On April 24, The New York Times published the article “When Life Felt Normal: Your Pre-Pandemic Moments” detailing what people missed most about their lives before the coronavirus forced them into quarantine. The answers were predictable: hugging friends, eating at restaurants, exercising at the gym, working in an actual office, going to the grocery store without a mask or gloves.
These things are nice, but they’re not what I miss most.
What I miss is jumping into ball pits at immersive art exhibits.
Over the past decade, with the creation and near ubiquity of Instagram, immersive experiences have been growing in popularity. Sometimes referred to as selfie factories, these exhibits are often pop-ups and occasionally travel from one city to another. Many of them contain a ball pit.
With Northern Virginia and Maryland currently in phase two of re-opening and the District scheduled to enter phase two on June 19, some normalcy has returned to the DMV. Gyms can open if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols. Bars may operate with diminished standing-room occupancy. But it will still be a while until anyone jumps into a ball pit.
In Washington, DC the National Building Museum was the pioneer of pop-up immersive experiences. It started during the Summer of 2013 with the Mini-Golf exhibition, which featured 18 holes designed by Washington-area architects. The mini-golf course was visually remarkable though not necessarily practical (imagine trying to hit a golf ball up a half-pipe or over terrain made from bumpy wooden blocks of varying heights).
The next year the National Building Museum created a life-size maze. The plywood structure spanned 60 feet long and wide and soared to 18 feet in height. It wasn’t until the following year, in 2015, when the National Building Museum’s pop-up exhibit became the must-do activity of the Summer for Washingtonians. The museum transformed its giant entrance hall into an indoor beach with an ocean made from 750,000 white plastic balls, brown carpet for sand, and lounge chairs complete with umbrellas. Though tickets were hard to come by, there was no shortage of pictures of people swimming in the ocean ball pit on social media.
After the popularity of the Beach, other museums in DC experimented with immersive exhibits. In late 2015 the Renwick Gallery opened Wonder. The exhibit’s central installation featured multi-color yarn stretched 25 feet high at an angle that made it look like a ray of light, almost as if you were seeing a rainbow. Another installation contained colorful fiber strung from the ceiling into massive, suspended sculptures. Pillows on the floor beckoned museum-goers to lie down and stare up at the imaginative designs.
Perhaps the most popular immersive exhibit ever to come to DC, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in early 2017. Although entrance to the museum is free, the exhibit was so popular that the museum had to offer timed passes. Each week a new batch of tickets became available on the museum’s website on Mondays at noon (and each week the museum’s website crashed due to high traffic). For the lucky people who made it into the exhibit, there were long lines in front of each of the six installations. Museum-goers were limited to 30 seconds inside each installation (which is ironic for an exhibit with the word infinity in the title). Hirshhorn staff stood outside of the installations with stop watches and herded crowds in and out every 30 seconds. Being inside of the mirrored installations felt like being inside of a kaleidoscope.
Beyond the six installations was the Obliteration Room. Before entering the Obliteration Room, you were handed a page of colorful dot stickers that you could place anywhere in the room. The room, which started out as white, was covered in hundreds of thousands of small dots. Everything—the walls, bookshelves, a piano, a typewriter—was covered in colorful stickers. Posting a picture of yourself in the Obliteration Room was a rite of passage for Washingtonians in 2017. A friend of mine who moved to DC shortly after Infinity Mirrors closed once asked me why every woman in DC on Bumble had a picture of herself in a strange room covered in stickers.
In addition to museums, community developments such as CityCenter have also gotten in on the immersive pop-up action, filling its courtyard with zoetropes, igloos, and a giant ice maze over the past three years.
In 2017 a permanent immersive art gallery opened in DC. Artechouse is filled with floor-to-ceiling projection screens. Exhibits rotate every few months. My favorite exhibit so far was In Peak Bloom. In this exhibit patrons drew pictures of leaves and then uploaded them to the digital instillation. You could see the leaf you drew floating across the walls around you. The projectors responded to motion. If you waved your arms, leaves would scatter across the screen. The technology also responded to sound. When you clapped your hands, lightening flashed across the screen and thunder boomed through the speakers. Artechouse has an augmented reality bar where you can download an app to your phone that brings your drinks to life. A second permanent interactive art experience, Meow Wolf, is planned to open in DC in 2022.
The traveling pop-up exhibit 29Rooms visited DC last year. Each of the 29 modular rooms offered a different immersive experience, including reading a stranger’s palm and exploring an upside-down place where the furniture was suspended from the ceiling.
For now, all immersive art exhibits are closed during the pandemic. The National Building Museum cancelled its summer plans to transform its entrance hall into a Shakespearean playhouse. But there are still immersive experiences available online and opportunities to create your own.
The immersive pop-up Happy Place recently launched a virtual tour of its previous home in Boston. Through your computer (and a little imagination) you can jump into a giant pot of gold–which is actually a ball pit filled with yellow balls–at the end of a rainbow.
A woman recently went viral on Facebook for posting a hilarious four-minute video of herself at home reenacting what it’s like to travel through an airport. With the help of a computer monitor for check-in, painted cardboard boxes that served as luggage scanners, and even an inflatable airplane on her driveway, she created her own immersive experience.
A friend of mine created her own winery tour from home. The first stop was Parkview Vineyards from her balcony overlooking a nearby park, followed by Northern Lights Wine Bar in front of a painting in her living room, then Jungle Vines Winery next to a large plant in her bedroom, and topped off with City Overlook Tasting Room from the roof of her apartment building.
I considered creating a ball pit in my apartment but quickly realized it’s not easy to secure hundreds of plastic balls during a pandemic. A colleague suggested that I turn my apartment into a museum. Depending on how long quarantine lasts, I might actually do it.
One traveling pop-up exhibit that is rumored to make it to DC post-pandemic is Candytopia, which features statues made entirely of candy. I’m also hoping that Saved by the Max (a re-creation of the diner the Max from the TV show Saved by the Bell) will eventually stop in DC.
I don’t know when the pandemic will end or when life will return to normal, but I do know that when it does, you can find me in a ball pit.
Paneled scaffolding up to 56 feet high that looked like glaciers had internal staircases that enabled people to climb to the top and ride a slide down to the bottom.
Domed structures up to 60 feet high resembled bee hives. Inside the hives museum-goers could experiment with drums and quasi-instruments made from household objects like vacuum cleaners to hear how the acoustic properties of each hive affect sound verberations.
2018: Fun House
A house with interactive activities in each room and a giant “swimming pool” ball pit in the backyard.
2019: The Lawn
Green AstroTurf was vaulted on top of scaffolding to look like a giant hill. There were large hammocks, and a soundtrack played the buzz of mosquitos. The museum even hosted “outdoor” movie nights.
About the Author: Aliza Epstein is a native of the Washington, DC area and currently lives in Arlington, VA. She works as a non-profit manager.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.