Louisiana Children’s Museum: Where Learning, Music and Play Meet

Known as the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans is a city where music can be heard on every street corner. Along with gospel and marching bands, the city now boasts outdoor musical instruments in the newly built Louisiana Children’s Museum.

Once situated in a trendy urban warehouse district, the museum moved in 2019 to an 8.5-acre site in New Orleans City Park, which includes the city’s Botanical Garden and Arboretum. Today, the museum embraces its natural surroundings with an outside space designed to be a social, cultural, and learning resource for children and families.

Reflecting the museum’s landscape and with a nod to the city’s musical heritage, the museum has installed Percussion Play’s outdoor instruments that are inspired by nature. The handmade instruments are designed to be played outside and are suitable for heavy-use environments such as children’s museums.

The Museum building sits next to a lagoon, and water is a theme throughout the landscape. Rainwater is captured in a large cistern adjacent to the main building that feeds into a runnel ending on round steppingstones in the garden. Children and adults enjoy navigating the gentle flow of water, surrounded by an area with three large oak trees called the Toddler Landscape. This area includes a circular sandbox and a weaving loom and provides well-needed shade in the Summer months. Circular shapes are repeated in the design of the play areas, particularly in the music-making areas of the museum.

The museum worked with the landscape architect Tim Phillips, the owner, and principal at Gyroscope, Inc., an award-winning museum planning, architecture, and exhibit design studio. Tim wanted to bring music to the space for many reasons, including New Orleans' rich history of communities gathering around music.

Tim says, "Collaborative music-making always creates an energy and brings joy. Being able to discover it in the museum grounds just adds to the excitement." The perfect music-making spot is in the Music Hummock, designed as a glen with small trees dotted amongst 11 round Babel Drums. The stainless-steel tongue drums are a mixture of heights and sizes, which create a playful area for hide and seek, where children can dip and dive between the drums and trees. Mallets attached to the drums' sides help young children easily create mellow tones, whereas older children can learn to play the drums by striking with their fingers.

With pentatonic tuning, the drums can be played by many children all at once, producing a harmonious sound. The drums in the Music Hummock are both an attraction to explore deeper into the landscape (by hearing the music) and a delightful surprise to find beautiful instruments hidden in a kid-sized forest.

Tim chose Percussion Play's Babel Drums for several reasons. He says, "Firstly, they have a gentle yet beautiful sound, which is crucial as they are heard throughout the landscape. Secondly, they are a great musical leveler, encouraging musicians and novices of any age to play together. Thirdly, they are locked into the pentatonic scale, meaning any note at any time sounds good. And finally, they have a great aesthetic." Lola Hemard is the Museum's Arts and Culture Director, who focuses on bringing the arts outside. She says, "I love the placement of the drums in this forest glen- you can really feel like you're in a cozy, safe woodland. The design features seamlessly into the garden, and the surface of the drums reflects the light. It's a really special place for children of all ages, and with the drums at different heights, we see intergenerational play here, too, with parents and caregivers joining in".

Tim echoes Lola's comments: "We love how each drum reflects the sky and surroundings - they appear like little trees themselves in the hummock."

This type of collective music-making can build a sense of belonging. At Louisiana's Children's Museum, this is strengthened by the museum periodically inviting local drummers to join and create music. The Babel drums have brought the traditions of drum circles and the City's Congo Square to the museum.

Now joining the drums are the Cattail Chimes and Liberty Bells, which are from the Inspired by Nature range. The Cattails, also known as reeds or bullrushes, are instantly recognizable as slender marsh plants with tall stems and dark brown velvety heads. Stainless-steel' stems' support the six light bronze cylindrical anodized aluminum chimes, which produce tranquil and harmonic sounds when struck with small soft green mallets.

Reminiscent of small grassland mushrooms, the Liberty Bells are located next to the Cattails near the Cloud Grasses at the museum. Set just across from the Music Hummock, the aluminum musical bells are tuned to the pentatonic c-major scale and 'sing' when struck with the attached mallets. The caps of the 'mushrooms' are powder-coated in bright colors and attached to the wiggly-shaped stainless steel 'stems,' positioned at different heights and angles. Set side by side, both the Cattails and Liberty Bells can be played while overlooking the lagoon.

Reflecting on the project, Tim says working with Percussion Play on the Music Hummock was easy. He says, "Communication was clear, and the website was very helpful with high-quality videos to make the process of choosing the right instruments straightforward."