The Rise of The Culture of Making and Hacking

Over the last year, there has been a growing interest for open-ended experiences and activities that ask audiences to create new tools to add on the museum experience and/or to manipulate approaches and collections. In some cases they are planned activities, such as the Tinkering sessions started by the Exploratorium (@Exploratorium – more info on Tinkering here) and “exported”, among others, at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan (@Museoscienza),  but there is also a growing number of “pop-up” events, hackathons and experimental programs that, in some way, wants to turn inside out Museum’s traditional methodologies.

Although the term “hacking” often has a negative connotation, referring to breaching private information or disrupting systems, museums hack events ask people to do just the opposite. In a short span of time participants, which can be regular museum visitors as well as artists, designers or other not museum-y professionals, are asked to build something from scratch or to experiment with digital and non-digital tools.

Hacking the conventions, not the rules

The Walter Art Museum (@Walters_museum), in Baltimore, recently organized Art Bytes, a hackathon where technology and creative communities work together to build programs and applications inspired by art or to add to the museum experience. Arrived at its second edition, the hackaton hosted teams of developers to program a variety of mobile and web apps starting from the APIs that the museum made available for them. Five different teams were declared winners and received $1,000 in prize money each.

Luce Foundation Center for American Art - Flickr by clio1789/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Luce Foundation Center for American Art – Flickr by clio1789/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently hosted an hackathon as well, to reflect upon how digital tools can make the Luce Foundation, the museum’s visible storage, more accessible to visitors. The Museum currently provides ten computer kiosks in the space to explore the 3000 artworks that are preserved in the facility. However, as it often happens, the kiosks and the experience they provide are outdated. A group of developers, programmers, and designers was invited to think about new possibilities and generate new concepts for the digital interpretation of the space. You can have detailed information about how it went here.

Museomix is an event that started in France and was recently hosted by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, UK. Museomix brings together digital, fabricators, designers and got them to “remix” contents and approaches of the museums by using digital and traditional resources. Although museum professionals were involved in the process, Museomix is about throwing people together from different backgrounds and skills and letting them dream big. As explained by the founder Mar Dixon, the museum is the space we are using (although it could be a library or any public space).  The idea is to provide a sandbox with a whole bunch of different toys and letting them decide what to do with it.

A different example comes from Italy with Digital Invasions @Digitalinvasions, an organization that brings together groups of people that are passionate about art, culture and heritage, and send them on missions to “invade” cultural sites with their cameras and smartphones, all over the country. In this case, videos and pictures are taken and shared on social media to generate awareness and appreciation of culture through this form of “mass promotion”.

Group Hack at the Met - Museum Hack

Group Hack at the Met – Museum Hack

There is also one example of hackers that play with one of the most traditional tools for meaning making in museums: the audio tour. Museum Hack (@MuseumHack) doesn’t use digital but rather creates “un-highlights museum adventure” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The company organizes and delivers guided tours, unaffiliated with the Met, designed to be highly interactive, subversive, fun, non-traditional and recounting exciting, mysterious and sometimes crazy stories about lesser-known objects. This is an ambitious goal as the Met has more than two million works in its collection and the average visitor is likely to just pass by most of them, looking for the well-known masterpieces instead and focusing on finding his/her way in the huge building. The result is a new and fascinating perspective on the Met’s collection and a “humanization” of the art and of the very concept of a guided tour. Open and friendly rather than academic and “religiously silent”. You can read more about my experience with Museum Hack here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Digital Underground blog

Metropolitan Museum of Art – Digital Underground blog

Another example from the Met (@metmuseum), this time an official one, is the Media Lab. It explores ways new technology can affect the museum experience for staff and visitors, as well as in galleries, classrooms, and online. Last summer, a 3D scanning and printing event hosted twenty-five digital artists and programmers that spent two days photographing Museum objects and converting the images into 3D models.  A lot of debate was generated on Twitter about if and how these digital “mash-ups” outraged the “sacrality” of the art. Check out the whole debate on Twitter here and some considerations by Suse Cairns on Museum Geek here.

Open VS Accessible museum

Open for business - Flickr by tinou bao/CC BY 2.0

Open for business – Flickr by tinou bao/CC BY 2.0

All these examples play with concept of the “open museum”. However, open is kind of a buzzword that is often confused. Provide multiple “entry points” to the meanings of collections, fitting the diversity of ways through which visitors learn and consume contents, turns the museum into a really happy and accessible place. While being open rather means unlocking collections and researches for visitors to use and re-use, without limitations.

Two tendencies, in particular, make us reflect on how the idea of becoming “open”, might be the right one: on one hand, the democratization that the Internet introduced, on the other, the rise of digital platforms that support it. On the Web, everybody can be an artist, a writer, a photographer, a film-maker and so on. There are tons of free and open source platforms out there that integrate the creation, the promotion and the diffusion of contents in this sense. For example, iMovie (for film and commercials), 1,2,3D Catch (3d scanning), WordPress (blogging), Google SketchUP (rudimental 3d sketches), GarageBand (music), Pixton (comics) or iBooks Author (ebooks).

These tendencies are happening while over 2 billion people online are potential creators or consumers of messages, researchers of meaning, brilliant ideas and fascinating stories. Museums, as institutions in the service of society and its development (ICOM) , can be the centers from which these ideas spread, are manipulated, diffused and networked, in the service of society and its development.

What is sure is that conventions are openings: there is no longer standing in front of the object to observe it. The concept of hacking can span from jazzing up the religious silence of a docent tour, to “expanding” the points of view we can look an object from and gathering a squad of culture-geeks to catch and share their personal impressions or reinvent the museum by bringing a fresh look to it. And the stuff that comes out from this “godzilla culture creation machine”, whether is an instagrammed David or a steam-punk version of the Monalisa, doesn’t want to be new art nor breaks collections free from the expertise of curators and researchers. This “new stuff” is there to remind us that making is just another way of looking.

Image source: photo credit: the_exploratorium via photopin cc