Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guest Post: World Maker Faire and the New York Hall of Science: Radical Trust

I’ve long been interested in the intersection between maker culture and museums. On September 25 and 26, the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) hosted the first East Coast Maker Faire. Maker Faire is a massive public event, hosted by Make Magazine annually in San Mateo, that brings together hackers, crafters, and do-it-yourself scientists for a weekend of demonstrations and explosions. In this guest post, Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer of NYSCI, describes the partnership to develop and manage the World Maker Faire and its impact on his science center. Eric will check in to respond to any questions in the comments and is also available by email at esiegel@nyscience.org. It’s worth mentioning that the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit also hosted a Maker Faire at their facility this year.

Why at NYSCI?

It wasn’t obvious to the Maker Faire team that Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, where the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) is located, was the ideal location for an East Coast Maker Faire. The park is among the largest and most heavily used in New York, but it’s not glamorous. Remnants of two World’s Fairs, both impressive and neglected, are scattered around the park. NYSCI, which was founded during the 1964 World’s Fair, occupies approximately 20 acres of the 1,255 acre park. Every year, sections of the park are spruced up for the US Open tennis tournament that takes place in a stadium within the park, but large sections of the park are rather threadbare. We toured Flushing Meadows Park with the Maker team on a grey day and even I had to admit it looked a bit desolate. It was frankly hard to imagine how it would come alive for Maker Faire. At the same time, others in New York were pitching for a more urban setting on Governors Island or a more suburban setting in New Jersey.

After the tour, the group came back to NYSCI and we had a brainstorm… let’s just do it in the museum. We could clear out some exhibitions, dedicate some large dramatic venues and workshop spaces, and devote NYSCI’s 15 acre “backyard” to pavilions and large scale outdoor exhibits. Rather than NYSCI hosting Maker Faire within Flushing Meadows Park, we would make a partnership and really collaborate on the Faire.

One of the attractions for this collaboration was NYSCI’s diverse audience, many of whom were not part of the current Maker Faire community. If you do something great and exciting for families in Queens, you are going to get a virtual United Nations of visitors. Museum people think of New York City as Manhattan and the hipster communities of Brooklyn, but it is in the great immigrant communities that New York City really distinguishes itself and Queens is the epicenter of immigration to the City.

Building the Partnership

So now we had the critical task of constituency building among museum staff, most of whom had no idea what Maker Faire was, and in the maker community, many of whom had no idea what NYSCI was. We scheduled a series of “getting acquainted” meetings between the Maker Faire team, including Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss, and senior staff and trustees at NYSCI. These turned out to be essential. As anarchic and unhinged as Maker Faire in San Mateo seems at one level, it is also clear that the logistics are handled expertly by a very experienced and dedicated crew. Sherry and Dale represented both “go with the flow” spirit and a sense of complete competence, calm, and conviction. Virtually every NYSCI staffer who met with them agreed that these are people that can pull this off and we all had a great feeling about working with them.

We also met with key members of the maker community in New York and nationally. This was the beginning of what I think was one of the primary benefits of Maker Faire to NYSCI. There is a whole range of recyclers, hackers, metalworkers, weavers, builders, circuit benders, and artists up and down the East Coast that NYSCI connected with through the Maker Faire planning. The indefatigable Nick Normal, who works with a makerspace/gallery called Flux Factory in Queens, was Maker Faire’s local maker community coordinator. Martha Stewart hosted a reception at their amazing loft/work space in Manhattan for local makers. We set up a website and gathered several hundred applications, from which about 400 were selected for participation.

Most of the makers came at their own expense, paid no money to Maker Faire, and were pretty independent. This is one of the fascinating and risky things about World Maker Faire: the whole experience is pretty emergent with a very low barrier to entry. Decisions about who could participate were made on the basis of sparse information from the online application, a lot of intuition, and a lot of self-organizing community support. If you are a hacker known to other hackers, your participation is more likely; if you are outside the existing community, the likelihood of your participation is a bit sketchier.

About a week before the event itself, the morning after a tornado touched down in Queens and tore up a dozen trees on the NYSCI site by the roots, the Maker Faire team arrived and turned our conference room into their operations center. Pavilions went up. Makers arrived with their equipment. On the evening of the event Red Bull sponsored a maker party featuring drinks made of Red Bull and vodka. It was probably a high water mark for NYSCI’s hipster credibility.

The event went pretty much flawlessly. The weather cooperated, the crowds showed up, our transportation arrangements went smoothly, most of the exhibitors things worked nicely, everybody looked engaged. We had over 400 makers at the Faire and 25,000 visitors in two days. The makers ranged from Eepy Bird doing their Mentos and Coke crowd pleaser to a really loud and terrifying ramjet powered ride by the Brooklyn-based Madagascar Institute (whose motto is “Safety Third”). There were scheduled speakers including Steven Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica software, who talked about coding as making. There was a secret noodle restaurant in an anonymous panel truck in the operations yard created by performance artists, serving delicious free noodle soup for those who discovered it. A large “maker shed” pavilion sold hundreds of books and kits for do-it-yourselfers. An open source 3D printer kit was a clear hit, supported by 3D printing workshops. A third of the outside area was devoted to crafts, with free knitting lessons, paintable soft circuitry. The phrase I heard most often was “something for everyone.” I can’t imagine someone coming who wouldn’t find something fascinating and engaging.

So What?

It’s hard to draw generalizable “Museum 2.0” insights from World Maker Faire. NYSCI has a previously untapped capacity for change, trust, and flexibility that turned out to be a vital resource for this undertaking. But none of that would have come to pass without the very specific conditions of timing, location, and above all the goodwill and expertise of the Maker Faire team.

The risk in this approach is frankly completely at odds with the typical meticulous care with which science museum exhibitions are planned. Science center exhibitions are planned by teams who thoughtfully consider content, visitor impact, and learning outcomes. We hire designers with expertise in human factors and visitor flow, engage PhD researchers, experts in learning sciences, and content advisors. The makers, on the other hand, are solo operators or artists/hacker collectives who are principally concerned with self-expression, experimentation, and excitement. The NYSCI staff all were amazed at how seamlessly visitors went from our carefully crafted exhibitions to the occasionally funky Maker Faire work without missing a beat. At least for the one weekend of Maker Faire, excitement and experimentation with touch of danger and anarchy trumped the careful and intentional approach of NYSCI’s exhibits. It also helped that the creators themselves were at each of the Maker Faire exhibits, engaging visitors and answering questions. Very thought provoking for the museum exhibition community.

The World Maker Faire was bracketed by two related events. The first was the Open Hardware Summit on the Thursday before Maker Faire, which brought 300 young open source hackers to NYSCI to discuss the technology, philosophy, social context, and practical issues surrounding the creation of an open source community. As I said in my greeting to the group, seeing them makes NYSCI’s goal clear: we want to encourage our very diverse audience, many of whom are first generation immigrants, to acquire the confidence and competence to engage the world the way the open source community has. Not only do the open source hardware people have technical skills, but they also have the courage to work outside of normal commercial frameworks to create social value. We want that for our visitors.

The National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sponsored a conference on the Monday following the workshop at NYSCI. We invited about 70 educators, technologists, thinkers, and makers to come to the Faire on Sunday and spend a day talking about the potential impact of the maker movement on education in general. There were great discussions which we are assembling into a report I will be glad to share as soon as it is completed. [UPDATE - here is the report as a downloadable PDF.]

The NYSCI staff fell in love with Maker Faire. I didn’t hear a single cross-grained comment through the haze of exhaustion we all experienced. For me, it was among the highest points of my 30 years of museum work. And I am proud to say that I think the feeling was entirely mutual with the Maker Faire staff. They were amazed at the diversity of our audiences, the museum’s flexibility and willingness to collaborate as true partners, the incredible efforts put in by our staff, led by our COO Bob Logan and VP for External Affairs Dan Wempa, and our willingness to allow the event to emerge and to trust in the maker community and the process.

Since World Maker Faire, I have had dozens of comments from makers who were unfamiliar with NYSCI, and from the “People In Black” community of young artists and activists in New York. These people are now eager to collaborate on projects and participate in our community maker activities. So our universe of potential audiences and collaborators has opened up as a result of World Maker Faire 2010.

At this point, a few weeks after the event, it appears that World Maker Faire will significantly transform NYSCI’s programming and identity. We had already been moving toward more open-ended, design-based exhibit and program experiences, but this lit one of Madagascar Institute’s jet rockets under that process. We are refocusing our public program staff on maker activities and maker weekends with open-ended design challenges. We are working to fund partnerships with makers in the local communities to bring them into new maker clubs which will work to culminate in a large community maker presence at World Maker Faire 2011.
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