Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Exhibit Peeks into Wacky World of Rube Goldberg
Visitors can tinker with wacky inventions inspired by the beloved Rube Goldberg when a new exhibit opens at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Saturday.
For “Rube Goldberg: The World of Hilarious Invention!” — the first Rube-inspired interactive exhibit — the museum partnered with Jennifer George, the granddaughter of Goldberg and legacy director of the Heirs of Rube Goldberg Inc. in New York City.
“What makes something Rube Goldberg is the use of everyday objects as part of the chain reaction — not just a marble or domino run,” Ms. George said. “You put a group of normal, everyday items in an illogical sequence that happens to create a chain reaction from one piece to the next, and you string a narrative to it that’s funny. That is Rube Goldberg.”
The process began with Anne Fullenkamp, director of design at the Children’s Museum, meeting with a representative from Rube Goldberg Inc. at a museum convention, and, after more introductions, the exhibit was born.
“At the last visit I had I was almost speechless,” said Ms. George. “I couldn’t believe what they [had] done. They have amazingly creative [staff], and they had me looking at my grandfather’s work in a whole new light. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am.”
Reuben Garrett Goldberg, born in 1883, was an American engineer, cartoonist, sculptor and inventor. He graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in engineering. He had a natural affinity for drawing, and it led him to become a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and, later, the New York Evening Mail.
Some of his most famous drawings are in the series on Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, which featured many of his humorous machines. Rube Goldberg drew an estimated 50,000 cartoons in his lifetime, produced several short films and was awarded the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. The influence of his satirical illustrations is present in cartoon TV shows such as “Looney Tunes” and “Tom and Jerry” and by several artists today. He is the only person whose name (Rube Goldberg) is adopted as an adjective by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. He died in 1970.
“He was always the center of attention, and he always had everyone at the dinner table laughing, but I was a little too young to understand the jokes,” said Ms. George. “It was much later that I got to know my grandfather in a more substantive way so that I could take over the mantle, and I have been running all things Rube Goldberg [ever since].”
The exhibit has incorporated the old and new of Rube Goldberg’s legacy. The museum spent two years developing and deciding on the content of the exhibit and designed several machine prototypes.
“We have two visits [where] visitors test [prototypes],” said Ms. Fullenkamp. “That’s how we learn how [visitors] interact with them. We take all that [feedback] and apply it to design.”
Ms. George has paid tribute to her late grandfather with a children’s book she had published in 2017. There will be a Rube Goldberg machine inspired by that book, “Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day.” It is illustrated by Ed Steckley, whose work has been seen in Mad magazine and other publications.
“What I wanted was not just to celebrate Rube’s work but also reintroduce Rube to this generation, and that’s where Ed Steckley comes into play,” said Ms. George. “Having two working Rube Goldberg contraptions complemented by Ed’s contraption [brought Rube Goldberg] into the 21st century.”
The exhibit includes two machines replicated directly from Rube Goldberg’s cartoons. In addition, there is an art section where children can draw pictures inspired by Rube Goldberg cartoons. The art gallery will feature art created by Mr. Steckley.
On the video wall there are six monitors cycling through artists building Rube-inspired contraptions, and there are additional videos created by Rube Goldberg Inc. Children are encouraged to submit their own videos as well.
“There is a marvelous, kinetic chain reaction of hilariousness that kids and adults [love] about my grandfather’s cartoons,” says Ms. George. “Hopefully [this will give kids] a window into organic thinking that is sometimes lost when everything that kids seem to do has them gravitating towards a screen.”
After it premieres in Pittsburgh, the exhibit will travel to the Children’s Museum in St. Paul, Minn. Other potential venues include Chicago, Boston, California, Texas and Arkansas.
Presented by PPG, the exhibit is locally sponsored by PAcyber with underwriting from the Fisher Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.