marie, Julia Child, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Muhammad Ali.

We left the meeting with a promise from Andy that he would get back to us later in the week with a floor plan and meanwhile we should work on getting the prototype pieces for the crib; identifying the rest of the famous people; and choosing the pictures to be blown up.

Several days later, Robie sent me text, edited from the book, that she thought would be appropriate for the exhibit. I thought it was too long. From past experience, I knew visitors read very little in exhibits; if there was too much to read, they just wouldn't do it at all. Exhibit text was to be hand written by the museum's graphics staff, so that during the course of the tryout, if anything needed to be changed it could be done right away.

Elaine thought it might be interesting to try a two-level text system: separate texts for children and adults, color coded or size coded, so that the right audience would be attracted to the right text. The children's text would be easier to read, just a few sentences and printed in large letters, while text for adults would be printed smaller and go into more depth. This idea was modified. Robie thought the book had already been written so that children could understand it in its entirety and didn't see the value of writing more text. In the end the resulting text of a typical adult panel included directions for an activity ("Lie on your back, bat the beads") followed by some explanation and perhaps a few questions to contemplate. These three sections were color coded, with the intent that parents would read to children only as far as would seem appropriate for that child. However, as it will be seen later, this didn't always work out.

Next: March 28, 1978