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Description Itinerary Playhouse Playful Approaches Issues in Play

Invention at Play
3,500-square-foot version

Invention at Play was awarded a 2003 Excellence in Exhibition Award, one of only five issued nationally. Invention at Play also received a separate MUSE Gold Medal Award for its companion Web site. Both awards are issued annually by professional committees of the American Association of Museums.

Invention at Play: Sailboard Simulator
Invention at Play: Sailboard Simulator
Smithsonian photo by Terry McCrea

This exhibition brings a fresh perspective to the topic of invention, exploring the marked similarities between the ways children play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology. In 3,500 – 4,000 square feet of inventors' stories, videos, artifacts, and interactive experiences, the exhibition provides visitors with opportunities to:

  • Learn how play fosters creative talents among children as well as adults;
  • Experience their own playful and inventive abilities; and
  • Understand how children's play parallels processes used by inventors.

Invention at Play departs from the traditional representation of inventors as extraordinary geniuses who are not "like us" to celebrate the creative skills and processes that are familiar and accessible to all people. The exhibition was developed by the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. The exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of The Lemelson Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Artifacts are on loan from the National Museum of American History, inventors, and other organizations.

Invention at Play features three main areas:
  • The Invention Playhouse, where visitors of all ages can engage in four types of play that foster inventive thinking: exploration /tinkering; make-believe/visual thinking; social play/collaboration; and puzzle play/problem solving.
  • Playful Approaches to Invention, offering textual narratives, interactive devices, and artifacts that support explorations of the many ways inventors have used playful activities and skills in their work. Five main inventors are featured, clustered with abbreviated stories about a wide variety of other innovators who have used similar creative techniques.
  • Issues in Play – Past, Present, and Future: What kinds of toys did inventors play with as children? Is the quality and quantity of children's play changing? How do new technologies affect children at play? This area, with its artifacts, videos, and experimental playthings from the MIT Media Lab, encourages visitors to reflect upon these and other questions concerning the history and future of play.
Invention at Play: Tesselation Puzzles
Invention at Play: Tesselation Puzzles
Smithsonian photo by Terry McCrea
Educational Materials and Programs A series of educational programs designed to complement the Invention at Play exhibition are documented in a manual provided to each host museum, with information on program formats and content, sources for materials, and event logistics. As the exhibition travels, Lemelson Center staff will visit each site to assist with program planning and staff/volunteer training. The Center will also make available for each site a trainer and materials for a teacher workshop.

Other educational materials and programs include:

  • An Educators Manual for teachers and students in the classroom or home school.
  • A family guide containing exhibit-related activities and invention resources for parents and other caregivers to take home.
  • A play with scripts and props.

    Invention at Play Invention at Play Online

Artifacts and Interactive Components Invention at Play features more than 25 artifacts from the National Museum of American History collections, including 19th-century patent models of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and Samuel Morse's telegraph, Newman Darby's original sail and prototype sailboard, and an array of historic and contemporary toys. Additional artifacts from individual inventors and relevant companies are also presented. The exhibition engages visitors in approximately 13 hands-on and whole-body interactive experiences, including a sailboard simulator, a Kevlar testing station, digital playthings, and the Invention Playhouse activities described above. 4 videos are interspersed throughout the exhibition.

Requirements Cost Shipping
  • The exhibition occupies approximately 3,500-4,000 square feet
  • Ceiling height minimum 12 feet
  • A minimum of two interpretive staff persons during open hours
  • Windows blocked or shaded to prevent damage to artifacts
  • Security requirements include, but may not be limited to the following:
    • Enclosed, limited access gallery space that can be secured when not in use;
    • Locked, environmentally stable staging area;
    • Security personnel assigned to exhibition during time exhibition is open to the public;
    • Alarm or guard surveillance during hours when exhibition is closed; and
    • 24-hour fire detection and suppression systems and temperature, humidity, and light controls for display, staging, and storage areas.
$75,000 member;
$80,000 nonmember
for a 12-week booking
Four vans


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