Intersection

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In 2015, I had the opportunity to speak with the bright young minds at The Geneva School of Manhattan during their weekly chapel about the intersection between science and faith. The following is an adaptation of that speech. As a designer at the American Museum of Natural History, I spend my day making things. I make things like...

+ apps for your phone about the biggest animals in the world + books about tiny fish that glow in the dark + guides about dinosaurs that used to live in New Jersey + online games about underwater volcanoes off the coast of California + invitations to fancy parties that take place unader the big blue whale + billboards of giant spiders that you see on the street and on the subway + and videos that fly to distant worlds faster than the guardians of the galaxy

I get to make a lot of really cool stuff all day! And no two days are exactly the same. There's always something new and exciting to learn at the museum. But design is more than just something you hang up on the wall or look at on your phone. Design is really about storytelling.

Stories like this one from the Book of Genesis…

In the beginning there was nothing. Nothing but the silence of an infinite darkness. And the breath of the Creator fluttered against the face of the void, whispering, “let there be light.” And light was, and it was good. The first day. And then the formless light begin to take on substance and shape. The second day.

And our world was born: a beautiful, fragile home. A great warming light nurtured its days, and a lesser light ruled the nights. And there was evening, and morning, another day. And the waters of the world gathered together and in their midst emerged dry land. Another day passed.

And the ground put forth growing things. A thick blanket of green stretching across all Creation. The waters too, teemed with life. Great creatures of the deep that are no more. Vast multitudes of fish, some of which may still swim beneath these seas. And soon the sky was streaming with birds. There was evening, and there was morning. A fifth day.

Now the whole world was full of living beings. Everything that creeps, everything that crawls, and every beast that walks upon the ground. And it was good, it was all good. There was light and air and water and soil. All clean and unspoiled. The plants and fish and foul and beast, each after their own kind, all part of the greater whole, all in their place, and all was in balance. It was paradise. The jewel in the Creator’s palm. And the Creator made Man and by his side Woman. Father and Mother of us all.

That is a really amazing story from a long time ago. But exactly how long ago did Creation take place?

Scientists use tools like telescopes and satellites to figure out the age of the universe and and the age of the Earth… and they say that the universe was created 13 billion years ago, and that the Earth was created 4 billion years ago. But there are some people who say that the story of creation happened in exactly seven days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. That’s a big difference... is it 13 billion years or 7 days?

Well as someone who works in a museum, I'm often asked if I can work in a place that teaches science and evolution and also believe in God and the creation story. And the answer is YES! I think that science and faith can go together if you can look for the bigger picture. So what’s the bigger picture? Well, it turns out that most bible scholars agree that the Creation story is more complicated than it seems. The Book of Genesis is filled with something called allegory. Allegory is a story with a hidden meaning. What do you think the hidden meaning could be?

When I work at the museum, I'm around a lot of scientists. They spend their day doing research: they ask questions and look for evidence. So that's what we're going to be today: scientists looking at the Book of Genesis so we can uncover the allegory—the hidden meaning—in this incredible story.

Something important that we know about the Book of Genesis is that the stories weren't written down at first. Writing hadn't been invented yet… there wasn't even an alphabet! Instead, the stories were shared as spoken word. That means they had to be memorized. How many of you have to memorize something for school? What's the easiest way to memorize a story? Well you could put it into a song or poem! It definitely helps if it rhymes too: "Do you like green eggs and ham? Yes I like them Sam I am."

Let's take another look at the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Here's how it's organized: On the first day, God did something, and it was good. On the second day, He did something else, and it was good. On the third day, He did another thing, and... it was good too. And so on. Guess what? This first chapter of Genesis is a song with verses and a chorus! Every time God did something, that's the verse; and then the chorus in response says "and it was good." We can imagine what that song might sound like sung by our favorite band!

So the story of Genesis was shared around campfires after dinner with the whole family gathered around. Parents would teach the story to their children, and those children would grow up and teach it to their children, and each generation would memorize the story and pass it onto the next. Before long one of those kids was named Moses. You might have heard of him! By that time there was an alphabet, and so he decided to write down this story that he heard growing up, so the whole world could read it. And that's the amazing adventures we can read about in the Book of Genesis, written by Moses himself!

I have a lot of friends who come visit me at the Natural History Museum. It's one of the best things about working there: showing all the awesome things that are on display to my friends and telling the cool stories about them. And hopefully... if I tell a story well, it can be just as memorable as the Creation story that Moses wrote down. As a designer, the one really important thing that I do at the Museum is to tell a really good story.

One of my favorite stories is about the giant blue whale that hangs in our Hall of Ocean Life. It's a full size adult female blue whale, the largest animal in the world. She's as big as a city bus! When the hall opened 40 years ago, scientists didn't know very much about blue whales. And so the model that was hanging in the Museum was based off a whale that washed ashore and died. She was all gray and lumpy. Her fins were drooping and her eyes were bulging out. Back then, that was the only way scientists saw these huge sea creatures. Scuba gear hadn't been invented yet so you couldn't study whales up close underwater.

Well 30 years later, I started working at the Museum, and we finally updated the Hall of Ocean Life and the model of the blue whale. We made her slimmer because we know that whales swim like torpedoes in the water, and repainted her a nice deep blue. We even added a belly button because whales are mammals and all mammals have belly buttons! You can come visit me at the Museum and we’ll look up at the blue whale together and find her belly button! But for all that scientists know about blue whales today, they are still one of the biggest mysteries on Earth. We don't know why they sing underwater or what they're singing about; we don't know much about the ancestors of whales; and we don't know where they go for most of the year.

I think a little mystery is a good thing! It leaves room for you to use your imagination and come up with creative ways to look for answers. Maybe one of you will grow up to be a scientist who discovers some amazing thing about blue whales! God wants us to have a little mystery in our lives too. There's so much more about God that we don't know. He is bigger than we can ever understand.

That is the hidden meaning in the Book of Genesis! It doesn't matter if the story of Creation took 7 days or 13 billion years. God is so big and beyond our understanding that He could have created the world in a blink of His eye, or really slowly over millions and billions of years through time and space. It's a beautiful mystery! And that’s why I think that science and faith can go together. All you have to do is look for the bigger picture.

I think we can celebrate scientific discoveries that are made about the natural world, like the story of the blue whale. And I think we can also celebrate just how crazy big God is and how He created everything around us. He moved the stars and galaxies into place; He raised up the oceans and the creatures in the sea; He moved the mountains into place; He filled the air with clouds and birds, and He introduced His finest creation: you and me.

God loves each one of you so much. He created everything around you: the food you had for breakfast, the subway you took to school, the books you read in the library, the birds and trees in Central Park, the moon and stars and galaxies that you can see at the Museum, and He created you and me. He created every single thing, all because He loves you! Isn’t that amazing? We get to be part of God’s story today and everyday.

We can all be like scientists who go out into the world and make discoveries about God’s Creation. You can discover something new about God. And you can be a storyteller too! Just be brave and share the stories that God puts on your heart.

Story Hour

Story Hour

When my wife, Elisa, and I were dating, one of our favorite ways to spend the afternoon was in the children's section of a Barnes & Noble or lazily flipping through YouTube clips from vintage Sesame Street episodes. We are definitely kids at heart, and so it should be no surprise that reading kids books is one of our beloved pastimes.

A World of Learning

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All over the United States, classrooms are adorned with brightly colored bulletin boards, gym floors are freshly waxed, and buses are humming in a garage ready to whisk young minds into a new school year.

My mom is a first grade teacher in Pulaski, a quiet town tucked away in the mountains of Virginia. Like her mother before her, she welcomes these timid and inquisitive little friends into her life for a year and transforms them into literate, polite, and attentive students through her infectious energy and joy. It's magical: many of these first graders walk in the door barely able to write their name, much less read the worksheet in front of them... and they leave at the end of the year with their short stories about summer dreams and reports about representative democracy proudly displayed down the hallway.

She makes them promise that they will keep up their effort all through school: "you're mine until college," she'll exclaim with a twinkle in her eye. And the kids remember it. They'll come back for a visit as a high school senior, giving Mrs. Booker a big appreciative hug, letting the flood of elementary school memories from a decade earlier wash over their otherwise awkwardly confident teenage self.

These kids know one simple fact: my teacher believes in me.

This is a sentiment too often overlooked, but vital to the success of these precious first graders as they make their way from centers and recess to algebra and band practice. After watching both my parents work in and around the public schools for my entire life, it's amazing what a small and steady dose of encouragement can do for a young person. Teachers have the power to elevate your perspective and help you not only find your way, but truly find yourself.

So with the smell of sharpened pencils and chalk dust hanging in the air, I shared my own thoughts with the hard-working teachers, principals, and staff of the Pulaski County Public Schools, where I grew up in Virginia. They kicked off their year with a series of video greetings from alumni of all walks of life, including my hat tip to my high school Earth science teacher, Dave Carroll, who now leads the meteorology program at Virginia Tech. I'm so grateful for all the teachers, my mom included, who have paved the way for where I am today. Happy first day of school!

Special thanks to Jeff McCoy, my friend and teacher since sixth grade, who invited me to share my story at opening convocation for the Pulaski schools!

Pop Goes The Museum

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As a designer at the American Museum of Natural History, I often find myself walking the storied halls and people watching. One of the central questions that runs through my head (other than “why would anyone use an iPad to take photos?”) is about the visitor experience:

What exactly is a meaningful interaction in a museum exhibition space?

It’s a tough question that a lot of folks have considered, researched, theorized, surveyed, and tested. There are entire publications and white papers and conferences dedicated to tackling just what is necessary to create a richly engaging, entertaining, and inspiring learning opportunity in an exhibit that invites dialogue, hands-on participation, and the ever-elusive feedback loop.

So I’ve decided to step into the fray and contribute my voice to this esoteric, somewhat technical, and interesting question. After all, it’s my responsibility as an artist to look at the world around me with new eyes. Rebecca Kamen, a sculptor and lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design, recently explained this unique role, identifying artists as “universal investigators who look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That’s when discovery happens.”

Instead of tackling this immensity in one fell swoop, I’m going to take Ms. Kamen’s words to heart and unpack the idea over time, post by post. For starters let’s consider, dear reader, that perhaps there are opportunities to glean from the rich and rewarding moments found in completely different, non-museum environments and apply them to a exhibition interaction.

“A Winter’s Tale” by Robert Sabuda (2005).

“A Winter’s Tale” by Robert Sabuda (2005).

Exhibit A: the humble pop-up book.

I grew up unfolding these amazing treasures of incredible paper engineering. Each colorful page yielded new surprises, delighting my senses and letting my imagination run with abandon into each intricate folding wonder. They took a place of honor on my bookshelf, each handled with the care of a conservator’s ancient artifact. (My parents instilled me with a desire to preserve these books so they might be enjoyed for years to come.)

The first true pop-up or “automatic” books started in the 19th century in Britain and German (although some scholarly publications included moveable parts as far back as 1240 AD), and designed with children in mind. But in 1929, Louis Giraud and Theodore Brown introduced an annual series of stories and nursery rhymes that featured gorgeous illustrations that burst from the page, and gained a huge popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. (Amazingly the books were assembled by hand in the back of a delivery truck outside the patron’s home and delivered to their front door!)

Since then, pop-up books have dominated the children’s book market and found their way into high-end art and popular culture in topics as varied as Legos, Alfred Hitchcock, and Star Wars. I have a particular affinity for Robert Sabuda’s award-winning pop-up books: the clean lines, deceivingly simple engineering, and bright cascade of color make all of his pop-up creations a joy to experience.

If you’ve ever attempted to fold origami, create a hand puppet, or assemble IKEA furniture, you already have some sense of the intricate, delicate skill involved in pop-up books. The folds, tucks, slides, springs, and anchors must be precise for every page to work properly and smoothly, even under the most strenuous repeat actions. Illustrator, engineer, and author must collaborate in concert to breathe three-dimensional life into each 2-D idea. Renowned paper engineer Andrew Baron explains the process:

“Many people don’t realize that someone actually has to work out every little fold and tuck and all of the elaborate “mechanics” that go into every pop-up book… No matter how complicated an action or structure appears to be, every pop-up book is entirely created from just a basic assortment of paper folds and devices, creatively combined in various imaginative ways to capture the spirit of a particular piece of art or composition.”

From story conception and engineering genius to digitally printed and die-cut sheets that are hand assembled by specialized manufacturers, the concept of a pop-up book is an excellent example of producing interactive materials for a large audience. So you might be wondering, how on earth does this relate to a museum exhibition?

The “Enchanted Book” interactive display in the American Museum of Natural History’s 2013 exhibition “The Power of Poison” comes to life when you turn a page.

The “Enchanted Book” interactive display in the American Museum of Natural History’s 2013 exhibition “The Power of Poison” comes to life when you turn a page.

Observations

Interaction in an exhibition space can follow a similar trajectory to setup opportunities to surprise, intrigue, and delight. Here are a few of my observations about this comparison between pop-up books and museum exhibition interactions:

  • A well engineered hands-on element in a museum exhibit doesn’t necessarily need to be the latest cutting-edge technology. It can be decidedly low-tech and still create a memorable moment, even if it’s only simple on the surface and has complicated mechanics “under the hood.”
  • The beauty of folded paper mechanics is the economy of words and information that can be displayed at a given time. Likewise, exhibits can tease out and layer together images, text, and media to unveil the grander idea in smaller steps, fold by carefully placed fold.
  • The tactile nature of a pop-up book gives the reader a chance to watch each page transform from a flat surface to a lively shape that can be explored and investigated (“how does that thing work?”). This hands-on evolutionary process is powerful and has many learning applications.
  • The transformation of a static museum element into a dynamic one can be far more interesting than a classic “hide-and-seek” mechanism, where a question is presented on a wooden panel and the user lifts, slides, or swivels the panel out of the way to reveal the answer. While those are considered “true” pop-ups, there is an exciting opportunity to make the resulting action far more elaborate, detailed, and wonderful. Picture yourself being presented with a question like “how does blood pump through the body?” and opening a drawer or shadow box that not only shows you the anatomy of the circulatory system, but also animates the motion of red blood cells in three-dimensional splendor.
  • The element of surprise plays a huge part in building suspense and delight. Imagine a lovingly illustrated “book of spells” that draws itself before your very eyes, as if by the magic from Harry Potter, and allows you to touch the pages themselves to make things change. Not only does it make for a rich experience for yourself, but allow prompts you to want to share this interaction with those around you.

How could the lessons of a humble pop-up book find their way into a richly wonderful museum exhibition? What else can speak into meaningful interactions in a learning and social sphere like a museum? There are a lot of ideas to unpack here! I have a big list of possibilities to consider in future posts: pottery classes, online signup wizards, Mini Coopers, choose-your-own-adventure theatrical experiences, Siri, restaurant queue buzzers, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and more.

A fine way to get things started

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By day.

I work at the American Museum of Natural History. They put me in the diorama and let the kids come by and ogle me through the glass. Kidding, kidding. I get to coordinate some cool outreach programs for teachers and kids. I'm also in charge of the web and outreach efforts for BraddiganLove, Light & MelodyLacrosse the Nations5 Rights IncDispatch FoundationHaven, and Metropolis Ensemble.

By night.

I live, laugh and play in New York City, rescuing damsels in distress, doing daring deeds, and saving the world: one artistic production one exciting design, and one new classroom at a time. Occasionally, you'll find me watching one of these, goofing off in the kitchenmoving and grooving, catching a frisbee, sliding down a mountain, watching the stars, eating out hereworshippinglearning, and listening. "Rarely," says Kevin Johnson, "does Armistead actually sleep." (Meh. I get enough.)