by Craig Langlois, Education and Public Program Manager and co-designer of If/Then

Stop and think of the first time you remember visiting a museum. Where were you? What did you see? What did you smell? What did you feel? 

My earliest museum memory was when I was three years old and visiting a small natural science center where I watched a mechanical owl rotate its head a around and around. I spent what seemed like hours trying to replicate that action with my own head. I imagined how cool it would be to be able to see behind me while I was walking – just like a super hero or spy!

More often than not our early memories of museum spaces seem to involve interactions with an object on display for one intended purpose (the owl was part of a larger display of nocturnal animals and habitats) but remembered by us for the brief and sudden spark of creative energy it created within us.

At their best, displays in a museum allow us to tap into the part of our brain that forges seemingly random connections but which are, in fact, representative of the highest level of thinking – creative inspiration.

If my conversations with our visitors provide any indication, the Berkshire Museum has long been a place that provides young people with creative jolts and lasting memories. People especially love to tell me about the old glowing mineral room. More than a place to learn about rocks it was a place for secret adventures, hide and seek from parents, first kisses… While they may not always remember the context for their visit, everyone remembers closing that curtain and being transported somewhere new.

With If/Then Peter Garlington and I wanted to capture the magic of those very first museum experiences. We challenged ourselves to explore why particular memories are still so vivid after many years. We posed the question: What if a museum exhibition wasn’t about stuff but about that spark that lights up someone’s whole being when creativity strikes? Would it be possible for us to craft a space where imagination can run free, visitors feel transported and the mind has total freedom to make of the experience what it will? And, if we had success with our vision for the space, what role would the written word play in it?

At its heart, If/Then is about the ways that young children express themselves and how they learn. When we thought about it, Peter and I could think of few instances when we turned to books or text when teaching our own young children. And, going back to visitor memories, text panels were almost non-existent in those earliest, stickiest museum moments. Finally, we thought about all the ways that written language can get in the way of experience.

So we left them out.

If/Then has no text panels. There are maybe 28 words (including exit signs) in the entire five-thousand square foot exhibition. Instead we worked with illustrator Greg Matusic to create visual prompts and clues to guide visitors through the If/Then journey. The experience should feel intuitive for kids (See image. Repeat action.) while forcing adults to mentally return to a time before they relied on written instructions to learn and to make sense of space. Without interpretive panels the visitors have to create their own meaning and tap into their reserves of irrational thought to solve rational problems.