Working with a brilliant team of graphic designers, writers and researchers, I acted as exhibit developer for the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute in Roxbury, MA. GBBRI is a hybrid exhibit-store based on the concept of a cryptozoological supply outlet– a place to get everything you need to research and discover “hidden animals” such as the Loch Ness Monster, Chupacabra, and, of course, Bigfoot. In actuality, it functions as an elaborate front for the 826 Boston writing center, a program that offer free or extremely low-cost afterschool tutoring and creative writing opportunities to Boston kids. 826 Boston is part a network of eight innovative nation-wide writing centers, all founded by writer Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, and each anchored by a somewhat bizarre retail store.
GBBRI, as a store, raises money to support the writing center. However, since 826 Boston is almost entirely run by volunteers, the front space’s real power lies in the experience it offers to visitors, leading to further engagement. If an adult spends five minutes in the store, she might purchase a $10 “Jungle Hygiene Kit.” If the space engages her for ten minutes, and she starts to hear the laughter and talk of kids just beyond the secret door, she might ask for more information about what this place is all about. If she stays on to look in the cupboards of the Crypto-Lab, or read the labels of the classic adventurer series of products, or pop into the Simulactron expedition preparation chamber (a 1950s phone booth that the fantastic Brad Simpson of MIT converted into an environmental simulator) she might get so excited about the depth and breadth of the place that she will volunteer her time as a tutor, or perhaps lead a Saturday morning writing class.
With the idea of engaging both adults who happen upon the store out of curiosity as well as the kids who visit it every day, we worked diligently to craft a space that is witty and engaging without ever becoming overly ironic. It’s an earnest space, one that brings the visitor into a magic circle of complicity by pairing something that nobody is really sure about– cryptids, or under-documented creatures– with the gravitas of an “institute” with an official looking logo and a fancy-ish laboratory in the back. Within that magic circle, I’ve seen people– young and old– playfully act as momentary researchers and probers. They jump into the storyline of actors trying to discern what is “real” and “not real.” That’s a real strength of the writing center, where caring adults work one-on-one with kids. It’s great to see that played out in the store as well.
The microbe is so very small You cannot make him out at all, But many sanguine people hope To see him through a microscope. His jointed tongue that lies beneath A hundred curious rows of teeth; His seven tufted tails with lots Of lovely pink and purple spots, On each of which a pattern stands, Composed of forty separate bands; His eyebrows of a tender green; All these have never yet been seen-- But Scientists, who ought to know, Assure us that is must be so... Oh! let us never, never doubt What nobody is sure about! - The Microbe, Hillaire Belloc, 1912