At work, we have been thinking deeply about a milestone: next year, we’ll reach one hundred years of developing playful people and spaces.
Nested within those hundred years are millions of stories of people who experienced those exhibits and spaces, from the 72-year-old man who remembers a displayed object and its exact location in the museum to the woman who cut my hair yesterday and said she always heard about the “giant phone” at the museum but never visited as a kid. It takes just seconds to unpack those memories from almost any person who grew up around the museum. However, after a short while, this richness starts to feel like a bit like the last scene of Citizen Kane: a collection of crates and boxes stretching across the interior of a palatial room. The memories are rich and unique, but where do all those memories go next? How can we encapsulate the experiences of millions? Should we even try to encapsulate, or somehow let the stories tell themselves?
Much of this discussion, on the part of we as practitioners and on the part of visitors, would fall under the category of nostalgia. Nostalgia’s etymology is technically the Greek nostos— a return home– and algos, meaning pain. I prefer the definition provided by Mitzi Myers, the late UCLA children’s literature scholar (and one of my mentors), who called nostalgia “longing for the dead”– drawing connections to Nosferatu. Nostalgia as longing-for-the-lost also invites a connection to sodade, a Cape Verdean Creole word that means “longing for home” (a word that becomes, clearly, more poignant for people who long ago left the physical settings of their childhood– but don’t we all do so?). Many people, returning to all kinds of playspaces as adults, experience a kind of nostalgia-sodade: a longing for a dead place. Where is the place I remember? What happened to X and Y? The longing is as much for the space as it is for an (often invented) memory of what it was like to be a kid.
Nostalgia, left unchecked, can turn into the old things-were-so-much-better-then discussions. Colin Ward writes that “Anyone who looks at one of those pairs of photographs of Main Street, Anywhere in 1900 and Main Street, Anywhere in 1975, will feel that something has been lost.” That is certainly true in this case; just substitute “museum” for “main street.” There will always be some sense of loss. However, that’s not the whole story, and a bit more unpacking makes those obvious truths clear.
One of the main spaces that comes up in conversation with visitors is a space that, in the 1970s through the early 1990s, held office items enlarged to 2.5 times their normal size. A pencil– with actual pencil lead– dwarfed your average 4-year-old. The coffee mug resembled a Japanese style bathtub. A ruler stretched out 12 feet. Not surprisingly, the nostalgia for this exhibit is hardcore.
When I ask adults why they want to see this exhibit again, the answer is almost always the same: “It seemed so big then. I wonder if it was really as big as I remember it.”
That’s the core of this, right? We use these memories of past childhood experiences to measure what we have become. In this case, it’s literal: am I bigger than the coffee mug (and by the way, you probably are)? Could I easily pick up the giant phone now (you probably could)? What will it be like to see my own children, so small, interact with things that were once, similarly, so big to me? We measure our childhoods with different rulers: sometimes, those rulers are as tall as a port-a-potty (sorry– that’s just the most readily available comparison). Sometimes they are miniature and nestle in a tiny dollhouse. But at some point, we have to come to terms with our own tools of nostalgic measure.
We’re working on bringing some of the giant exhibit back for the centennial, but in a slightly different form. I’m excited to see how it works.