A curved cabinet of curiosities curls around the Tinkering Studio. We use it to share our work, showcasing everything from classic tinkering activities to areas of active investigation; from raw materials and tools to finished works by artists; and from visitor creations to inspiring projects made by Tinkering Explainers. We treat it as an active space that can flexibly adapt to whatever is happening on the museum floor.
The Exploratorium's Curious Contraptions exhibition, for example, brings together whimsical moving mechanical sculptures around the theme "Flights of Fancy." To complement the idea of movement and mechanisms, we transformed the Tinkering Studio cabinet of curiosities accordingly:
We filled it with pieces created by artists, visitors, and team members (shoutout to Ryoko's wire automata). Riffing on the theme of flights and movement, we curated the cabinets with the following question in mind: how do you move from dreaming to doing?
I started by sketching out ideas for what automata, artists, and materials to collect into or communicate about through our cabinets. This included dedicating one cabinet to a set of mechanisms to convey our core question in a whimsical way by replacing each letter "o" in the question "how do you move from..." with a mechanical movement.
I chose the set of mechanisms to make physical and functional from a book called 507 Mechanical Movements, which declares in all caps on its title page that it contains, "five hundred and seven mechanical movements, all those which are most important in dynamics, hydraulics, hydrostatics, penumatics, steam engines, mill and other gearing, presses, horology, and miscellaneous machinery; and including many movements never before published and several which have only recently come into use." Published in 1868 by Henry T. Brown, the book includes sketches of each mechanism with notes about its use or construction. Many of these sketched mechanisms were made real and are on display in the the Museum of Science's Clark Collection of Mechanical Movement Models, which was a major source of inspiration. I selected the following mechanisms to build out because I wanted to include an interesting gear (#69) and a cam (#138), and I loved the swoop of movement in #100.
I started by creating vector files to closely match the sketched versions of each mechanism (below) so that I could laser cut the majority of parts. Laser cutting allowed me to make quick and precise adjustments and try out different materials. I found that I liked the familiarity and the look of plywood, but acrylic was a better choice for specific areas that needed to slip and move more easily.
I used dowels, the lasercut parts, scrap wood, and a couple of rubber bands to make the prototypes. They evolved from being hand-powered for testing to being attached to the same slow-moving motors that we use in light play.
One iteration from the initial version was replacing a LEGO technic part that was acting as the umbrella stem with a duron rod because I needed a more rigid material (thanks to Sebastian on our team and Peter in the shop for the consults). Here is the original (left) and the updated version with the more rigid rod (right).
Building the set of mechanisms was a way of tying our work at the Tinkering Studio into the Curious Contraptions show, incorporating delight and movement into our cabinet of curiosities, and demonstrating my own process of moving from dreaming something up to actually doing it.