A garden of gizmos blooms in Pittsfield
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., September 4, 2003) – Clifford Wagner is fond of saying that his job is to help create the next generation of tinkerers. “We need people to design and build things,” says Wagner, a professional tinkerer himself who designs and builds exhibitions for science and children’s museums in his workshop at the Wyandotte Mill in Pittsfield.

On a recent visit to Clifford Wagner Science Interactives Inc., as his company is known, Wagner was seen putting the finishing touches on his latest exhibition. Four years in the making, the environmentally-themed “Garden of Gizmos” will have its world premiere on Saturday at the Berkshire Museum, where it will be on display until November 2, before heading off to other museums around the nation.

Like other exhibitions Wagner has designed and executed, “A Garden of Gizmos” features interactive play-stations that engage visitors’ hands, minds and emotions. In this case, Wagner has created an entire landscape – a garden – in which nature comes to life in demonstrations of scientific and environmental principles.

The exhibition is set amidst 28 painted murals depicting purple mountains, forests and giant flowers. Stations include “Date Palm Boogie,” in which visitors dance on a tilting platform, causing three palm trees with trunks made of recycled plastic flower pots to sway and dance along with them. “The Blooming Rainflower,” a giant flower made from 13 sunflower umbrellas, grows taller than the tallest visitor and blooms when a crank is turned. After 15 seconds of full bloom, a motor takes over and the “Blooming Rainflower” wilts back to sleep, ready to bloom for the next visitor.

A single sliding knob controls the rate and direction of time in “Sprouts,” a time-lapse movie that shows a variety of things growing in a single big window box, including real plants and Wagner’s hair. The first thing that appears in the empty window box is Wagner’s own bald head, which he shaved for the purposes of the exhibition about a year ago. When the control slides to the right, Wagner’s hair – which he photographed 12 times a day over the course of the last year as it grew back in to his typically shaggy mane -- grows along with the plants. The film also includes a Chia pet that grows green fur and walks around the flower box, as in the background the outside world goes from white snow to sunny summer.

In “Dancing Wallflowers,” visitors control the speed of the swaying flower stalks and admire the flexibility of their stems. In “Groundhogs’ Ground,” visitors control a groundhog that passes under their feet and then pops up in another corner, only to disappear again under a bed of flowers, making them sway. One visitor can turn the crank that moves the groundhog around, playing games with other visitors.

“Tumbling Bumblebees and Jumping Slugs” consists of an air table that makes the three “bees” do a magical mid-air dance. Visitors drop metal slugs into holes in the table one at a time. When there are too many slugs in the holes, most of the others suddenly pop up. This exhibit includes information about the dances real bees do to inform other bees in the hive where to fly to find flowers that will feed them.

The centerpiece of the garden is “As The Year Turns,” a circle of 16 video monitors displaying images of the natural world, filmed at three gardens and two farms in the Berkshires over the course of a year. Each monitor is a window into a single season, four each for winter, spring, summer and fall. Visitors sit on a bench in the center of the circle and look straight ahead. A full year passes by in six minutes, since the floor and the bench are motorized, turning gently at the same speed the camera was panning. This contemplative piece – which Wagner calls “a very Zen piece about time” -- provides a window on one year’s changes to the natural world. A separate video station introduces the people who tend these gardens, including Sam and Elizabeth Smith of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, discussing sustainable agriculture.

One constant throughout all Wagner’s installations is that they are as transparent as can be. “There’s no attempt to hide or mystify what’s going on mechanically,” said Wagner. Rather, he wants children to see the cranks and gears and pulleys that are so often hidden inside black boxes in exhibitions and in everyday devices.

Another part of the challenge of designing exhibits like these is to design them so that visitors will intuitively know what to do. “My job is to make people figure out what to do,” said Wagner.

Wagner has also built two other nationally-recognized interactive exhibits, “Color Play: Exploring the Art and Science of Color,” and “Contraptions A to Z,” currently at the Museum of Science in Boston. These exhibitions have traveled to such far-flung places as the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, the Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego, the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., the Arizona Science Center, Port Discovery in Baltimore, and many other nationally-known children’s museums and science centers.

A native of the Philadelphia area, Wagner got his start at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia as a cabinet maker, but soon became involved in building the museum’s hands-on exhibits. In 11 years at the Franklin Institute, he designed and built many hands-on interactives for over 20 different exhibits, including “Changing Earth,” an interactive earth science exhibit, “Mathematics,” “Aviation,” and a national traveling exhibit on global warming, among others.

In 1992, Wagner joined the Please Touch Museum for Children as manager of the exhibits department. In 1993, he moved to Orlando, where he founded Clifford Wagner Science Interactives.

Wagner says he came into exhibit design through the “back door,” having graduated from Alfred University in New York with a degree in design in 1976, after which he began work as a furniture maker.

But his work as a creator of science exhibitions fulfills a deeper part of his upbringing. His father was an engineer and his mother was a teacher. “You need to be both to do this job,” he said.

What you don’t need to be is an expert, however. “It’s good to be not knowledgeable about the topic of the exhibition,” he said. “The worst people to design science exhibits are experts in the field.”

Wagner moved to Pittsfield when his wife, Ann Mintz, was hired as director of the Berkshire Museum. Rather than a case of rank nepotism, the Pittsfield opening of “A Garden of Gizmos” -- which is already slated for Exploration Place in Wichita, the Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill, N.J., and the Children’s Museum in Boston -- is a win-win situation for all involved. Wagner is donating the exhibition to the Berkshire Museum for two months – a $24,000 value – and he gets to have the “exhibit shakedown” – working out the technical and conceptual kinks ---- in his own back yard.

Wagner said the measure of any exhibition’s success is clear.

“The way I can tell if it’s a success is if someone pulls someone else over and says ‘Here, try this,’ because we’re social creatures at heart,” he said.

“A Garden of Gizmos” is on view at the Berkshire Museum (39 South Street, Route 7) in Pittsfield from September 6 through November 2. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for children ages 3-18, $6 for adults over 65 and students with ID. Free for members and children under age 3.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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