The signifiers of the season, for better or worse, include an onslaught of ads for holiday movies—as anyone with a television is aware. Hollywood is aiming to win children’s hearts and minds with a yellow, anthropomorphic Hasbro toy and the sugar-spun homilies of Mary Poppins. Is there any place, a parent might ask, that conjures the spell of wonderment without the artificial enhancements of special effects and product placements?
The current Exploratorium exhibit, Curious Contraptions: Inside the Fairy Tale Factory (on view through Jan. 20), displays a jaw-dropping collection of automata—that is, one-of-a-kind, handmade mechanical geegaws. Devised, designed and constructed by people whose talents encompass toy-making, puppeteering, sculpting and recycling, each piece achieves a kind of pinnacle of electricity-free art, inventiveness and interactivity. (If, like me, you need an image to fully grasp the concept, check out the delightful short video at the link above.)
You can readily see how automata are catnip for children of all ages, but especially for those who take their egg nog straight, no chaser. As a bonus, the Exploratorium has curated a Saturday Cinema program of very short films, Curious Creations, that provides a visual venture into other realms of automata as well as a sit-down break from the hands-on exhibit.
The films (which screen Dec. 8 and again on Jan. 12) traverse the mind-blowing breadth of human ingenuity, including chain-reaction machines rigged for a Japanese children’s TV show, kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson’s whimsical mechanisms, and a solar-powered contraption built in the 1950s by Charles and Ray Eames. If there’s a “product placement” for an Eames chair in that last one—and I’m not saying there is—would you complain?