Tools for Understanding Your World: Museums + Beyond

Can you describe the space you are in right now? Have you thought about the temperature, the colors, the lighting, how the furniture is arranged, the sounds you can hear, the textures you feel, the smells that you associate with this space? When any of those elements change, how does that alter the space? How does that change how you interact with this space?

Yayoi Kusama
“Infinity Dots Mirrored Room,” 1996. Mattress Factory. Photo by Jeanne Kliemesch

These questions are the beginning of many conversations and inquiries we explore at the Mattress Factory on a daily basis. The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum with room-size exhibitions. We are committed to supporting artists and their practice. Exhibiting artists are invited to stay in a nearby residence while preparing new work, and the galleries serve both as studio and exhibition space during their stay. The installation art at the Mattress Factory is truly art you can get into. We support artists through the whole process of creation and experimentation, we don’t ask for proposals, and know that the work will transform and often take new shapes throughout their time here.

The experience of visiting the Mattress Factory is very different than a traditional museum environment. There are no guards, much of the art you can touch and explore in a close and more intimate way than is possible in many other museums (you can lay on the floor, reach into, sit on and step inside many of the pieces). This leads to an experience that can be very personal and powerful but also puzzling. The installation is built to be experienced. Sometimes the artwork is not translated easily into a photograph. It can be difficult to describe and to really understand how all the elements fit together – you need to physically be in the room.

With that in mind, we find ourselves asking some questions familiar to us all:

  • How can we create an experience for students that mirrors what happens here?
  • How can we make the museum visit more than just a fun field trip and turn it into a unique and deep learning experience?
  • How do we communicate and share the experience of Installation Art – and all of the rich dialogue that experience sparks – with students that are not able to visit the museum?
  • How do we translate the museum experience to a classroom, a library, a community center?

At the Mattress Factory we decided to do what we do best – and pose these questions as a challenge to a group of artists. We asked them not to make a piece of artwork, but instead to create a tool – one that could be used to inspire the same sort of conversations we have at the museum about space, memory, sound and a plethora of other big ideas. We titled the project The Space I’m In: Tools for Understanding Your Environment.

Interacting with Tametabako and thinking about space.

The Mattress Factory partnered with the Intermediate Unit 1 (a public education service agency dedicated to the counties we were working with) including nine different schools in counties outside of Pittsburgh and students who had little if any exposure to the concepts of contemporary installation art. Art teachers from each of the schools chose a fellow teacher from another discipline to participate in the program. The teams then reviewed the test scores of their schools and chose a subject area where scores were weak. The challenge was to create lesson plans using materials from the museum to improve learning in the targeted area. We provided professional development opportunities and support for teachers as they paired up to create interdisciplinary lessons inspired by the experiences these tools created. We diligently recorded students and teachers experience before and after their experience with The Space I’m In. Student learning in these weak testing areas improved dramatically.

Currently we have a small variety of tools that we offer to schools and teachers as a starting point in their exploration of our environment. One tool is titled Tamatebako designed by artist Yumi Kori. This tool is a large tented cube that you enter through the lower open portion and find various smaller dark tubes, open red environments and even a small opening to the sky. Each of these spaces can provide a different experience, a small dark space that can feel safe or scary, an open space that shifts colors and views. Another tool is a set of Sound Blocks by artist Jeremy Boyle. The Sounds Blocks change pitch when reacting to motion around them, creating an alternative way to explore space through an auditory experience.

Interacting with Tametabako.

We learned that as teachers became familiar with some of these concepts and working with students on these big ideas, they began to not even need these tools. The tools served as an entry point for the students and teachers to create new lessons and work through concepts in a new way. Teachers were often placed outside of their educational comfort zone and challenged to approach a lesson in a new direction. The conversations about space were able to happen in simple and subtle ways and students were challenged to slow down and think more about the environment surrounding them. The project creates connections between our memories, sensory understanding, physical spaces, and engages many different disciplines such as science, technology, math, language and the arts.

The long-term investment of creating relationships and training the teachers became the real key to the success of this project. From the museum end, we had to teach museum educators the language, the ideas, the artists, and the flexibility to translate the museum experience to the world beyond. They became the liaison to working with a teacher in their environment to ensure their comfort with these concepts. We learned that there are so many ways to change, alter, and think about our environment. We learned that we could use these same lessons without the tools.

Working in a museum environment we often take for granted the lingo we use and the knowledge we have acquired. Collaborating with teachers forced us to step back and start at the very beginning. We learned not to assume anything and to work through every step of the process in explaining and teaching the big ideas that go with installation art.

Student and teacher exploring the environment created by The Walls, a tool as part of The Space I’m In project.

5 thoughts on “Tools for Understanding Your World: Museums + Beyond”

  1. In an increasingly competitive and complex world, the student who commits themselves to being well rounded, as opposed to matriculating in narrow, speciailized fields, will have an edge on those who limit their horizons. This type of program is precisely the type of endeavor parents would be wise to introduce their children to. Good job.

  2. This article was a great introduction to the exhibit and education processes at The Mattress Factory! The commitment to providing public school students an experience which includes hands-on, sensory and stimulus, as well as creatively and intellectually engaging experimentation is inspiring.

  3. Thank you so much for your encouraging comments!
    We have found that the process of working with The Space I’m In truly reflects the same process that an artist goes through in creating their work – many of the same challenges, problem solving and collaborating. We all know that students learn in different ways – but hopefully this helps them to become a little bit more aware of what is happening in the world around them.
    Hope you will both come and visit the Mattress Factory soon!

  4. This post was so inspiring! Love the idea of specifically targeting gaps in student learning, and I totally agree with you, Felice, that I often feel more like an artist when working on programming.

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