creating with new technologies in art museums

Hacking Arts at MIT: Some Reflections

Last week has Hacking Arts, a three-day event held at MIT celebrating the intersection of all kinds of arts—from music and visual arts to virtual reality, TV, and games—and technology. In addition to a roster of panels with pioneers in their respective fields, we held a hackathon in which over 100 participants worked for 24 hours to produce a fantastic line-up of projects.

Hacking Arts music panel (photo by Nakul Jamadagni) 

I was one of the two co-leads for the hackathon portion, so I was able to witness all of the ideating, tinkering, designing, and building in the flesh. While Hacking Arts was not run by a museum, the kinds of projects created last weekend are the type you might see in a museum tech event. I’ve decided to share my experiences as a hackathon organizer here and reflect on how museums might (and do!) run their own hackathons.

But first things first: What is a hackathon?

Hackathons are intensive events, often spanning multiple days or a weekend, in which participants come together to design, create, tinker, and build software or hardware. They are often organized around a particular theme or technology.

Teams hacking away on the sixth floor of the Media Lab

At the beginning of the hackathon, there is some kind of ideation session, in which participants pitch concepts they’d like to try out. Based on these pitches, participants subsequently form teams. And then they’re off! Teams work for hours on end to refine their concepts and build prototypes. At the end of the event, teams present their projects. Some hackathons add an aspect of competition; at Hacking Arts, for example, we invited an awesome panel of judges to award prizes to the top four teams. We also added an additional element to the mix: on Sunday morning, during the final 6 hours of hacking, we brought in mentors to contribute rigorous feedback. These 20-minute or so consultations allowed teams to get an outside perspective as they continued refining their concepts and prototypes.

Lessons learned: or, how to run (and how to not run) a hackathon

Think about whether you’d like to limit the scope of the hackathon. Are your participants hacking on hardware or software? Do you want to focus on a particular platform or technology, such as when the Metropolitan Museum’s hackathon focused on 3D printing? Do you want to participants to tap into your museum’s API, like UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum and the Walters Museum did? Answering these questions might determine the materials you need to provide and the staff support that should be available for the event.

Late night snacks: essential supplies for any hackathon

In our case, the hackathon was wide open! Participants were free to work on literally whatever they wanted, so long that the project related to the arts, broadly defined. We didn’t limit to hardware or software or frame the event around a particularly technology (although three groups brought their own Kinects to incorporate motion sensing in their projects).

The decision to keep was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing: at the final presentation, we had a lovely variety of projects. Some proposed technological solutions for street theater; others built an application that recommend music from around the world. Some projects were plans for a product or a startup, while other hacks were works of art in and of themselves. The curse: At Hacking Arts, we gave out four prizes to the top projects, which proved difficult for our judges. How can you compare a business plan for a film recommendation service to a purely aesthetic experience? 

Think about what participants have time to do. Twenty-four hours was not a lot of time for Hacking Arts participants to work on the project, although I was thoroughly impressed with what groups were able to achieve in that time! In developing your event, consider whether you expect groups to have a fully functioning prototype, or if presenting wireframes and/or mockups are enough.

Teams present their final projects

Coordinating a hackthon is WORK. I was surprised that putting on a hackathon employed many of the same skills I used developed while working in family programs at the Whitney Museum. Running a hackathon means that you’re doing a lot of coordination, and leaving (most of) the hacking up to participants. At any moment I might have been running around finding extra power strips and extension cords, emailing participants to tell them they had one hours left so please upload presentations to the Dropbox, or coming up with a schedule for participants to meet with mentors.

But I also served as a mediator and an advisor. I had participants who, hours after the ideation session, approached me saying they still didn’t agree on their concept, and were their other groups they could join? Or: I’ve decided to go solo on a concept, but it’s still a fuzzy idea, could you help me brainstorm? I also directed participants to resources: just before midnight on Saturday, one team member asked how they could mock up a website without HTML or coding skills. Which brings me to my last point…

Have useful resources up your sleeve. As a hackthon organizer, even if you aren’t a developer or a hardware person, it’s useful to have a working knowledge of free and easy-to-use design and prototyping tools. A lot of folks on the interwebs have compiled excellent lists of resources, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, but I’ll point you to a few good links:

  • If groups are stuck during the ideation session, the Design Thinking for Educators toolkit is an excellent place to start.
  • I find Sarah-Jane Morris’ list of hackathon tools and resources incredibly helpful. Her suggestions run the gamut: from learn-to-code resources and text editors, to wireframing tools, webhosting platforms, mobile dev tools, and web design templates.
  • I’m a huge fan of paper prototyping! For non-coders (and coders, too), you can use tools like POP or Marvel to transform paper prototypes into clickable, linkable mobile and web prototypes.

Finally, get creative and have fun! One of the biggest lessons I learned was that projects and presentations may not go perfectly, but Hacking Arts was an excellent ways to nerd out and connect with with fellow art and technology aficionados.

13th Oct 2014


Reading List: Matthew Wisnioski’s “Why MIT Institutionalized the Avant-Garde”

In the Reading List series, I discuss a book or an article I’ve read recently and how it relates to museums, art, and tech.


CAVS in action: Charlotte Moorman with Jerome Wiesner, Otto Piene and Nam June Paik (source)

In 1967, MIT founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the university’s first major commitment to contemporary art. Over the next decade, CAVS would host a series of artists realizing projects that touch on technological and participatory social practices, often in collaboration with university researchers. In the journal Daedelus, artist György Kepes explained his goals:

New technological tools and materials; new approaches to teamwork among creative individuals in the arts and in the sciences with different backgrounds and training; new awareness of the interplay of visual factors in the dynamic urban scene, these are the challenges to collaborative daring.

His vision gained traction among some scientists and engineers, who believed it was a moral imperative for technology and science to engage with the arts. In a time when MIT’s research was so closely tied to the cold war military agenda, art was seen as a way to humanize technology.

Okay. So what does this have to do with museums?

The last few years have witnessed a surge of art museum initiatives focusing on inviting artists (and amateurs) to experiment with emerging technologies. The narrative surrounding these endeavors is that, with the fusion of art and technology, museums are breaking new ground; but in fact, folks have long been interested in bridging these two seemingly distant fields.

As Matthew Wisnioski explains in “Why MIT Institutionalized the Avant-Garde: Negotiating Aesthetic Virtue in the Postwar Defense Institute,” in the 1960s, the intersection of arts and tech/science was predicated on two qualities: collaboration and creativity.

Collaboration was cast as a means of capitalizing on the integration of different knowledge domains to solve complex sociotechnical problems, and, in so doing, to bridge larger societal divisions. Above all, art was a mark of creativity, and as such was a universal marker of intellectual, professional, and social good that could rehabilitate the image of science and technology through the alteration of the self. (91)

In some ways, art was a way for MIT to manage its public image, especially as escalation in Vietnam led to anti-technology and anti-corporation attitudes from civil rights, antiwar, and student movements. But there was also something more, that which Wisnioski calls aesthetic virtue: art lent technology a higher meaning.

Interdisciplinarity between the arts and sciences, then, came from an ideological place. But as Wisnioski explains, CAVS’s survival was also predicated on the social and economical. Though Kepes had a particular vision of artists, engineers, and scientists working together, his ideals shifted in the 1970s as funding waned and distrust of all things military and industry grew, incorporating “anti-technology rhetoric into his otherwise optimistic message” (110). (Under the leadership of Otto Piene, the Center’s second director, CAVS would shift toward participatory and environmental art.)

Recently, there has been a renewed interest in the intersection of art and technology. Wisnioski points out several contemporary examples: Google holds an employee art contest; a recent National Science Foundation grantee claims to “broaden students’ engineering perspectives” through art (115). Wisnioski explains:

general exuberance for a convergence of art and technology today is similarly built on competing claims to creativity and collaboration, on desires to refashion scientific and engineering selves, on projects to define the creative human in a technological age. (116)

Aesthetic virtue explains why the tech and science sectors are interested in working with the arts: art lends these fields a sense of humanity and good with a capital G. Like CAVS, technology initiatives at art museums today also rely on this art/technology rhetoric. But while Kepes had to convince MIT to bring art into engineering and science, the people spearheading the kinds of programs I’m studying are working in the opposite direction: appealing to science and technology as essential to the future of visual arts.

So if museums, their galleries filled with ostensibly powerful works of art, are already chock-full of aesthetic virtue, why might they want to work with technologists and scientists? There are a couple of reasons I can think of. As non-profit organizations, museums are taking advantage of the prestige and funding currently directed toward STEM fields and organizations. Additionally, by working with scientists, engineers, and technologists, artists gain access to new techniques and tools.

I wonder if, in this sudden trend of museum tech projects, we can find a corollary to the aesthetic virtue of CAVS. Perhaps we find it in the concept of the technological sublime—coined by Perry Miller and developed by Leo Marx—in which “the awe and reverence once reserved for the Deity and later bestowed upon the visible landscape is directed toward technology, or rather, the technological conquest of matter” (Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, 197). Technology dominates public discourse today: talk of the power of big data, the importance of disruption and innovation, the newest iWhatever release. Just as science and technology institutions like MIT appealed to art as a moral imperative, museums might be looking to tap into the almost religious frenzy around technology.

Wisnioski, Matthew. “Why MIT Institutionalized the Avant-Garde: Negotiating Aesthetic Virtue in the Postwar Defense Institute.” Configurations 21, no. 1 (2013): 85–116.

23rd Sep 2014


What’s So Special About Maker Spaces, Anyway?

Before temporarily exiling myself to the world of media studies and graduate school, I worked in the field of museum education. I like to keep up with the museum ed scene through a number of ways, one of the most notable being the Museum-Ed listserv, where I learn about conference and workshop opportunities, get advice from colleagues across the country and world, and engage in discussions about the field. Last week, one post piqued my interest: any advertisement for an online workshop on developing maker spaces and similar programming in museums. It was a perfect fit for my own research interests focusing on the infusion of tech initiatives in art museums.


(Peabody Essex Museum’s Maker Lounge)

Okay, so $79 is a steep price for a grad student like me, but what was more interesting than the possibility of attending this workshop was the fact that it existed at all. “Maker” programs have gained so much traction in museums—and education at large—that someone sees the potential of profiting off of the propagation of this maker ethos. The language used in the workshop ad is fascinating:

There is a kind of revolution going on in programming and museums are one of the leaders of the movement. Whether you call them Maker, Community, or Hacker Spaces, these DIY working areas in libraries and museums have become a popular meeting and creative program space for patrons of all ages. 

In other words: Hop on the maker bandwagon or risk missing out, y’all.

A few days later, a listserv member questioned the sudden trend in all things maker:

I have a question that has actually been nagging at me for a while about the “Maker Space” movement. I have been in museum education for almost 30 years now and have been doing this type of integrated workshop for most of my career and have participated at these types of events at other museums and zoos as well. Why are they suddenly a new thing (beside the name)? Is there something that I am not understanding?

She, and a few others who chimed in, expressed a question I’ve been toying around with in my own research: What’s so special about maker spaces (or hacker spaces, or hacklabs, or whatever you want to call them), anyway? The above workshop—and the so-called “maker movement” at large, which emphasizes DIY creation—touts maker spaces as revolutionizing the way we approach learning. But for many museum educators, hands-on learning is nothing new. For over a hundred years, educational approaches developed by Maria Montessori have emphasized the importance of independence and freedom in learning environments. Similarly, the Reggio Emilia approach is all about self-directed exploration and discovery within a supportive community. Constructivist theory posits that students learn best by through real-life experience; decades later, Seymour Papert’s constructionism put forth that learning is most effective ewhen individuals create tangible objects.

These are theories that museum educators have been thinking about for years. That explains the original poster’s confusion with the excitement around maker spaces: “I guess I really got to thinking about this when a new staff member came in with this “hot” new idea, and we had been doing it at our museum for the past 19 years!”

So why all the hype around maker spaces? Are maker spaces just the same old ideas in new packaging?

Yes and no. Sure, maker spaces share a lot of the same attitudes as other pre-existing educational museum approaches, but I also think it is important to consider how maker spaces might be different. On the Museum-Ed discussion, one person commented:

I think [the maker movement is] “new” or trending because it’s a very open-ended approach to workshops and learning. Historically educators approach workshops with a more specific objective and design an experience for visitors/participants to achieve that objective. Maker Space puts more emphasis on the participant being in control of what they are learning and firmly makes the educator a facilitator rather than instructor.

So while Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches tend to be implemented in classrooms or in situations with particular learning objectives, maker spaces tend to be entirely self-directed. They are places where individuals can pop in for hours at a time and work on whatever they want.


This is an overgeneralization, of course; maker spaces have their origins as community-operated spaces, but as they are adopted in schools, libraries, and now museums, I imagine that they will serve more specific learning outcomes. In the museum sphere, institutions are seeing the growing power of maker space-type programming and adapting the model to fit their particular situation or needs. For example, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA wanted to create a permanent community workspace where people can tinker and develop tech-related projects. There, people can play with circuits and 3D printers within their galleries. But the folks behind this initiative reimagined the model for the drop-in mentality of casual visitors: instead of a maker space, it’s a Maker Lounge, where visitors can easily jump into a brief design challenge and aren’t necessarily expected to return to work on a sustained project.

Here’s another difference between maker spaces and other museum programming: maker spaces are often (but not always) electronics- and technology-oriented and tend to have a certain set of tools at a user’s disposal. (See the Makerspace Playbook for more details.) Similarly, Maker Faires, founded and organized by the commercial entity Make magazine (who also popularized the terms “making,” “makers,” and “maker spaces”), tend to showcase tech-related projects.

I wouldn’t say that maker spaces are all that revolutionary, at least when it comes to providing museum visitors hands-on experiences. But they do, however, capitalize on the ever-growing momentum of technology. Technology is buzzy! Technology is exciting! From a pessimistic point of view, the value of maker spaces is that they are a way for museums to feed into the technology rhetoric in order to stay “relevant” (oh, that ever-dreaded word). From a more optimistic standpoint, however, maker spaces can open up the museum to broader audiences interested in technology.

15th Sep 2014


This Week in Museum Making


Grad school, I’m back for year 2! Now that I’ve settled into my new apartment and finally (mostly) figured out my class schedule, I’m ready to focus on thesis research once again. But first things first: during my brief hiatus, a couple of intriguing developments have been happening in the world of museums and creative technology…

The Portland Art Museum recently announced Online Collections Remix, a contest that invites participants to create their own version of the museum’s homepage. The tool of choice? Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles, a technology that allows you move around elements on a webpage while simultaneously teaching you about the building blocks of the web. Contest participants are encouraged to add images and info from the museum’s collection. The Online Collections Remix strikes me as an interesting way to get folks to experiment with open-source tools while taking advantage of another freely available resource—a museum’s collection data.

UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology will be hosting a hackathon—tomorrow! From 4:30 to 9:30pm on September 10, attendees will convene to design applications using collection data, all available through the Heart’s API. I’m interested to see what kind of audience this event attracts—university students? local coders? a larger museumgoing community?—and what will become of the projects conceived at this event.

Yesterday, Newsweek published an article by Louise Stewart on the influence of the maker movement in education. From high schools that teach about the rise and fall of populations through feats of engineering, to self-directed students who build their own electronics cases, a hands-on, interdisciplinary ethos pervades schools, libraries, and museums today.  As Stewart explains, “It’s about teaching kids how to break down their big ideas into smaller components in order to figure out a plausible first step. It’s about helping students become familiar not just with makerspace tools but, more important, with the process of finding, accessing and using information to teach themselves how to do whatever it is they want to do, and make whatever they want to make.”

9th Sep 2014


Reading List: Engaging Art

In the Reading List series, I discuss a book or an article I’ve read recently and how it relates to museums, art, and tech.

Arts audiences are increasingly getting older. Cultural institutions are struggling to get diverse patrons through their doors. Attendance at arts events has never been lower.

Whether you agree with the above statements or not, these are phrases heard over and over again in the arts. To some, such concerns are symptomatic of a larger societal problem: people just don’t care to participate in the arts these days. (Must be those darn smartphones.)

Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, a volume edited by Bill Ivey and Steven J. Tepper, argues the opposite, and offers a more nuanced explanation to boot. They suggest that engagement with the arts is as strong—and perhaps stronger—than ever. We just need to rethink how we define cultural participation.


First, the instruments we use to measure engagement—those surveys that ask you how many times in the last year you’ve been to the opera—need to be expanded. Arts participation isn’t just happening within established (and to many potential audiences, stuffy, snooty) cultural institutions like concert halls or museums; arts participation can happen at home, on the subway, in afterschool programs. And secondly, participation with the arts isn’t just about appreciation (oh how I seethed at the term). It’s more than taking in art made by a professional, whether watching the staging of a renowned play or examining a Renoir painting; engaging in a personal art practice, whether throwing pottery as a pro or making amateur YouTube videos, is participation, as well.

Take music, for example. In the nineteenth century, pianos were a common sight in households (serving as “the nation’s archetypal cultural hearth”), and families would often gather around the piano to for a sing or a post-dinner performance. As Ivey explains, “Then, the abilit[ies] to sing or play music…were considered everyday skills, integrated into family life as thoroughly as sewing or the canning of autumn garden produce” (3). Domestic piano-playing was how music was circulated and enjoyed. But this would decline in the twentieth century. Ivey writes:

The Great Depression contributed to this decline, but it was more than a crippled economy that pushed the piano sales to their twentieth-century low point. By the early 1930s, America’s new cultural industries were well on their way to transforming the way citizens engaged culture, thereby reconfiguring our definition of participation in art and culture. (4)

The radio, and later the television, replaced the piano as the home’s cultural hearth. Arts and culture participation became passive—the receiving of music rather than the creation of it. Both shifting cultural attitudes and technological changes (such as the introduction of recorded music and broadcast media) were part and parcel to this new definition of arts participation.

Today, in museums and outside of them, we see an expanding notion of what arts participation might be. Amateur practice is making a comeback: just look at the kind of amazing projects on sites like Kickstarter, a few of which are high-profile, professional endeavors but most of which are grassroots and DIY. It’s also increasingly difficult to draw borders between art and media, art and design, or art and technology (and believe me, I spent my whole first year of grad school contemplating these boundaries; I haven’t made much progress).

Museum making initiatives—ones dedicated to experimenting with emerging technology—acknowledge that artistic practice is an important indicator of arts participation. Museums are now spaces to engage with creative production, and not just consuming it passively.

Here’s one thought I’m left with after poring through Engaging Art: The objects on the walls of the museum don’t necessarily match the kinds of production encouraged in museum tech initiatives. How do we reconcile that? I wonder if museum making is the first step toward acknowledging a bigger cultural shift in how we view creative practice—that what people outside of museums might consider “art” doesn’t align itself with what’s coming out of the (market-driven) art world.

Ivey, William, and Steven J. Tepper. Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life. Routledge, 2008.

22nd Aug 2014


Technology and Local Communities

Last week, Anand Giridharadas published an article in the New York Times comparing the digital strategies of two art museums just a subway ride away from me in either direction: the Metropolitan and the Brooklyn. Eight years ago, the Brooklyn Museum was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the democratizing possibilities of the web:

“The dream was that anyone, anywhere, could participate and would, if given the chance,” said Shelley Bernstein, the vice director of digital engagement and technology at the Brooklyn Museum. “I had the ‘anyone, anywhere’ dream. I remember sitting in countless meetings and arguing for that dream.”

The Brooklyn Museum was an early pioneer in this endeavor, but announced a few months ago that it was strategically shuttering several of its social media channels. The Met, however, is only getting started. In the past year or two (perhaps since the hiring of its chief digital officer, Sree Srinivasan), the Met has started to ramp up such efforts, putting its collection online, directing traffic via Instagram, and allowing users to discover artworks via themes and descriptors on the new "One Met. Many Worlds.” website.

The idea of using digital technologies to spread the art love around the world—what Elizabeth Merritt would consider as part of the Distributed Museum model and which I wrote about briefly here—has long been the dream of many a museum techie. The Met is taking on strategies that plenty of museums have flirted with, but with its brand recognition, a prominent senior hire, and such a comprehensive and prestigious collection, people (or at least the New York Times) are finally paying attention.

We think of digital technologies as powerful for their ability to have a global reach, but perhaps the value lies closer to home. What Bernstein and her colleagues at the Brooklyn Museum has noticed is that the best kind of engagement—physically and also virtually—occurred within the Brooklyn community:

What occurred along the way was a series of pathbreaking experiments in digital outreach that seemed to prove a vastly different thesis from the Met’s: that no matter how free and easy it was to share the Brooklyn’s collection with Ghana and Mongolia and the Alabama piedmont, it was people living physically close by — and only such people — who could be convinced to care about the museum and engage with it online.…

Ms. Bernstein said that this data shook up her team. For her, the whole idea of these tools was to break the old pattern of museums catering too much to an educated elite. But the digital sphere was, in her museum’s case, simply replicating (if not amplifying) the elitism of physical visit patterns. “The farther away you were, the less deeply engaged you were in scale and scope,” she said. “The closer you are, the more engaged you were. It has caused us as an institution to completely rethink what we do in terms of digital engagement.”

Even though the Brooklyn Museum pinned and got repinned, even though their collection was plastered on the far corners of the web, they found that the people who really cared about the museum were within a few miles’ radius. They’re now reorganizing their technology efforts, using the digital to focus on fostering the local community. It’s the people first and the technology second.

The wave of museum initiatives I’m studying tap into this latter impulse of using technology to foster local relationships and communities. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts launched a Maker Lounge last spring, and they’re working with local tech partners, like 3D printing mavens Formlabs and the MIT Media Lab, both based in nearby Cambridge. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Media Lab hosts meetups in which New York-based artists, coders, dilettantes, and newbies are all welcome to experiment with tech. (They even use to organize these shindigs. To me, using the social networking site as the Media Lab’s home base speaks to an openness and grassroots attitude to all who want to join.) It’s the community that forms around the intersection between art and technology that I find most interesting. As I continue my research, I hope to further examine this question of how museum making programs can foster community and dialog.

And just for good measure, one more quote that I really liked:

The lesson Ms. Bernstein takes away from the pivot is this: “Not letting the tech community drive what you’re doing, because it may not be right.” Digital “is not the holy grail,” she contends. “It’s a layer.”

13th Aug 2014