Tactile exhibition turns education into exploration

Hands-on homebuilding at the Longmont Museum

Tipi to Tiny Houses: A hands-on homebuilding exhibit at the Longmont museum.

Dogs guard sheep grazing in a meadow, while the shepherd’s wagon looks on in the distance. Elsewhere, a Lakota tipi provides shelter for a young family as they travel across the high plains, insulating them from blustering winds. Since the earliest days, humanity has sought shelter from the elements. Eventually those would turn from caves to huts, from cabins to houses, a safe place to raise families and livestock.

Tracking that journey—from the early days of indigenous people on the Front Range like the Ute, Lakota and Arapaho, to the colonizers and settlers of the United States—can be awe-inspiring. Even within Boulder County, trails like Lion’s Gulch lead to the ruins of homesteads dating back to the late 1800s. Those homes and old trails are a testament to perseverance, when one considers the resources required to create a home miles from the settled world.

Though 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 keep out the elements, windows to let the light in. Access to water and food nearby may be easier, with city plumbing and a variety of grocery stores, but the needs still remain.

Taking a hands-on approach, the Longmont Museum’s latest exhibition explores the history of homes—from Lakota tipis and those early shepherd’s wagons, all the way to the more modern and efficient tiny homes. With an appropriate title—Tipi to Tiny House: Hands-on Homebuilding—the exhibit fills the gallery with a variety of opportunities to explore what it takes to make a home.

“It’s good to have a hands-on exhibit again, because we took a sabbatical from them during COVID, so it’s good to see kids back in the gallery,” says Jared Thompson, curator of exhibits at the Longmont Museum. “It was all designed and fabricated here at the museum.”

The entrance to the gallery invites visitors into the exploration, giving children and adults alike a tactile experience with architecture and education. Visitors are encouraged to sit inside a tipi or shepherd’s wagon and discover for themselves what life could have been like.

MAENPAA Tipi to Tiny Houses: A hands-on homebuilding. Through Jan 8, 2023. Longmont Museum, 400 Quail Road, Longmont.

“You could read about it, but here you can actually go 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, Thompson explains. The shepherd’s wagon dates back to the turn of the 19th century, inspired by the Basque people who came over from Europe during the Gold Rush. When that didn’t quite pan out, he says, settlers would return to a life of sheep-raising they were familiar with.

The tipi was built from Lakota designs, Thompson says, under the advice and guidance of Native American Cultural Advisor for Denver Public Schools and Lakota member Steven LaPointe. Thompson and the exhibition design team at the museum practiced building and taking down the tipi repeatedly until LaPointe was satisfied, he says. 

“He showed us how to set it up and drilled us on it,” Thompson says. “We probably set it up eight or nine times.”

“Steven works a lot with youth in the Native American community and outside of it,” says museum exhibition technician Brack Lee. “He would time middle-school kids setting up these full-sized tipis, then compare our times and tell us how much faster the middle-school kids were.”

The details include the oval shape that functions as a windbreak, Thompson explains, with layers inside that keep air circulating. The size of the tipi in the gallery is representative of one a younger couple just starting out would have, Lee adds. 

“We learned from Steven that typically a young woman would be gifted a small tipi when she came of age,” Lee says. “They would increase the size of the tipi from the bottom up, by adding more material as the family grew bigger.”

Moving into more modern eras, visitors have the opportunity to construct a log cabin resembling the more permanent structures of European and early American settlers. 

Rather than something like the Lincoln Log children’s toy, the Museum exhibition designers actually milled foam pool noodles into shape utilizing the museum workshop. The log cabin can be totally constructed and shaped by the visitors from the ground up, Thompson says. Using foam keeps the materials light for children, as well as preventing any unfortunate injuries from structural collapse. 

Nearby, another interactive component distills the purest form of building most children start on—the pillow fort. Rather than using actual couch cushions, Ann Macca, museum curator of education, found pieces of durable and easily washable foam from Foamnasium, Thompson explains.

“The concept was that a lot of kids’ first introduction to building a structure is right there with materials in their home,” Lee says.

A tiny home stands in the corner of the gallery, overlooking the pillow fort arena. The home was built to scale by museum staff, Thompson says, complete with a visit from code enforcement to give the final approval. SimBLISScity Homes in Lyons provided consultation on the tiny home, he explains.

The 22-foot-long home includes sleeping quarters, a composting toilet and accurate placement for kitchen appliances. Thompson and the staff started construction on it in 2019, when the exhibition was originally conceived, designing it to come apart in pieces for easy storage. 

More interactive components fill the space, including doll-house sized representations of a log cabin and a more modern-style home to help visitors understand the scale and size in relation to modern furnishings. Inspired by the tale of the three little pigs, Lee explains, a wind tunnel shows visitors how a variety of materials and substrates can stand up (or fall down) under the brunt of heavy gusts. Next to it, a hot box demonstrates the impact of insulation on temperature control. 

Rounding out the exhibition is a set of LEGO-like pieces from Irish company ArtKit, encouraging visitors to build their own complex architectural wonders. The pieces are actually used by some design and architecture firms to build scale models and prototypes, Lee explains.

“It’s been pretty popular. We were concerned that it might be too complex for our visitors, but we’ve found some really great creations,” Thompson adds.

Longmont Museum Marketing Manager Joan Harrold explains that bringing in high-quality exhibitions, be it homebuilding, the papercraft exhibition that preceded it, or world-famous artists like Degas and Ansel Adams, is a driving force from the curatorial staff like Thompson and Macca.

“To be able to do that 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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