creating with new technologies in art museums

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


What Do We Mean When We Say “Technology”?

I’m fresh off of a redeye from California, where I launched my research on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new Art + Technology Lab. There, I delved into the archives of the original Art and Technology, a program spearheaded by curator Maurice Tuchman from 1967 to 1971 that placed an impressive roster of (unfortunately all-male) artists in major corporations. I also had the chance to talk to Amy Heibel, Joel Ferree, and Jessica Gambling, who are currently reviving the spirit of the historical program. Through the new initiative, the museum recently awarded grants of up to $50,000 and mentorship from individuals at tech companies such as Google, DAQRI, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to four individual artists and one pair of artists.



Sometimes (perhaps too often?), museum tech initiatives focus around particular tools and products, from MakerBots to Google Glass. A glance at LACMA’s request for proposals, however, reveals a much wider understanding of what technology might be. From “visualization and computational graphics” and “machine design” to “sensors,” “data structures,” and “space exploration,” the folks at A+T aren’t interested in particular end products (mobile apps, 3D-printed-whatever) but instead in processes and concepts.

I love the way LACMA broadly defines technology, allowing for experimentation and flights of fancy that could potentially result in some pretty neat projects. Often, when museums talk about technology, they mean social media, mobile apps, and screens. These definitions of technology are informed by what’s hyped in the media and what peer institutions are doing (something I discussed in a previous post). But LACMA reframes our understanding of technology and its potential.  In a quote from a Verge article, Heibel says the A+T Lab aims to tap into “impractical and creative applications of technology…we are not looking for the next great mobile guide app.”

Additionally, the ways people in museums understand technology has shifted over time. In 1971, Maurice Tuchman wrote of the original LACMA program:

In 1966, when Art and Technology was first conceived, I had been living in Southern California for two years. A newcomer to this region is particularly sensitive to the futuristic character of Los Angeles, especially as it manifested in advanced technology.

His view of technology was defined by those industries that gave 1960s L.A. a sense of whizbang possibility: space exploration, defense, and automobiles. We might think of contemporary tech as the software, data, and wearables coming out of the Bay area—a vision far off from the giant machines of Tuchman’s time. But today, as incubators, major companies like Google, and visual and virtual reality technologists start to open offices in places like Santa Monica and Venice—dubbed “Silicon Beach”—L.A. is again emerging as a budding tech center. 

Airports and automobiles: a little taste of the 1960s Los Angeles tech-cool vibe via Mad Men (source)

So while the original Art and Technology program resulted (directly or indirectly) in Claes Oldenburg’s colossal, mechanized ice bag and James Turrell’s room-sized perceptual deprivation installation, the new A+T Lab promises pie charts in pies and brainwave-conjured virtual objects. I’m excited to see what kind of art the new L.A. tech landscape might yield.

7th Aug 2014


Museum as Resource: A Few Thoughts

Last week, I virtually attended the Future of Museums conference, a free, online affair that brought together speakers imagining the potential of cultural institutions with practitioners who are fostering change within their own museums. (Recordings of the sessions are available online.) Two talks, in particular, resonated with my own research.

First, Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, gave the opening keynote. She envisioned three different museums in the year 2030, all of which have their roots in trends (and fears) pervading today’s museum landscape:

  • The Quantified Museum: Like the Quantified Self movement, this institution hinges on leveraging data about its visitors to shape experiences
  • The Disconnected Museum: In response to digital overload that pervades our lives, this museum imagines itself as an oasis, a physical space to take a break from the technology that surrounds us elsewhere
  • The Distributed Museum: Rejecting the gallery walls as its limits, this museum uses digital technologies and analog strategies to spread its holdings around the world 

A few hours later, Lath Carlson, the vice president of exhibits at the Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley, proposed that museums are entering a new phase of evolution. If Museum 1.0 characterizes the first wave of these cultural institutions, in which a museum delivers information about the objects or ideas on view to its audience, and Museum 2.0 (also known as the Participatory Museum) is about creating a dialogue with a visitor, then the mantra for Museum 3.0 is “museum as resource.” The institution, as a vital resource for a community, is there first and foremost for the audience and should therefore collaborate with individuals as they decide what exhibitions to mount, how to disseminate their collections, or what kind of in-gallery experiences to spearhead.

Both the Distributed Museum and Museum 3.0 models touch on an idea I’ve alluded to in two recent posts. It used to be that you had to be physically within the walls of a museum to experience its collection, but these days, museum content is more available than ever. Museums have progressively been opening up their APIs, making data accessible and making the institution transparent to the public. So now that all this knowledge is out there, what do we do with it?

Merritt framed initiatives like hackathons and maker spaces as part of the distributed museum, allowing people to take a museum’s content and infuse it into new creations that will go out into the world. It’s not just enough to make museum data available on the web; museum now encourage the creation of new art. We’ve gone full circle: from the physical experience of objects to the digital dissemination of data, and back to the physical creation of new objects. Physical to digital to physical; objects to data to objects. (Liz Neely touches upon a similar idea in her discussion on 3D printing at the Art Institute of Chicago: atoms to bits and back again.)

The few museums bold enough (and, of course, that have the resources) to delve into making initiatives not only embrace the “museum as resource” attitude, but also interpret it broadly. Libraries, too, serve as public resources. The more experimental ones are recognizing that, in the age of digitization, books are no longer their hottest commodities, and are adjusting accordingly. In one light, these initiatives could be viewed as a ploy to appear relevant as pocket-sized screens dominate our lives; in another, museum making is just an extension of the institution’s mission to serve the public.

29th Jul 2014