San Diego’s New Children’s Museum

San Diego’s children’s museum is only two blocks away from the convention center, and I took Kelly (and later Neil as well) there as an escape from the Comic-Con craziness. I’d been there many years before when Neil was a toddler, so it was a surprise to me that this incarnation of the museum was completely new: the museum had been closed for 5 years, and only reopened in May of this year.

This new children’s museum was like no other children’s museum I’ve ever seen before, but conceptually I loved it. Most children’s museum are focused on teaching some academic concept: they’re kind of like junior science museums. This museum was an art museum, in which you expected to interact with the art, in whichever way you wished. Adults were strongly encouraged to play with the art, too, and sometimes I wondered if maybe the museum wasn’t misclassified as a children’s museum when perhaps it should really be called a hands-on art museum. It requires imagination and creativity to make the most of the museum and many of the younger children seemed lost without an obvious activity at hand.

The museum’s still new, so I have to give it some slack, and assume the curators will learn what kind of exhibits work better than others. As it was some of the exhibits/installations were clearly more compelling than others. For instance, no matter how modest the attendance (and it seemed to be rather modest during the show, because downtown parking was completely taken up by Comic-Con attendees), there was almost always a line for the No Rules, Except exhibit, a room considing completely of mattresses and pillow-like tires (plus one or two punching bags).

I wasn’t alone among adults wishing there was there was a grown-ups only session. Adults were welcome to play with the children, but really, you’d have to be a real ‘tard to bop a 4-year-old with a foam tire.

Having to wait for the mattress room wasn’t really a bother, however, since right in front of it was an open room of climbing walls, with a sparkling birds art motif. One of my favorite art installations however, was the nearby Porta-Party, especially since I could share it with my children without being some weirdo adult in the children’s museum. It looked like a Porta-Potty from the outside, but if you went inside and locked the door, a mirrored ball spun lights through the dance floor and you could groove down to the music playing from the iPod. I need a Porta-Party in my house, because sometimes you just need to dance, but you don’t need to dance with everyone.

The least successful art installation was the Golden Rectangle art that took up half of the basement floor. It was certainly beautiful: a huge structure of delicate wood above a duct-taped labyrinth with a few capes and one of the museum’s curious double-wheeled scooters. But children spent at most a few minutes there. Even Neil, who loves everything having to do with the Golden Rectange, simply threaded the labyrinth and gave up on it.

For art museum aesthetics, I liked the other side of the basement level. It had a large room with a video installation: being in it (and running around, as many of the children did) give the impression of being inside a large aquarium–kind of like the Monterey Bay Aquarium but via video without the massive crowds. Right outside of it was the shadow puppet theatre with a mural (entitled something like “My Mother Told Me Not to Put That in My Mouth”.) Here’s a section of it:

It’s what the Camille Rose Garcia exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art could have been if Camille Rose Garcia had a sense of humor and talent instead of attitude.

Within it, adults were happily doing something that was acceptable for them to do, namely creating shadow puppets out of cardboard. But I didn’t do that, because I’d discovered I could plop in and toss around the nearby bean bags. Again: this is a museum that requires you to bring your own imagination to make the most of it.

On the main floor, the most children’s-museum-like exhibit was the art section on (and close to) an outdoor patio. My nemesis was an old VW bug that had been placed there together with buckets of paint and paintbrushes. Kids (like Kelly) loved it, but I thought it might have been simpler to dunk the children in the paint and give them a wall they can hurl their paint-covered selves against. I put smocks on Kelly front and back but she still ended up with paint all over and I was immensely happy she was in short sleeves. Another girl showed Kelly that you didn’t need a paintbrush to paint: you could ditch the whole thing and paint with your palms. Better yet, you could dig your fingernails into the wet paint and create patterns in it! Meanwhile, a boy enthusiastically working his paint brush accidentally splattered me and everything else within 3 feet. Neil was perfectly happy to limit himself to working on other mediums with clay, ink paint and chalk.

The museum’s appeal certainly skewed older than any other children’s museum I’ve been in. Neil, who is usually indulgent for Kelly’s sake at children’s museums, got more out of this one than Kelly did. He led her through a tent maze. And he showed both of us how the video installation for a build-this-building section worked: it played back whatever was being done with the blocks backwards. So Neil experimented with walking backwards and deconstructing things and then watching how it looked like he was walking forward and creating. Unlike other children’s museums, this museum also had a teen room where teenagers could make their own costumes with crochet and paper-mache. And teens would certainly be capable of enjoying the museum’s other installations, maybe even more so than the preschoolers which seemed to be the predominant audience.

So I think San Diego’s New Children’s Museum still has to find its feet. But I love art, and I love making art interactive, and I certainly look forward to exploring the museum again if I get the chance.

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