Collection: National Constitution Center
Touch screens. Interactive games. Listening stations. Simulated experiences. If you've visited the National Constitution Center, you've probably participated in at least one of these activities. During this week's visit, I was presented with the task of exploring an interactive in the NCC's main exhibition. The object that best captured my attention in what can be an overstimulating space was The Law Making Machine.
Incorporating text, animation and audio, visitors can explore how laws are made by participating in a simulated bill review process. Selecting "The Environmental Security Act," animated characters and accompanying text, informed me that this particular bill proposes a $2.00 surcharge to be added to the entrance fees for all visitors to National Parks. These funds would help to preserve and protect endangered plants and animals in the parks. Presented in the voice of the characters, the audio provides multiple points of view and reflects the opinions of the animated characters, members of a reviewing committee and the House of Representatives. The text in comparison, is presented in a well-informed bipartisan voice that narrates the law making process. I watch as characters present the issue and the texts reminds me that many bills die at this stage in the process.
|The power was in my hands!|
This object may be important to anyone interested in learning more about the U.S. legislative process and the specific roles played by each branches of government. Providing a participatory experience, this interactive “illuminate[s] constitutional ideals,” and “inspire[s] active citizenship,” both of which are central to the museum’s mission. Because of its subject matter, it would not be as engaging or well understood by audiences younger than a middle school level. As an object that tells its story though both audio and visuals, it could also be difficult for visitors with visual or hearing impairments to fully enjoy.
Midway through the main exhibition space, this interactive is displayed on four individual pods. The pods face a center partition, which defines the space and helps to block out other sounds, screens, and activities nearby. The partition also serves to slow down the flow of visitor traffic throughout the circular gallery space. Paused, my attention was drawn the interactive. Ahead of it stands a large, spiraling sculpture made of law-related books, which speaks to the subject of the interactive. I also interpreted it to suggest the vast, twisting and often convoluted nature of the law making process.
|Stars and Stripes Forever.|
|Puppets! All of you!|
Their voices are also very melodramatic; whiny and aggressive, not pleasing to the ear. One could view this entire presentation as a caricature of governmental leaders and processes. Users who may already take an “anti-government” stance could walk away feeling even more cynical. While it is intended to entertain, shouldn't the interactive also treat the legislative process with respect? After all, we’re talking about a museum that is seeking to honor and celebrate our country’s legal process and encourage citizen engagement, not mock it. On the other hand, perhaps this representation elicits meaningful conversation for visitors and allows for a critical discourse about systems of power. The choice word of "Machine" in the title suggests to me that this is an underlying intention on behalf of the museum.
There are many online resources that could help audiences of all ages to better understand the legislative process. I like this one for grade schoolers, and this slightly more complex chart for adults.
To read more about how museums can educate, provoke, and inspire through interactive experiences, check out Nina Simon's book, The Participatory Museum.
As it stands, the purpose of this object is to engage visitors, however a few elements could be added to extend the learning beyond the museum walls. For instance, visitors could have the option to email specific content to themselves, or type or record comments during the debate. In addition to voting on the bill, some visitors might enjoy being able to express their ideas and reactions.
In the midst of a sensory overloaded moment, I was generally relieved to discover The Law Making Machine. It is informative, slightly provocative and a little fun.