Automata in Albuquerque

Over the past several months we've been working with Cabaret Mechanical Theater to support their collection of traveling automata exhibitions. For the latest iteration of the Curious Contraptions, now on view at Explora in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Nicole built a playful mechanical sign and I traveled to the science center to lead professional development workshops with education staff.  

The exhibition itself is made up of a collection of wooden automata designed by Paul Spooner, Ron Fuller, Peter Markey and others. These automata are humorous (often on a couple levels) and tell surprising stories. There are also a collection of hands-on exhibits that demonstrate some of the mechanisms that made the automata work. 

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For Explora, the exhibition design was tweaked to fit in with the look and feel of the museum. Explora has a unique aesthetic based on the ideas of it's founder Paul Tatter, that emphasizes natural colors and materials, cozy spaces and dedicated nooks to support personal investigation. 


When I arrived, we unpacked Nicole's sign and started to figure out how to fit it in with the rest of the elements. Alongside the exhibit team at Explora, we completely redesigned the entrance wall and went through the process of painting the entire surface, running the electrical cords through the wall and mounting the sign on a cleat. Originally we had planned to have a free standing button to trigger the exhibit, but we ended up deciding to re-purpose a stand in the corner of the wall. 


There are a few improvements that we hope to add to the sign, like adding a step for younger kids and a LED strip for the inside to illuminate the mechanisms. But overall it works great as an intro to the show and a way to get to see the different automata elements in action. 


We're hoping to encourage museums with the curious contraptions show to engage the public with automata workshops. We think that the best way to really understand the inner workings of automata is by building them yourself.  So I led a couple sessions with the education staff at Explora so that they could try the activity as a learner and get inspired to run these workshops with visitors. 


We used the cam kit developed by our collaborators at Fire the Inventor. Once again it was great to use the preselected set of materials to lower the threshold to participation but we noticed that the materials still supported lots of variety of creations. 


We started the workshop by covering the inner workings of the automata and letting groups try to figure out what was going on inside. This is a fun way to initiate conversations and imagine possible ways of making things move. 


We spent about forty-five minutes building the automata which was enough time with the kits for the staff to create some really cool creations. The examples that we brought encouraged participants to explore connecting the motion between the two cams with paper/brads. 

A couple designs that were really interesting were this Shakespearean stage with a fiery background and the dancing monster/alien. Both of these used some really nice linkages. 

At the end of the workshop we looked at some other possibilities for automata activities including the ensemble workshop developed by Fire the Inventor and the cranky contraptions developed by Ryoko and the Tinkering Studio crew (and even a new remix of crank powered nametags). We thought about ways that these different automata workshops would work with different audiences, time scales and environments. 

Overall it was a great time Albuquerque and I'm excited to continue to explore ways of supporting Cabaret Mechanical Theater through educator workshops and environmental elements. I took a little video of the opening weekend in action to get a flavor of the exhibit. If you are in the area, you should definitely stop by and check it out until May 20th. 


Ryan Jenkins