« The Choctaw Nation's Gift (Happy St. Patrick's Day from the National Museum of the American Indian) | Main | Video Connects Native Consultants and NMAI Conservators »

March 21, 2011

Testing Prototypes for NMAI's Family Activity Center, opening in September


Ready to take the NMAI quiz show challenge?

How many American states have names using American Indian languages?

a. 5    b. 50    c. 26

What is another name for the Iroquois?

a. Wampanoag    b. Powhatan    c. Haudenosaunee

These are two of more than 120 questions Smithsonian staff have been testing with the public during the ongoing development of an American Indian quiz show—one of more than a dozen interactive activities that will be a part of the new Family Activity Center that will open at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington in September 2011.

Museum exhibitions and public programs often emerge from a long process of brainstorming, research, collaboration, prototyping, and testing. For the kinds of interactive activites we will install in the center, it is especially important to get target audiences involved in the development process. So the project team has been conducting public testing during special events that bring families to the museum. Most recently, we tested activity prototypes with the public during Sharing the Dream, a festival to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, and the Power of Chocolate festival on Valentine’s weekend.

Interactive prototypes can be anything from simple cardboard, tape, and glue-stick affairs to elaborate constructions that are very close to what a final activity will be. Observations of public interactions with prototypes guide further development, often leading to new prototypes. We also want to see if our target audiences, who may include very young children, pick up on the primary messages we wish to impart through the center.

A hands-on opportunity to test snowshoes versus tennis shoes apparently
doubles as a fun walking simulator.

On Martin Luther King weekend we tested prototypes of a snowshoe activity, a travois activity, a wetlands activity, and the quiz show. We also did some paper-and-pencil tests of quiz show questions, an activity related to baskets, and a passport activity. We encountered design challenges throughout the day that are informing the next iteration of development. For instance, the snowshoe prototype compares a tennis shoe with a snowshoe in supporting weight on a bed plastic beads that simulate snow. The shoes are represented by plywood cutouts mounted on separate handles and held up by springs. Vistors are asked to press each shoe into the “snow” to feel how the two designs work differently. Most children chose to pressing each handle repeatedly in turn, to simulate walking. We added a sign that said, “Press Down HARD,” to encourage people to really feel the difference in resistance between the two shapes. This simple addition seemed to help, and more kids pressed each shoe hard into the simulated snow and experienced the tennis shoe sinking in and the snowshoe providing support. They still liked pretending to walk on the snow with the two shoes, though.

Even very young children grasp the idea of the model igloo, and older visitors notice principles of its construction.

During the Chocolate Festival we tested prototypes for an igloo-building activity and a basket-weaving activity, as well as trying out more game show questions. The igloo activity is perhaps the most successful of our prototypes so far. Visitors get to complete a partially constructed igloo by adding foam blocks that have been numbered to guide how they are placed. The finished structure is large enough to enclose several young children. Children seem to understand immediately how to put together this three-dimensional puzzle. “Do you know how to do this?” I asked one 9-year-old. “Yeah, just match up the numbers!” This activity attracted the collaboration of several families with a wide range of ages, from 3 years old and up. The activity also has a short cycle: The igloo was built and dismantled eight times in the first hour on Sunday. The excitement of the kids was palpable, and adults were clearly enjoying it, as well, organizing the activity and helping to place the higher pieces. And it proved to be a great photo-op for visiting families. Even dismantling the igloo for the next group of participants was a joyous event, with kids inside bursting the dome outward like chicks hatching from an egg.

Robert Freeland and Eric Supensky from Quatrefoil Associates, our contractor for some of the activities, took special interest and pride in the igloo. “I love working with foam,” Eric told me. “It’s light and sturdy. Kids won’t get hurt if a block falls on them.” Foam is also brittle, however, and tends to erode with the kind of enthusiastic handling the kids were giving it. By the end of the day, flakes of foam had been tracked all over the museum. Eric plans to coat the blocks with a rubber film for the final product to prevent the flaking. The rubber will also provide extra friction that will help the blocks stay in place as children build. Robert told me that one visitor noticed how the blocks spiral up on a slope, a detail that demonstrates the ingenious architectural design of this traditional shelter.  That is the kind of indigenous knowledge we want visitors to our museum to appreciate.

The museum has tested a number of warp materials on young basketmakers.

The basketry activity had already been through several tests, as we have looked for the most appropriate weaving material. Since last summer we've tried strips of vinyl, felt, and cloth, none of which worked well. On this trial we tried webbing similar to seat belt material. We also tested using strips of Velcro on the inside of the wooden basket uprights to hold the material in place. The combination seemed to work well. We’re now thinking about trying out a larger basket. This activity seems to be quite appropriate for very young children.

The testing goes on. The next public session will take place during our Hawaiian Festival the weekend of May 21 and 22. If you want join in the process, we’d love to have you take part.

In the meantime, here are the answers to the quiz questions above:

How many American states have names using American Indian languages?

b. 26 is the best answer (some lists give 27 or 28 names). 68% of our visitors answered correctly.

What is another name for the Iroquois?

c. Haudenosaunee. 22% of our visitors answered correctly.

—Mark Christal, Family Activity Center project team

All photographs by Mark Christal, NMAI



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Testing Prototypes for NMAI's Family Activity Center, opening in September:


What a fantastic hands-on set of activities bringing science and traditional methods of construction together to make learning fun.

Seems like some great activities awaiting the children. Can't wait for the opening. thanks for sharing the information, I'll be back for more updates.


WoW. Those things look hecka fun!

And they say learning is boring :P

Cool article


Thanks a lot, appreciate your dedication here. Outstanding website

Hey...Look cool and I wish that museum in my country will organize this type of exhibition. Fun and educate. I am really to read your post...thanks for sharing...

Being able to touch and move objects and prototypes is the dream of any child, and as a father, I must state it is also the dream of any father!!! It is wonderful to see how by touching and moving the prototypes anyone can be part of the process and be involved in the prototyping desing process while having fun.

Wow, you might say that the technology is very good! Photo, so beautiful, very clear, wish you good luck, create the future together!

Magnificent Articles and Website, thanks for sharing with us :)

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.