The Carnegie Museum of Art's Volcanic Magma: Lava It or Leave It

The Carnegie Museum of Art’s Volcanic Magma: Lava It or Leave It (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)


Recently the family attended the Tiffany exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. My wife went on ahead with our preschooler, while I let Peter take in the exhibit at his own pace. I had him read all the display copy out loud. Some of it was unnecessarily flowery and complex, so I supplied him with a simultaneous real-time translation from museum-copy-speak to bright-but-short-attention-span-gradeschool-speak.

I initially noticed this particular passage because of the redundancy of “volcanic magma.” Was it really necessary to use the adjective “volcanic”? Perhaps the curators felt that the public wouldn’t recognize the word “magma” by itself, but then why not just use “lava”? But then another thought occurred to me.

“Peter,” I said. “What’s the difference between ‘magma’ and ‘lava’?”

“Magma is volcanic rock beneath the surface. Lava is magma that has burst through to the surface,” he says.

“Which is more likely? that Mr. Tiffany saw lava, or that he saw magma?”

“Lava, definitely,” says Peter. Then his imagination takes off. “Unless he had some kind of volcanic scuba gear with goggles that lets him see molten rock beneath a volcano. It could have diamond lenses and a super-strong titanium hull!”

After Peter describes Louis Comfort Tiffany putting together an expedition to the volcanic underworld so seek inspiration for stained glass designs (I’ve got to introduce this boy to steampunk, or at least Jules Verne), I stop a tour guide ask Peter to explain the problem with the sign. She is impressed, and stays to chat for a while.

I enjoyed that so much that I find another employee, and ask Peter a question that sets him off.

“Well, Patrick,” Peter begins, reading the employee’s nametag, and launching into a very animated (and accurate) description of what’s wrong with the sign. He even remembers to say some nice things about the sign first, before offering his suggestions for improvement.

“Good job, Peter,” I say.

You’re the one who noticed it,” says Peter.

“Yes, but you answered correctly when I asked you about it.”

Peter gestures dramatically, his wide-eyed grin conjuring up the image of a cartoon light bulb above his head.”Ah! The Socratic method!”

Patrick looks at me, with that “is he for real” expression that I just love to see.

I affect nonchalance. “He’s home-schooled.”

(See also “Living Room Physics.”)