BY AN EAR
In 1974 I had a fellowship at M.I.T. and I was looking for some part-time work to supplement my income. I met a Cambridge architect named Michael Sand who saw my work from Hawaii and mentioned that the Boston Children’s Museum was looking for an exhibits designer. I applied and I was incredibly fortunate to get the job. The Boston Children’s Museum was an absolutely incredible place, leading the museum world in creating wonderful exhibits that were all ‘participatory’, what we now call ‘interactive’.
When it came time to plan our next big exhibit I came up with the idea that it should be about the kids themselves. I named the exhibit ‘ME’. The basic idea was that we would give each kid a little ‘ME’ card, like an ID card, and as they went thru the exhibit they would enter facts about themselves like their height and weight and hair color but also they would vote for their favorite color (which would be automatically stamped on their card), measure their lung capacity and learn what their armspan was....lots of facts about themselves. I imagined the exhibit as a series of stylized manniquins, each a station for one or more of the activities. I even had dreams about the exhibit being put on a flatbed truck and traveling to other locations.
It was a big undertaking for our little design team but everybody loved the idea and worked on it with gusto. Genius craftsman Janus Spalvins created and built the wonderful mannequins and their mechanics, Edie Kraska did the graphics, Bill Mayhew the electronics, and many others contributed their skills. Michael Hatfield and I did whatever we could to keep the project moving forward. These were exciting times.
But there were problems. Remember, this was 1974 and microprocessors were just coming online but it was still primarily an analog world. For example, the way that the ‘VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE COLOR’ was supposed to work was that there were twelve slots on the mannequin, each representing a color.
|Vote for Your|
Anyway that was the way it was supposed to work. The problem was that with the state of the electronics we had at that time there were a lot of problems. Sometimes the stamper would work but not release the card and other times a different stamper would be triggered than the one you selected. There were all kinds of interference problems and as we came close to the exhibits opening I was getting scared that we might not be able to solve the problem in time.
So I had an idea. I mentioned that at this time I had a research fellowship at M.I.T. When I walked down the corridor of the main building I always saw the doors to what was labelled the ELECTROMECHANICAL LABORATORY, the lab of Dr. Harold Edgerton. Now ‘Doc’ Edgerton was world famous for, among many, many other things inventing the strobe light and those wonderful photographs of the bullet going thru the balloon and the drop of milk forming that amazing crown. I had no idea whether I would even be able to meet with him but I decided to go see whether he would help us with our problem.
So there I was, my hand on his lab's doorknob. I figured I’d be meeting with some secretary or assistant first but as I turned the knob and entered I was standing three feet from Doc Edgerton, who turned, smiled at me and simply said “yes?” I was unprepared. I stammered something like “I’m Stan Resnicoff. I’m the exhibits designer of the Boston Children’s Museum and we’re working on a show called ME but we’re having interference problems with our electronics and.”
I think that was as far as I got because Doc Edgeton walked over to me and ACTUALLY GRABBED HOLD OF MY EAR, TURNING ME AND LEADING ME BACK TOWARDS THE DOOR! BY THE EAR! TOWARDS THE DOOR! This could have been the most humiliating moment of my life except for what he said next. “I have no idea what you’re talking about young man but if you want my help go and bring your electronics here and we’ll see what we can do.” Amazing.
I think I was back in his lab in a half-hour with our mechanism. He looked at it, smiled, and said to me “We’re gonna solve this problem with POWER!” With that he told his assistant what he needed and who soon returned with two car-battery-sized olive drab military capacitors. They hooked them up somehow and then, all of a sudden, ALL the stampers went off simultaneously as if to salute Doc Edgerton. It took him no time to get everything working perfectly but I was concerned by the military apparatus he used. “Is this safe for kids?” I asked. He assured me it was because although he was using a gazillion volts, the amps were very low. I thanked him profusely and left with my mechanism and the capacitors.
Back at the museum there were big discussions as to whether this setup would really be safe for us to use. The conclusion of those in charge was that it wasn’t and we didn’t. The show opened and several of the mechanisms, including VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE COLOR didn’t work. The kids all still seemed to have a good time with the other parts of the exhibit and their ME cards, but to me, having worked so hard, it was a failure.
I recall sitting, tired and totally dejected by the side of the exhibit at the opening, staring at the floor. When I looked up, Michael Sand, who was instrumental in getting me the job so many months ago, was talking to me. ”I know that you are disappointed with the way some of this turned out, but I just wanted to tell you that you changed my ideas of what a museum exhibit could be.” I was too tired, and broken-hearted to appreciate his thought.
Over the next week there were a lot of hard feelings at the museum about what had just happened. Many people worked very hard, very long, and for the show to be ‘less than perfect’ was a huge disappointment. It was my fault. And to top it off, I had spent my whole year’s exhibit budget (Six Thousand dollars) on the show. I was fired.
When I designed the little “ME” card, there was a lot of talk about whether we could afford to give one out for free to every kid. They were going to be a bit expensive because we were using some special fingerprint paper developed by the FBI that used a clear, non-toxic liquid
(so we didn’t have fingerprints all over the museum) and this paper had to be individually applied to each card. I wanted the card to have round corners, be individually numbered, perforated and other features that made it even more expensive and time consuming to create. Those who were opposed to the card mentiond that, in the past, whenever the museum had given out a ‘handout’ lots of them were found thrown away in the garbage or found in the parking lot. It didn’t make me any friends when I suggested that might have been because of the value of those particular ‘handouts’.
In any event I found out much later that after the exhibit opening only one card was found in the parking lot and the kid who had lost it turned up the next day to see if anyone had found it. I also know that many kids kept their ME cards for years.
It’s been about forty years since the ‘ME’ show. I can now look back fondly on that time in my life, treasuring the moments, and the people, and the problems and the dreams. Sometimes I even wonder what a version of the ME show would be like today with all our modern technology. I’m not sure. But what I do know is what it should be called.....ME TOO !