Impact Spotlights

The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center: 20 Years of Helping Kids – and Their Parents – See Themselves as Inventors

November 20, 2015

Over the summer, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History celebrated the opening of the new Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation. The Hall explores the role of invention in the United States, through hands-on activities, informative exhibits, and collaboration. In just a few months since its opening, the Hall is abuzz with the excitement of young and old would-be inventors.

The new Hall is the first permanent public home of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention, and its opening showcases a 20-year partnership between The Lemelson Foundation and the Smithsonian. The alliance was forged in 1995 when Jerry and Dorothy Lemelson approached the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, about an exhibition space that would increase the public’s understanding of invention and its power to effect change in our lives and communities.

From those early conversations, the Lemelson Center was born. Over the course of the next two decades, it would become the nation’s leading resource for the study of the history of invention and innovation.

Casting Inventors as Real-life Heroes

The Lemelsons and the Lemelson Center shared a belief in the power of invention to change lives and shape history. Founding director of the Lemelson Center, Art Molella described the Lemelsons as a true partner that has always been willing to experiment and try fresh approaches. “The Lemelson family were very concerned with invention’s moment of discovery. There are not many places that promote this, but Jerry Lemelson was engaged in this process all the time. He knew this was very important,” he explained.

Building on this partnership, the Lemelson Center has developed an array of programs that bring together diverse audiences – historians, museum professionals, inventors, and the general public – to learn about invention and its role in American history. The Center contributes to knowledge about this subject through scholarly research, publications, and a book series with MIT Press. They work with other museum curators and archivists to identify objects and collect archival materials for national collections. The Center also showcases research in exhibitions, scholarly programs, and conferences, and awards internships and fellowships to encourage the next generation of invention historians.

Beyond scholarship, the Center’s bigger goal is to help visitors self-identify as inventive thinkers and problem-solvers. Exhibits focus on a broad range of inventors, and explore their motivations and the abilities that made them successful. The idea is to both celebrate the amazing achievements of inventors, and to make them accessible so that visitors see their own capacities to reason, create, and be inventive.

“The Center has fulfilled Jerry’s and Dolly’s vision to popularize inventors as real-life heroes. Both inside the Center and beyond its physical wall, our partners at the Smithsonian inspire people every day to think creatively about problem-solving, and ultimately, to become inventors,” explained David Coronado, a program officer for the Foundation.

Sparking Invention Inspiration

Spark!Lab at the Lemelson Hall for Invention and Innovation

Spark!Lab, which initially opened in late 2008 and reopened last summer after a redesign and remodel of the space, is the Center’s flagship educational program. It is a hands-on invention workspace for children ages 6-12 and their families to experiment and explore – where “play” is considered a central part of “work,” and failed approaches are viewed as building blocks towards success. Mentors are available for guidance and inspiration when necessary, but youth are encouraged to try things for themselves.

The central Spark!Lab experience is the Hub, an area stocked with a wide range of tools and materials where visitors sketch, create, try, and tweak their invention ideas. Visitors to the Hub can work through the invention process from start to finish and create a prototype solution in response to a challenge. All of this together makes for a place where young people can push the boundaries of innovation.

Jeffrey Brodie, Deputy Director of the Lemelson Center  describes Spark!Lab as a place for kids to get “A sense of freedom to think, experiment, fail, and goof up. We want to generate joy in this space, and help visitors know that everyone is inventive in their lives.” Unlike traditional science centers that focus on directed experiments for specific outcomes, Spark!Lab emphasizes the invention process: identifying a problem to be solved, and being open to a variety of solutions.  

Spark!Lab has been so successful that the Smithsonian has now taken the concept on the road, working with a national network of local museum professionals to create satellite Spark!Labs in cities across the U.S., including Reno, NV and Anchorage, AK, as well as temporary installations in Kiev, Ukraine and Gurgaon, India. To date, Spark!Lab has been taken to 12 communities in three countries, inspiring more than 1.5 million visitors.  

Looking to the Future

In August 2015, the Smithsonian announced that Arthur Daemmerich, a leading scholar in science and technology was appointed as the Director of the Lemelson Center, following founding director Art Molella moving to an emeritus role with the museum

Places of Invention

One of the exhibits in the new Lemelson Hall, Places of Invention, examines six American invention hotspots across the country and throughout history – ranging from Hartford, CT in the late 1800s to Fort Collins, CO in the present day. Visitors to the exhibit discover the stories of people who lived, worked, took risks, solved problems, and often failed many times before succeeding, all in the pursuit of the new.

One example is an eastern swath of Minnesota – encompassing Duluth, the Twin Cities, and Rochester – that became known as “Medical Alley” in the 1950s. Medical Alley was the site of the first U.S. hospital devoted to heart patients, which opened in 1951. Breakthrough inventions developed at the Variety Club Heart Hospital, part of the University of Minnesota, included the external transistorized pacemaker and ways to keep oxygen-rich blood circulating in a patient during open-heart surgery. The university also became an incubator for medical-device companies.

Learn more about the exhibit here.

Most recently, Daemmrich was an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in the Department of History and Philosophy of Medicine, where his research included historical and comparative studies of healthcare systems, pharmaceutical regulation and innovation, and chemical testing policies in the United States and European Union. His past experience includes faculty positions at Harvard Business School and the China Europe International Business School as well as being the founding director of the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

“Innovation is one of the few great unifying forces of the present era, and the Lemelson Center creates exciting exhibits and educational programs based on its engagement with leading scholars on the topic,” Daemmrich said. “We will continue to celebrate independent inventors, analyze factors that enable sustained innovation and inspire the next generation.”

Daemmrich keeps the spotlight on invention and innovation at the Smithsonian while identifying new exhibition and research initiatives and growing the center’s education programs, such as the annual New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium and the Spark!Lab National Network.

 “Invention and innovation have and will continue to play a significant role in American society,” said John Gray, director of the National Museum of American History. “The Lemelson Center has a stellar history of engaging the public with this important topic and we all look forward to working with Arthur on continuing those discussions. His remarkable expertise in the history of science and technology and proven track record of leadership certainly signals exciting work to come.”

In the spirit of this long-term partnership, the Lemelson Center and The Lemelson Foundation co-hosted joint 20th anniversary celebrations in September with two days of lessons and insights from inventors young and old, and showcases of life-improving innovations. The celebrations were infused with the original founding principles of both organizations: that invention can solve our world’s greatest problems while driving economic growth, and that the moment of discovery is extremely powerful.

What’s next for this 20-year partnership? That’s still in the works, but in good hands says Coronado: “This has been such a dynamic and exciting partnership for The Lemelson Foundation. The Lemelson Center continues to pave the way with activities and opportunities for kids and their parents to see how they can be inventive and see the phenomenal positive impact that inventors and inventive mindsets have had and continue to have both here in the US and across the globe.”