Exhibits: Rolling Marbles

A question I get frequently get from visitors, and to which I’m hard-pressed to formulate a quick answer is, “Where do you get your ideas for exhibits?”. . . or simply, “how do you THINK of these things?”

The answer to that is complicated, since I’ve built over thirty major exhibits since we opened in 1995, and the idea for each one came from a different source. Some exhibits are all my own idea, others are modified versions of something I saw elsewhere, or they incorporate elements of something I ran across in anywhere from a magazine article to another museum.

For the sake of relative brevity, I’ll pick examples of several exhibits which I find most interesting or satisfying, and, over time, write a blog entry to describe the origins of each.

Let’s start with the Marble Pump and “Marbellous Indeterminacy”:

When I was in my twenties I went through a stage where I had grown tired of doing electronics work at the University of Colorado and had decided that maybe I’d start a business making wooden toys.

As a kid I’d loved playing in water, and I knew most children are similarly attracted. The problem with water and kids is that when you combine them, they make a mess. Hence I thought, why not dream up a toy with elements equally alluring to children as those afforded by water play, but without the mess. If you can pump water, why not pump marbles? My first marble pump was born.

Marble Pump 1
As it happened, this “toy” took me so long to create that I quickly realized that if I spent that much time on all such efforts, I’d never earn a living. After building a few more “toys,” I concluded that I’d probably be happier doing  electronics work for much higher pay, while building gadgets like this in my spare time. Furthermore, rather than defining them as “toys,” I thought it would be better to think of them as kinetic sculpture, since I seemed to be at least as interested in their aesthetics, function, and the sort of indirect statements they made, as I was in entertaining children. In fact, having appreciated the fact that good children’s stories entertained me as much as they did my daughter, I was challenged by the idea of creating these “sculptures” as objects which anyone could enjoy, not just children.

When Mindport materialized in ‘95, I’d already spent a year exploring my own fascination with water through the process of creating the Wave Music exhibit. This was a device I’d designed partly with the idea of manufacturing it. As had been true with the first marble pump, building a version that was commercially viable seemed impractical, or, to be honest, much less fun than putting together the first units. However, the one I’d built did seem perfectly suited as a first exhibit for Mindport.

Not long after Wave Music was installed at the newly-opened Mindport, my old interest in marble pumping re-awakened. The version you find displayed today is one of our oldest exhibits, and, to my amazement (knock on wood), it’s still going strong.

Marble Pump 2
The marble pump theme cropped up again in Marbellous Indeterminacy. For that exhibit I dreamed up five other ways to get marbles from a lower level to a higher one. . . and I literally mean DREAMED. Much of that exhibit grew from 3 AM, half-waking imagination. It took about 15 months to build, and it cost me endless  anxiety. The “indeterminacy” part originated from an idea I have about consciousness originating from “quantum indeterminacy.” No, I’m not going to attempt to articulate what I mean by that, but the exhibit has definitely lived up to its name, which was the source of my anxiety during its construction, and continues to be today. We’ve come to refer to Marbellous as “she” (and ladies, don’t take that as a sexist pronouncement), but once you get to know her. . . I’ll just say she has certain traits that I’d characterize as loveably mischievous in a distinctly feminine style.
Marbellous Indeterminacy
The Marble Pump and Marbellous are likely not the last exhibits you’ll see at Mindport incorporating rolling balls or marbles. John Ito and I have been discussing yet another exhibit incorporating this theme. Don’t’ hold you breath, but one of these days it will turn up. Rolling marbles, if anything, are even more entertaining, than water. Stay tuned!

Kevin Jones