Making Magic: Catalyzing creativity at the Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art

There’s something oddly soothing about the harmonograph at the Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art (RIMOSA). For the uninitiated (which included me, until my visit), a harmonograph uses mechanical arms attached to pendulums to control the movements of a pen. You clamp the pen in place, swing the pendulums, drop pen to paper like a record needle, and watch while the machine draws mesmerizing geometric patterns.

“They come out differently every time,” Bonnie Epstein told me, as I watched the pen’s hypnotic motions. You don’t need to understand the physics at work (I didn’t), or know what a Lissajous curve is (I still don’t) to be engrossed by the harmonograph. But after drawing your second or third (or fourth) intricate design, you might begin to wonder.

Epstein is RIMOSA’s founder and acting executive director, and she graciously showed me around their sunny Westminster Street space, despite ongoing construction (the renovated museum is set to reopen September 19). As I explored the space, she explained to me the three criteria for a RIMOSA exhibit: “It should be hands on, it should be open-ended and it should be a catalyst for future learning.”

The exhibits show how science and art intermingle and coalesce; current exhibits include a flight tube, a stop-motion animation station, a spinning sand art table and a crank-operated wooden wave. Epstein pulled up the slats of the wave to show me its wooden guts. “We call our docents ‘permission givers,’” she said. “If a kid wants to take this apart to see how it works, we let them know they can do that.”

Many of RIMOSA’s exhibits are mobile, perched on platforms painted a Wonkaesque blend of lavender, lime and light blue (“We wanted it to look like a stage set,” Epstein told me). When the museum was founded in 2010, it consisted entirely of these rolling activity stations, which popped up at libraries, schools and local festivals. “We always wanted a physical space,” Epstein said, but in the lean, post-crash years, funding was harder to raise. For seven years, the museum was strictly a traveling show. Now they have a place to call their own.

RIMOSA still travels around the state, running educational programming as well as professional development for teachers. The museum targets middle schoolers in particular, but runs programming for elementary and high school students as well. They also ran an adults night recently, with plans for another later in the year. “We really want to be a resource for the community,” Esptein told me (a native to the Boston area, she has what she called “the pride of the convert” for Providence). With a low ticket
price and an average stay of two hours, this fresh and funky museum is well worth the price of admission.

For information on RIMOSA, go to