10th Century Technology meets 21st Century Kids


Photo by Kaitlynn Perreault
Photo by Kaitlynn Perreault

The technology behind the Camera Obscura – the reflection of light into a dark space, creating a projected image – is more than 1,000 years old. How do you make that feel new in 2013, for kids who are accustomed to high-tech screens that fit in their pockets? That was the challenge the we faced when creating Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura, a new exhibit on the Museum’s third floor.

The exhibit’s central component – a periscopic Camera Obscura that offers a 360-degree view of Portland from a room without windows – was installed in 1994 (and don’t forget, even that is ancient history to the Museum’s core visitors, who were born several years into the 21st century). Now, nearly twenty years later, we have completely re-imagined the topic for a young audience with support from the Rines/Thompson Fund of the Maine Community Foundation.

light tableThe key to attracting young visitors: accessibility. Logistically, that means modifying the actual Camera Obscura itself; previously open only during guided tours, the Camera Obscura is now open throughout the day; Museum visitors can get a peek at Portland from a room with no windows any time they like, giving them time to reflect upon the phenomenon and watch the world outside. (Depending on light and where the lens is directed, visitors can observe everything from a flock of seagulls flying over Congress Square to the top of Mount Washington, nearly 100 miles away.)

Accessibility is a psychological and developmental challenge as well, so we filled the two-room exhibit with bright new components that practically scream “kid-friendly.” The component that inspires the most dancing, wiggling and giggling is the light wall: a bright white wall in a dark room with adjustable colored lights where children can play with their shadow and layer the light to create new colors. The exhibit also features a light table surrounded by low stools attracts toddlers eager to stack blocks with sheer color inserts to play with projection. New model camerae obscurae throughout the exhibit invite visitors to experiment with focus and find the parallels between the inner workings of the eye and the camera.

For those seeking a more historical perspective – typically parents – background on the camera obscura phenomenon is available in a take-home brochure that visitors can read any time – throughout the Museum as children play or later on at home.

The original exhibit debuted in 1994, one year after the Children’s Museum opened at its current location in the Arts District. Fred Thompson, chair of the capital campaign committee that brought the Museum to Free Street, was also instrumental in securing the donation from Kodak that made the periscopic Camera Obscura possible: a thick lens installed in the Museum’s cupola, along with a mirror that rotates mechanically to give Museum visitors the exhibit’s signature 360-degree view.

The rare, breathtaking views the exhibit provides have long been appreciated by Camera Obscura enthusiasts, art historians, photographers and travel writers (the exhibit has been featured in AAA Magazine and the Boston Globe). Now we hope that the revitalized exhibit will draw the appreciation of a broader audience – including the 1- to 10-year-olds that make up their core audience.

Chris Sullivan, our Director of Exhibits, worked with staff to develop a series of prototype exhibit components; staff observed visitors interacting with the prototypes and used those observations to inform the final exhibit – although Sullivan is hesitant to use the word “final.”

“Our exhibits are always growing and evolving,” Chris says. “Visitors are learning from the exhibits, but we learn from our visitors, too.” The prototyping spiral – a series of exercises in design, testing, analysis and redesign – is an increasingly popular in the museum field, particularly children’s museums and science centers, which thrive on durable, hands-on exhibits that inspire open-ended learning.

Families are invited to celebrate the opening of Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura on Wednesday, October 16 from 10:30-11:30am. Light refreshments will be served and staff will be available to answer questions and share the exhibit development process with visitors. The event is free with admission.

We will continue to offer guided tours of the Camera Obscura; tours offer a more in-depth history of the phenomenon and include a demonstration of the periscopic Camera Obscura’s rotating view of Portland and beyond. Tours are free with general museum admission ($9) and are also available separately for $4 per person. Call 207-828-1234 x231 or visit our calendar of events for scheduled tours.