In Bellingham, WA, there’s a fascinating place called Mindport.
It’s a little like an art gallery full of beautifully crafted exhibits… but unlike art galleries, you get to touch and interact with everything! It’s a little like a children’s museum where children are welcomed and can explore and play with everything… but the exhibits are intriguing enough that all the adults in the room were as engaged as the kids. It’s like a science museum with exhibits that illustrate scientific concepts – and binders that explain the details… but it’s prettier, and somehow more soothing and meditative, than any science museum I’ve been in.
Here’s how their website defines what they are:
MINDPORT (mind port) n.: 1. a museum of phenomena; 2.) a provocative blend of art and interactive exhibits; 3.) a place to spark your awareness and stimulate your thinking; 4.) a place to play and to observe.
Before going to Mindport, I read a review that said “everything about them is amazing… except their website.” I have to agree. The website only includes brief descriptions of a few of the exhibits, and a brief description of “what are we” is buried way down in the blog archives. Not enough to give you a good sense of what to expect. So, I’m going to give some detailed descriptions here of the experience and some of the exhibits, then offer a few more photos as “teasers” of what else you’ll discover here.
Mindport is in downtown Bellingham, WA. It’s in a retail storefront space, about the size of two typical stores, so not huge. Admission is only $2. There are lots of restaurants and other museums within walking distance. It was fairly busy for the first hour or two we were there (on July 3), but never crowded and never loud. By the end of our time there (mid-afternoon), we were the only family, and had some nice chats with a very friendly and helpful docent, and our son got to play the pipe organ, which they ask that only skilled musicians play when it’s crowded, as you can hear it throughout the museum.
The first exhibit we came to (#1 in the photos above) was the deep sea divers. Pump a hand bulb and plastic divers descend down the tube toward you. Stop pumping, and they pop back up to the surface. Our four year old had a hard time pumping effectively, but a 6 year old did great. They both liked seeing the divers come down.
They had a ball wall (#2). As people who frequent children’s museums and science museums across the country, we are connoisseurs of ball walls, also known as marble runs. (For ideas on how to build your own, check out my post here.) I really liked this peg board system, and all the different sizes of tracks available (notice the rack to the left with all the tracks organized and ready to use.) It was very adjustable and we found lots of fun ways to build it then re-engineer it. (Which is why I love ball walls. I think they’re a fabulous way to teach your child the engineering method: build something – test it – adjust it so it works – test it – adjust it again to make it even better – test it again. Read my post here on how willingness to fail and try again is a key to success.) Only downside – they only had three marbles. I understand not having too many, because then kids don’t chase them down when they escape the ball run and other people step on them. But 5 would be nice so me and a couple kids could play at the same time.
The Aerotrack (#3) allows you to put a ball in a pneumatic tube, then air shoots it along a track and returns it to you. You can choose three tracks. One is very short and very fast. One takes the ball all the way up to ceiling height, then around several loops before returning it to you. My engineering-minded husband enjoyed figuring out where the switching point was and how it changed which track it went on. (I won’t tell you – we’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.) This was one of our son’s favorite exhibits. The museum was small enough and mellow enough that we were able to leave him here playing while we explored other exhibits nearby, which I appreciated. (Unlike other times where I’ve been stuck at a ball wall or other exhibit for an hour while he played and I read Facebook on my phone… I mean, I like playing with him at an exhibit and all… but this boy has a LONG attention span and a greater joy in repetition than I apparently have…)
#4 is the Diabalique, a table that you tilt side to side to run balls through a maze. Read a short article on it here, or watch the “Making of” video.
#5 is “Burl Ives”, a piece of burl wood that when you rock it gently from side to side, it plays musical tones. So hard to explain – I wish I’d made a video, but very intriguing to play with, probably even more so for a very musically oriented person.
#6 and 7 are the Pneumatic Ping Pong. The majority of the exhibits have signs that explain how they work and binders that talk about either the design process or the scientific principles. The sign on this one says “Note: we only added instructions here because a visitor asked why there weren’t any. Please feel free to pretend there still aren’t. 1. Press the on button. 2. Play.” Here’s a brief video:
Playing with lightweight objects floating on air currents is just an on-going source of fun for kids (and yes, for me). We’ve built a wind tube (see more here), and what I call a “scarf poof” – like all those exhibits at children’s museums where you feed a scarf into a tube, and the air shoots it through and out the other end. (Some day I’ll write a blog post on how we built this…. it’s still a work in progress in our tinkering process.) And now this pneumatic ping pong is on my list of possible future projects…
This next video shows an exhibit with 100 compasses mounted on a lazy susan with a magnet suspended above… watch how the compass needles respond to the magnet:
This video shows a marble elevator. You turn the crank and the marbles go uphill, then roll down ramps. Like so many other exhibits, this and the compass exhibit show the melding between beautiful art – their woodworking is fabulous – and interactive experience.
But wait… there’s more.
They do have plenty of art on the walls, like GIANT TASKS / tiny people, which are quite nice. I’m a very kinesthetic, non-visual person, so I confess that I spent more time with the hands-on interactive items.
The joy of this place is when you see something and think: “that doesn’t look like much of anything”, your next thought is “hmmm…. maybe I should interact with it and see what it does.” On the left below, you’ll see a table that’s perfectly lovely, but a bit dull. But then when you spin it, you see wave patterns form inside it – see middle photo – you can click on the photos to see them full screen. (On their blog, Swirl is “a stand-alone sculpture featuring rheoscopic fluid under glass, [which] evokes air and ocean currents.”)
There’s also a picture with colored glass tiles in it, which again is lovely enough, but a little dull. But the video shows what happens when you wave a hand in front of it.
Here’s some more photos of other exhibits to inspire you to travel up to learn what they do! (Click on the pictures to see a full screen version.)
There are more details about some of their exhibits in their blog archives: http://mindportexhibits.blogspot.com/, which also include some interesting long articles on the nature of things like science education (STEAHM… putting the Arts and Humanities into STEP education) and insights into the training and mindset of a tinkerer / inventor / maker: director Kevin Jones.
I enjoyed the place so much, I wanted to give them more money on the way out, but they didn’t have a donations box. When I got home, I looked at their website for a “donate here” button, but they didn’t have one. I did find a note in their blog archives that they are not a registered non-profit. But I would still be happy to contribute more to their work, and would suggest that they offer an easy opportunity to pay more than $2. I don’t know how many people would do it, but there’s probably other “crazy” people like me who would.
The trip to Bellingham
Overall, it’s a nice day-trip from the Seattle area. It’s well worth the 80 minute drive we did from Kirkland. It’s not an “all day” activity. Our family spent a little over two hours there and were actively engaged the whole time, but had explored it all by the end of that time. But since it’s so cheap, even if you just dropped by for an hour, there’s plenty more to explore in downtown Bellingham. I’d recommend it for children and adults, and particularly for students of my Family Inventors class. (Note: it’s great for age 4 on up. 3 year olds would likely do OK, but probably not worth a road trip if you have a toddler)
MIndport doesn’t open till noon on Fridays (and isn’t open at all on Mondays and Tuesdays, FYI), so we had a lunch beforehand at Mount Bakery a block away. The brie, apple, and pear crepe was fabulous, and they had great service. Our waitress saw that our son was really hungry, and brought his food out early, but held it up high where he couldn’t see and mouthed to us: “OK to give this to him now?” I appreciated having the chance to give the idea a thumbs up.
After Mindport, we stopped by the Comics Place, across the street, and picked up a comic book for our son to read in the car on the way home. There’s also lots of used book stores nearby, if you prefer.
On our next road trip to Bellingham, we look forward to a quiet morning exploring the FIG (Family Interactive Gallery) at Whatcom Museum, then a loud and exciting afternoon at the MegaZapper electrical show at the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention – only held on Saturdays and Sundays. (We LOVE the Theater of Electricity at the Boston Museum of Science.) We also plan to return to Mindport someday – I want to play with the ball wall some more!