In front of a large green screen, a young girl wearing a shiny blue Cinderella costume accented with a bright red boa dances while singing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” into a microphone almost as big as her head. A teenager dances beside her wearing a multihorned alien mask that looks like something from Star Wars.
A teenaged boy, wearing a matching boa, plays wild air guitar on a red electric model. In front of them a single TV monitor reveals the words to the song karaoke style. A grid of eight TV sets projects their music video as it’s happening with a red velvet curtain and bright spotlights replacing the green screen. The group gets a copy of their music video on a DVD to take home.
This is Zeum (pronounced Zee Uhm, like the last 2 syllables of the word museum), an exciting multimedia museum that marries technology and creativity in the midst of San Francisco’s futuristic Yerba Buena development. Conveniently located next door to the Moscone Convention Center on Fourth and Howard, Zeum is refreshing alternative to traditional museums where you’re not allowed to touch.
On Halloween, 2008, Zeum celebrated it’s 10th birthday.
“This is an important milestone for Zeum, signifying our maturity from a start-up organization to one that is established and rooted in the Bay Area community,” said Audrey Yamamoto, CEO for Zeum, in a press release. “We are now well positioned to make the transition from being one of San Francisco’s best kept secrets to a top destination for youth and families of all communities.”
Kids from near and far love having the opportunity to bang on computers and actually play with video and audio equipment.
Zeum is a cross between a toy store and a production studio. It’s designed for kids to experiment with fancy electronics to discover new ways of creating art. In the Zeum world, a music video is considered art just as much as a traditional painting. A spiral hallway (stroller-and-wheelchair-friendly) winds its way around the museum, taking patrons from one from one floor to the next. On one side of the path are wall-to-ceiling windows and on the other side is an ad hoc gallery, showcasing special creations collected over the past 10 years.
One of the pieces in the spiral art gallery is a big frame with a picture of a tiny TV in the center of it and the words “How do you want to change TV?”.
Zeum is a playground for the directors, performers and sound engineers of the future. It offers them a wide open space to develop their own ideas about what entertainment should look like and shatters the mystery and inaccessibility of what they see when they watch and listen to current pop culture.
Kids of all ages and their parents both have fun. Ten year olds stare into a Macintosh computer for hours playing with its internal camera where they can manipulate the image with all sorts of weird effects like a fun house mirror circa 2008. They can stretch out their cheeks and turn their whole face purple. The fact that they don’t have to worry about accidentally breaking something is liberating for kids and parents.
A young girl cries at the entrance because her father is making her leave.
“We can come back,” he promises.
“Now, I want to stay and play,” she answers.
“I love Zeum,” Dallas Haynes IV says. The 18-year-old recent graduate of San Francisco’s McAteer High School of the Arts is a broadcast and film major at San Francisco City College. His face lights up when he says proudly, “That’s where I made my first claymation! It was great when I was a little kid.”
Technology has made amazing strides in the past 10 years. In 1998 iPods didn’t exist and flat screen TV’s were thousands of dollars. Everything now is smaller, sleeker, and generally more user friendly. The developments are made obvious while watching a tiny preschooler playing with some phones and televisions from the 1990s. They’re huge and bulky and make perfect toys.
As an homage to the merger of technology and art of yesteryear, Zeum owns a 100-year-old restored merry go round, that used to live at Playland At The Beach which was torn down in the 1970’s, is parked immediately outside. The round architecture of the concrete and glass building mirrors the shape of the lovingly restored carousel. The architecture matches the futuristic mood of Yerba Buena, only it’s brightly painted gold and orange.
Also outside is a creative take on a xylophone. A sculpture with a painted board on top adorned with bent pieces of metal has a stick tied to a rope to form a rustic xylophone. A father tries to get his kids to stop running the stick back and forth over the metal so that they can go inside and see the “real” exhibits.
A large winning attraction immediately is a circular room in the middle of the building with ceilings that reach the complete height of the museum. A huge maze is projected from the ceiling onto the floor in kid friendly colors of pink and purple. A virtual ball must be manipulated soccer style to a yellow star at the other side of the purple and pink lines on the floor.
The challenge is to avoid getting stuck on a dead end or letting the ball get sucked into a black pothole. The floor of the maze is slightly padded and tilts up and down to add difficulty to the task. A bunch of tweens must use teamwork to solve the puzzle even if they’ve never met before. The exhibit was built at the technology center of MIT.
In different rooms visitors can make their very own claymations, play with sound production equipment to compose a song, or sit and contort their faces with the Macintosh program photo booth for hours on end. Little kids can push buttons and pretend to talk on old fashioned pushbutton phones from the ‘80s.
The museum celebrates the joy and creativity that technology can add to children’s lives. It unravels the mysteries of animation and television production and lets the kids be the stars of their own productions. Kids spend so much time consuming multimedia diversions that it’s empowering for them to learn the creative process so that they a have more balanced relationship with media.
In ten years maybe they’ll be featuring flying machines and using iPhones as Frisbees.