Woodmere’s straw maze reimagined with pandemic safety in mind

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Among the letters I most enjoy receiving are those from children asking when Woodmere’s annual straw maze will be opening. These special communications — sometimes accompanied by a happy photograph or drawing — are a sign to me that the museum is doing its job, offering creative, fun, smart experiences that make a positive difference in our visitors’ lives.

However, as with everything else we were accustomed to prior to March 2020, Woodmere has had to assess whether the straw maze would be possible this year. At first glance, it seemed wrong for the era of COVID-19: a massive climbing sculpture that encourages children and families to interact in a way that is, by its nature, uncontrolled.

But the restrictions we’re living under spurred us to think creatively. Rather than disappoint our youngest friends, this year we will present a different kind of experience with our beloved bales, one that we’re calling “A Straw Journey.” Responding in shape and configuration to each of our major outdoor sculptures, The Straw Journey offers a self-guided tour of our grounds for families or for small “pods” of children and teachers. For example, the upward reach of gnarled tendrils in Steve Tobin’s “Alter Root” represents the wild force of nature, so dense with energy as to be impenetrable; this will be offset by a flat, wall-like pattern of bales that emphasizes the sculpture’s open volume, and at the same time is suitable for crawling and climbing.

I’ve written before about Woodmere’s Outdoor Wonder, an experience of art, nature and education on our grounds. In the parlance of education theory, The Straw Journey falls under the umbrella of “playful learning,” the notion that—outside of classroom time—children’s preparedness for life is shaped by experiences that mold not only their minds, but also their relationship to others and to social institutions. Every year, when I’ve watched the activity at the straw maze and seen boys and girls climbing over bales or leaping across space, I see tangible evidence of our young visitors becoming comfortable with museums and growing into an adulthood that includes the beauty and creativity of the arts.

The Straw Journey will be designed by Peter Brown and Barbara Sprague, of BrownSprague architects, who has been Woodmere’s partner in straw for many years. The Straw Journey will be unticketed and free with a suggested contribution of any amount. The projected opening date is late September—we’ll announce the exact date soon. We hope you will join us!

William Valerio is the director of the Woodmere Art Museum.

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