Two current exhibits at the DoSeum are the fruit of the children’s museum’s artist-in-residence program, now in its third year.
Miller’s exhibit, housed in the DoSeum’s special exhibition space, invites visitors into a darkened room, filled with a series of domes that are, using image projection, made to look like various celestial bodies in our solar system. It’s a space exhibit, and it looks enticing, but unlike most exhibitions concerning space, this one is not primarily about looking – it’s about smelling.
Within each of the five domes, visitors can smell what scientists, using an instrument called a spectroscope to read chemical composition, have determined is the approximate smell of the location: a comet or the moon, for instance. Within each glowing dome, an audio recording gives information about the particular location.
“Scent has played a role in other works I’ve created, ranging from the hierarchy of perfume used in ancient Egypt to divide class ranks to creating essential oils based on what [International Space Station] astronauts report smelling when they return from a spacewalk,” Miller said.
“… I find it really exciting to explore olfactory sensations. It’s unlike any other memory-stimulating experience.”
The astrophysics concepts and research that Miller mined for this exhibit may be somewhat difficult to understand, said Orlando Bolaños, the DoSeum’s art education manager.
“What Miller has done is make that stuff accessible to kids,” he said. “That ability to distill scientific research, in a way that is meaningful for people, is a gift.”
Miller said she hopes this exhibit can help show children the role that scent plays in shaping experiences.
Menjivar’s exhibit, on the other hand, is spread throughout both floors of the DoSeum’s regular exhibitions space. Visitors stop at one of two kiosks and pick up a Birding the DoSeum field guide, which depicts and provides information on the 12 species of birds that are scattered, in photographic and sonic form, throughout the museum.
In an interactive scavenger hunt that teaches the basics of birding, visitors of all ages look for little backlit wooden boxes, each featuring the image of a distinct bird and emitting the species-appropriate sound.
A separate aspect of Menjivar’s contribution is a collection of 22 whimsical bird houses that greet visitors at the DoSeum’s entrance. Menjivar worked with local craftspeople to fabricate the audacious avian abodes based on drawings produced by children at the DoSeum, in a pre-installation exercise.
Menjivar’s interest in birding was born from his curiosity about a bird he encountered in his own backyard, at his home near Woodlawn Lake, seven years ago. After consulting a number of bird books, he found that it was a belted kingfisher – now the bird on the cover of the Birding the DoSeum field guide.
He became an avid birder, sharing the activity with his family and friends. He “began to see a lot of overlaps with contemporary art” like “how we look, how we listen – it’s also about collecting and texture and color and all of these things.”
“Plus,” he said, “birding becomes a wonderful and patient way to explore the world around you.”
He hopes that with this exhibit, children can fall in love with the activity – and the attention and patience it requires – as well as the social aspect of doing it with friends and caregivers.
Menjivar also said that he’s proud of the fact that he was able to work on this exhibit with many community collaborators, from the aforementioned fabricators to bird experts and photographers that he met through the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center and others.
“We are interested in artists that do work that is participatory,” Bolaños said.
Despite the obvious differences between the exhibits, Bolaños said that both “help children become more thoughtful and observant, a skill that we really need in the sciences and in the arts.”
“Having a critical eye and being able to look and consider closely is really transferable throughout life,” he said.
The Exploratorium, a science-oriented museum in San Francisco, has had a robust artist-in-residence program since the 1970s, something Bolaños referred to as “an eye-opening model” in terms of the DoSeum’s own program.
Miller and Menjivar were part of a group of five finalists that were given honorariums to produce formal proposals, an aspect of the application process that Miller described as “the most generous [she has] ever experienced.”
The creation of the DoSeum’s artist-in-residence program came from the museum staff’s fondness for “the idea that an artist could come in and collaborate with different members of the museum on an exhibit that maybe doesn’t look and feel like our other exhibits.”