On Wednesday, September 6, a small group of elementary-age children excitedly pushed open a pair of glass doors on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They had just listened to several adults deliver speeches in advance of a preview event for The Met’s new children’s center, and the young visitors were among the first inside. Named 81st Street Studio, the free center will be accessible without purchase of a museum ticket and is intended to serve as a community hub, officially opening to the public this Saturday, September 9.
“This space is for New York City,” Heidi Holder, The Met’s chair of education, told Hyperallergic. Holder has been working to develop the space since she arrived at the museum in 2020, although the idea had been in the works before she started. She anticipates that most of the studio’s visitors will be families on weekends, school groups, and visitors on museum trips.
“It is an open space where you can create your own path,” Holder continued. “You can learn at your own pace. You can take risks, be curious, have fun, and discover things.”
The 3,500-square-foot center is filled with carefully designed interactive stations. Some of them are extremely high-tech, while others, like a building station stocked with cardboard, Velcro, and tape, are completely analog. Holder explained that the team worked to incorporate every sense besides taste — an installation at the front, for example, includes a wall paneled with materials ranging from cork to small logs and a small placard that reads “Touch and Smell.”
A music station is displayed on the opposite wall. Made in partnership with instrument brand Yamaha, the installation comprises a series of music-making devices that are somehow completely novel despite their simplicity. Children can pull open small drawer-like boxes to reveal an accordion that lets out an airy chime as the door slowly shuts and compresses the air inside of it. Nearby, three mallets accompany wooden blocks; wooden castanets line the wall and make a clacking sound as kids pull on them.
Holder explained that the studio focuses on the notion of materiality. One interactive digital station is designed to explain the difference between clay, metal, and wood. Images of objects in the museum’s collection, including a circa-20th-century cuneiform tablet and an 18th-century British teapot decorated with images of fossils, illustrate the lesson.
Darcy-Tell Morales, The Met’s educator in charge of teaching and learning, pointed out one of her favorite elements: A pair of tiny installations, titled “Subtle Magic,” comprising a circular screen with the image of an eye and a motion sensor camera. When someone leans in, the eye transforms into a close-up image of an artwork at The Met. As the person continues to look, the zoomed-in photo widens to a more complete view. A field guide provides children with a path through the actual museum.
Toward the back of the 81st Street Studio, the installations center ideas about optics and light. A station named “The Ramble” features two upward-facing cameras that film a livestream projected onto two white walls. Using controls on a touchscreen, visitors can distort the image — mostly their own downward-looking faces — and change its coloring.
Morales pointed out the lighting throughout the entire space. When children sit in one of the room’s many nooks, perhaps to read one of the countless books that line its walls, a string of lights turns green. On a circular, sloped platform in the center of the room, light filters through a patterned ceiling to convey the appearance of sunlight glimmering through trees. In early September, the projection still shows the light of a summer sky; soon the pattern will change to mirror the skies of fall, then winter, then spring.
“I wonder how kids will notice that — will they notice it? Will they notice it when they come back? I’m so curious about that,” Morales said, noting that she was surprised when young visitors seemed to gravitate to these analog installations over the digital ones.
The light-drenched surface is cushioned, and a collection of round pillows dot its springy surface. At the preview event on Wednesday, September 6, children launched the pillows at each other and ran circles around the central pole, which, like almost everything in the enormous room, is padded for safety.
Morales pointed to how the space is being utilized in ways the designers (the museum, architecture firm Koko, digital design company Bluecadet, and Yahama) hadn’t anticipated.
“For example, he’s probably a little too old for this,” Morales said, gesturing toward a boy moving quickly around the cushioned centerpiece, “But he’s trying it, which is great.” The space was designed in part as a relaxing spot to read.
On Saturday, the 81st Street Studio will kick off with a public festival from noon to 5pm. The event will feature a jungle-themed number from professional musicians playing the Yamaha inventions in addition to games and crafts. After this weekend, the space will be open Thursdays through Tuesdays from 10am to 5pm.
“It’s a sense of wonder that I haven’t seen,” Morales said of kids’ and parents’ first entrance into the space. The studio opened for staff’s kids last week. “I think the adults are emulating whatever the kids are feeling when they walk in.”