Dogs guard sheep grazing in a meadow, while the shepherd’s cart looks into the distance. Elsewhere, a Lakota teepee shelters a young family traveling across the high plains, insulating them from harsh winds. Since the earliest days, mankind has sought shelter from the elements. Eventually these would turn from caves to huts, shacks to houses, a safe place to raise families and livestock.
Following this journey – from the earliest days of the Front Range indigenous peoples like the Ute, Lakota and Arapaho, to the colonizers and settlers of the United States – can be awe-inspiring. Even in Boulder County, trails like Lion’s Gulch lead to the ruins of farmhouses dating back to the late 1800s. kilometers from the sedentary world.
Although the process of building a house has changed significantly over the past millennia, the idea remains simple at its core. Walls and a roof to protect from the elements, windows to let in the light. Access to nearby water and food may be easier, with city plumbing and a variety of grocery stores, but needs remain.
Taking a hands-on approach, Longmont Museum’s latest exhibit explores the history of homes, from Lakota tipis and early shepherd’s carts, to more modern and efficient tiny homes. With an appropriate title—Teepee at Tiny House: construction of a practical house—the exhibition fills the gallery with a variety of opportunities to explore what it takes to make a home.
“It’s nice to have a hands-on exhibit again, because we’ve taken them on a sabbatical during COVID, so it’s nice to see the kids back in the gallery,” says Jared Thompson, curator of exhibits at the Longmont Museum. “Everything was designed and made here at the museum.”
The entrance to the gallery invites visitors to explore, giving children and adults alike a tactile experience with architecture and education. Visitors are encouraged to sit inside a teepee or shepherd’s cart and experience for themselves what life might have been like.
“You could read about it, but here you can actually walk in and see what it’s like,” Thompson says. “It answers so many questions without just reading about it, like how they slept or ate.”
The layout of the gallery floor is roughly chronological, says Thompson. The shepherd’s cart dates back to the early 19th century, inspired by the Basques who came from Europe during the gold rush. When that didn’t quite work out, he says, the settlers would return to a life of sheep herding that was familiar to them.
The teepee was built from Lakota designs, Thompson says, under the guidance and guidance of Native American Cultural Advisor for Denver Public Schools and Lakota member Steven LaPointe. Thompson and the museum’s exhibit design team practiced building and dismantling the teepee over and over until LaPointe was satisfied, he says.
“He showed us how to set it up and walked us through it,” says Thompson. “We probably installed it eight or nine times.”
“Steven works a lot with young people in the Native American community and outside,” says Brack Lee, exhibit technician at the museum. “He would time the middle schoolers setting up these life-size teepees, then compare our times and tell us how much faster the middle schoolers were.”
Details include the oval shape that functions as a windbreak, says Thompson, with layers inside that maintain airflow. The size of the teepee in the gallery is representative of what a young, first-time couple would have, adds Lee.
“We learned from Steven that usually a young woman would get a little teepee when she was of age,” Lee explains. “They would increase the size of the tipi from bottom to top, adding more material as the family grew.”
Entering more modern times, visitors have the opportunity to build a log cabin resembling the more permanent structures of early European and American settlers.
Rather than something like the Lincoln Log children’s toy, the museum’s exhibit designers actually fashioned foam pool noodles using the museum’s workshop. The log cabin can be completely built and shaped by visitors from scratch, says Thompson. Using foam helps keep materials lightweight for children, while preventing unfortunate injuries from structural collapse.
Nearby, another interactive element distills the purest form of building most kids start out on – the pillow fort. Rather than using real couch cushions, Education Museum curator Ann Macca found pieces of durable, easily washable foam from Foamnasium, says Thompson.
“The concept was that a lot of kids’ first introduction to building a structure is there with materials in their house,” says Lee.
A small house stands in the corner of the gallery, overlooking the pillow fort arena. The house was built to scale by museum staff, Thompson says, with a visit from code enforcement to give final approval. SimBLISScity Homes in Lyon provided advice on the tiny house, he explains.
The 22-foot-long house includes sleeping quarters, composting toilets and a specific location for kitchen appliances. Thompson and staff began construction in 2019 when the exhibit was originally conceived, designing it to disassemble into pieces for easy storage.
More interactive components fill the space, including dollhouse-sized depictions of a log cabin and a more modern-style house to help visitors understand scale and size in relation to the modern furniture. Inspired by the story of the Three Little Pigs, Lee says, a wind tunnel shows visitors how a variety of materials and substrates can hold themselves up (or fall) under the weight of strong gusts. Next to it, a hot box shows the impact of insulation on temperature control.
The exhibition is complemented by a set of LEGO-like pieces from Irish company ArtKit, encouraging visitors to build their own intricate architectural marvels. The parts are actually used by some design and architecture firms to build scale models and prototypes, Lee says.
“It was quite popular. We were worried it would be too complex for our visitors, but we found some really great creations,” adds Thompson.
Joan Harrold, marketing manager at the Longmont Museum, says presenting high-quality exhibits, whether it’s house building, the papercraft exhibit that preceded it, or world-class artists like Degas and Ansel Adams, is a driving force behind curatorial personnel like Thompson and Macca.
“To be able to do this in Longmont, so people can bring their kids without having to drive to Denver, it’s really a backyard access experience,” Harrold says.
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