Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hackerspaces: DIY Science Centers for Adults

Like many people who've worked in science centers and interactive experience museums, I've always been perplexed by the fact that hands-on workshop audiences top out around age 14. So many of the activities available in interactive museums--exploding toothpaste, liquid nitrogen ice cream, collage-making, robot wars--are just as interesting, educational, and fun for adults as they are for kids. So why don't adult workshops succeed?

There's a growing type of institution that is successfully engaging adult geeks in hands-on workshops with a DIY, member-based approach. A few weeks ago, Nick Bilton told me about the hackerspace he helped found called NYCResistor. I had never heard of hackerspaces, and I thought he was talking about people with computers getting together to crack codes. But it turns out hackerspaces are the next step in the evolution of the DIY/maker movement--physical member organizations for people who like to mess around with electronics. They are more than just workshop spaces--they are member institutions, like museums. And their unique structure and bottom-up approach offers some instructive lessons for museums that want to really embrace visitors and members as co-creators of the institutional experience.

Hackerspaces are about people, not content

Hackerspaces are hybrid private clubs/public educational spaces. NYCResistor's tagline is: "we learn, share, and make things." There are people who pay for membership ($40-$100/month, depending on where you are in the country), and there are others who pay for workshops, which range from straight skills (learn to soldering) to artsy/sciencey (needlepoint circuits) to dangerously silly (shrinking coins). In hackerspaces, membership doesn't just mean expressing affinity; it gives you useful privileges including private cubbies and a key to the space.

Hackerspaces are mostly small non-profit co-ops, with 25-100 members and under 1000 sq ft of space. In some cases, such as AS220 labs, they are part of larger community art spaces. Their numbers are growing, and the wiki-based list of worldwide hackerspaces includes as many "planned" as "active" institutions.

This isn't just a geek thing. There are maker spaces popping up for all kinds of artists, crafters, and independent entrepeneurs who want a shared space to congregate, share ideas, and work on projects. Mitch Altman, one of the founders of the San Francisco-based Noisebridge, was quoted in Wired as saying:
"In our society there's a real dearth of community. The internet is a way for people to key in to that need, but it's so inadequate. [At hacker spaces], people get a little taste of that community and they just want more."
Isn't this one of our dreams for museums? That people will key into their love of art or science or history online, then show up at the museum, get a "taste of community," and just want more?

Hackerspaces are member-centric

Hackerspaces aren't organized around content like museums are. They're organized around members. The brand and organization of hackerspaces is heavily tied to the concept of community ownership and management. Most hackerspaces have very transparent legal structures and operate on a consensus model. Their members are unapologetically enthusiastic about their activities. They are the true institutional "advocates" that so many museums seek. As one NYCResistor blogger effuses, "Will this endless parade of awesome classes never end?" Hackerspaces don't just support members' energy for the place; they are structured to literally be BY and FOR their members, without any intermediary staffed institution.

It's interesting to think about this in the context of museums like the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina, which is trying to position itself as a "member-focused institution." I spend a lot of time working with museums that are trying to find ways to support and connect with the love their members and advocates feel for them. But these places are museums first, member communities second, and their approaches reflect a need to retain some institutional control. Hackerspaces (so far) are bottom-up institutions, which means they can wholly support member needs. The institution IS the members. Noisebridge defines itself as "an infrastructure provider for technical-creative projects, collaboratively run by its members. We are incorporated as a non-profit educational corporation for public benefit." The second sentence could be on any museum homepage. I'm not sure about the first.

Hackerspaces in Museums?

Even if your museum can't support this kind of direct member infrastructure across the board, you might be able to integrate a hackerspace into a part of your museum and use it to explore new relationships with members and with active adult audiences. Got a funky extra gallery or an old computer clubhouse that is underperforming? Could your museum host a hackerspace? There are some truly wonderful potential connections between activity-oriented museums and hackerspaces... and then there are some challenges.

Things interactive museums can offer hackerspaces:
  • the equipment, the expertise, and the insurance to support a lot of activities
  • semi-private space (probably at low rent compared to retail spaces)
  • publicity
  • an educational outlet (some hackers are struggling to find ways to connect their enthusiasm to younger would-be geeks)
Things hackerspaces can offer museums:
  • design ethos and brand that attracts an audience that mostly shies away from museums
  • highly creative adults who are interested in supporting others' learning
  • "real" projects going on, but not at the level of requiring expensive lab environments
Of course, there are other aspects of hackerspaces that make them a less-than-perfect match for museums. The membership structure is incredibly important to people who want a place to safely store their projects and the ability to show up and work at 3am. The DIY, shared-ownership support is antithetical to the corporate nature of most large science centers. 50-100 passionate geeks may not be a compelling audience when you have 1.2 million walking through the doors every year. But for small science centers or art organizations, which share much of the DIY ethic with hackerspaces, this may be a perfect fit.

There's also the potential for museums to be the engine for some new kinds of makerspaces. What does the hackerspace for genealogists look like? Or the one for DIY biologists? Could it start in a museum?

4 comments, add yours!:

Nancy Proctor said...

Hmm, what would a hackerspace look like, and what would people do in it, in an art museum? I'm reminded of the great point you made in the podcast about how science museums often position visitors as scientists or researchers and give them activities to do within that role. Art museums don't really encourage their visitors to 'play' artist, curator, or even art historian during their visits. We do often have art-making activities, mainly for children & families, but also for sketching in the galleries... American Art's Luce Center invites people to help curate their open storage display cases on Flickr and we've seen a few crowd-curated exhibitions, e.g. at Tate Britain and the Brooklyn Museum. And I know many art museums have teen/youth advisory groups. But none of these seems to be quite the hackerspace you describe. I relish the thought of a core constituency of community art-makers, curators and researchers who form a sustainer group for the museum and creative counterpoint to the 'friends' and financial sustainers, but I know many art museum workers would recoil in horror at the idea of being inundated by 'Sunday painters'. Hmm again... - a nice challenge, Nina - thanks!

Matt Celeskey said...

I think volunteer programs can be a great place to look for/develop 'hackerspace pockets' within museums. Where I work (NM Museum of Natural History), we've had a handful of former National Lab scientist/engineers as volunteers who, with a little space and access to shop equipment, have created some truly ingenious mechanisms that we've used in exhibits. There was also a great success partnering with a larger 'maker' community of machinist/artists that built our exquisite Mars Rover model, complete with visitor-controlled cameras. There are also parallels with the volunteer technicians that work in the field, prep labs, and collections, all of whom contribute to the sort of 'creative sustainer group' that Nancy described.

Although there is definitely a top-down organization to a lot of these systems, I'd bet that the majority of successful ones have their share of member-directed input as well.

Many museums/museum staffers are pretty good at harvesting these sorts of relationships when they pop up serendipitously; it'd be interesting to see if they could be actively (officially?) cultivated also!

samuel said...

nina, looks like The Palais de Tokyo (contemporary art museum) did something similar. With a workshop to transform one's own music intrument. seems to be a "one time" event but thought might interest you.

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