Museum making: Creating with emerging technologies in art museums

Desi Gonzalez, The Andy Warhol Museum, USA


Hackathons, startup incubators, maker spaces, and innovation labs: these terms are common to the world of tech, but they have recently appeared on museum websites and in press releases. The last few years have witnessed a wave of art museum initiatives that invite audiences—from casual visitors to professional artists and technologists—to take the reigns of creative production through experimentation with digital media and fabrication technologies. Where is this interest in engaging audiences with hands-on, technological creation coming from? And how are museums, which might lack the necessary funding and technical know-how to work with new technologies, able to make these initiatives happen? This presentation is informed by the extensive historical and ethnographic research I have conducted for my master’s thesis in comparative media studies at MIT. Case studies include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology Lab, a program that awards artist grants and mentorship from individuals and technology companies such as Google, DAQRI, and the Jet Propulson Lab to develop art projects and artistic research; the Peabody Essex Museum’s Maker Lounge, an in-gallery space in which visitors are invited to tinker with high and low technologies; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Media Lab, a section of the Digital Media department that invites both visitors and artists to experiment with new technologies through programs such as three-dimensional printing workshops and hackathons.

Keywords: hackathons, maker spaces, art making, maker culture

1. Introduction

In the bowels of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a robotic arm drags a black felt-tip marker across a white sheet of paper, plotting out the intricate staccato lines of a seventeenth-century etching. Further north at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, a three-dimensional printer whirs in the background while a group of friends prototypes original designs for wearable technologies. And on the other side of the country, on a street outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an iPad or smartphone reveals augmented-reality versions of LA denizens, rendered via photogrammetry, who will stop to tell you what they have lost.

These are just a few projects that have developed out of an emerging trend that I call “museum making.” Increasingly, art museum staff are developing initiatives that allow everyone from casual visitors to professional artists and technologists to take the reigns of creative production through experimentation with new technologies. Hackathons, maker spaces, startup incubators, innovation labs: institutions are implementing these new and exciting models borrowed from the world of technology and inviting their audiences to participate.

From where has this interest in engaging audiences with hands-on, technology-based production emerged, and why now? Creative technology initiatives in art museums have been the object of my study as a master’s candidate in comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the past year, I’ve applied an interdisciplinary approach—pulling from sociology, educational theory, cultural studies, and museum studies—to the critical examination of museum-making programs. This research will culminate in a master’s thesis, to be completed in May 2015. In my thesis, I trace the precedents of these initiatives from a historical lens, finding roots both in the history of museums as sites of art making and in the rise of hacker and maker cultures. My thesis also incorporates findings from extensive fieldwork at three museum sites (LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab, the Metropolitan Museum’s Media Lab, and the Peabody Essex’s Maker Lounge), drawing from observations of programs in action and interviews with key staff and participants.

Why does my research focus exclusively on art institutions, when all kinds of museums are tapping into today’s technology ethos? Many types of cultural and learning institutions—especially children’s museums, science museums, and discovery centers—have long incorporated making and creative technologies in their galleries. However, I’m specifically looking at initiatives in art museums because of the implications that these have on what is considered culturally and aesthetically valuable: What does it mean for an art museum to encourage new forms of creative production, when that kind of production is not represented in the museum’s galleries or collections? And how do change and innovation happen in traditional cultural institutions?

This paper represents only a fraction of my thesis project, drawing from historical research to examine from where and why these museum-making programs have emerged. I’ll trace the precedents that have led to the development of museum-making programs. The first section examines arts participation, particularly through amateur art practice, in the history of the United States. I will discuss how amateur art practice was common in the nineteenth century, waned in the twentieth century, and is currently on the rise again. Within this context of cultural engagement, I will delineate how art museums have historically served as sites of creative production.

The second section of this paper traces the precedents that have led to the landscape of creative technology we know today. The earliest computer hackers eschewed authority, championed a hands-on ethic, and saw their hacking as a form of art. The more recent development of the so-called “maker movement” exemplifies a mainstreaming of creative technology: as it becomes easier to access digital and fabrication tools, more people can become amateur technologists. Art museums today are tapping into both the countercultural impulses of hackers—which resonate with that of artists—as well as the mainstream appeals of the maker movement.

In the final section, I discuss how the two threads—art-based and tech-based production—are now merging at a time when, at least to many public audiences, the distinctions between art, media, and technology are no longer important; instead, a general sense of creative production, whether aligning itself with the art world or the tech world, is king.

2. On art: Amateur practice and museums as sites of creative production in the United States

Maker spaces, hackathons, and startup incubators are touted as breaking new grounds in museums, but in fact, this kind of museum programming has deep historical roots. Since almost as long as they’ve existed, art museums have served as sites for not only displaying art, but also creating it. In this section, I explore how creating with new technologies fits into a longer lineage of creation as a form of arts engagement in museums.

In Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence Levine argues that in the United States before the late nineteenth century, the boundaries between high and low culture didn’t exist as they are conceived of today (Levine, 1988). Audiences across all classes enjoyed cultural figures and forms such as Shakespeare and opera, sharing “a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival boxes than their descendants were to experience a century later” (1988). Historian, playwright, and director Lynne Conner argues that audience members played a different role in arts experiences, as well (Conner, 2008). As opposed to the contemporary ideal of an audience that “by definition and by current standards of appropriate behavior…looks, listens, and feels at a distance,” audiences in the nineteenth century “were expected to participate actively before, during, and after the event” (2008). The audiences, in a sense, were essential to the production, rather than separate from the art event. Museums, like their theater counterparts, had equally diverse audiences. For example, Barnum’s American Museum, founded in New York City, exhibited everything from fine art and scientific instruments to medical oddities. Economically diverse audiences came in droves not only to view the spectacle of the museum’s collection but also to attend lectures and watch performances. Conner (2008) argues that the “[p]atrons at these museums lived the art space fully; they saw their presence in it as a large affair that was not confined simply to quiet, reverent spectating.”

Diverse publics were not limited to arts participation as audiences, but also as creators: amateur art practice was a part of everyday life. In the nineteenth century, pianos were a common sight in households, serving as “the nation’s archetypal cultural hearth”; families would often gather around the piano for a sing or a post-dinner performance. As Bill Ivey explains, “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” (Ivey, 2008). Domestic piano playing was how music was circulated and enjoyed. Conner corroborates: “Arts patrons also participated in a practical manner by joining amateur production companies, taking studio classes, and creating public works of art as a form of celebration and as a way to solidify and document community identity” (Conner, 2008).

Since their founding, art museums in the United States have been sites for art making. The primary way in which nineteenth-century museums supported creative production was by offering formal training, often in the form of museum academies. As universities and colleges increasingly began to establish art and art history departments at the onset of the twentieth century, many of these schools began to disappear or distance themselves from their respective museums.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an example of an institution with a rich history as a site for art making. Soon after its founding, the Met granted permission to artists to copy works in their collection on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. In 1880, the museum established the School of Industrial Arts, providing free classes to artisans in skills such as woodworking and metalworking, and later ornamental painting and carving, architecture, drawing, and clay modeling.

Toward the turn of the century, the Metropolitan witnessed the decline of art making in the museum. The 1883 Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art indicates that many of the school’s classes were discontinued by that year. (One notable exception to the decline of art making in the museum is the Museum’s copyist program, which increased in popularity into the early decades of the twentieth century.) Still, the museum promoted art making in other ways: in 1916, the Met published a resource on the educational offerings available to artisans living and working in New York City; from 1917 through at least 1928, the museum inaugurated a series of industrial arts exhibitions that displayed works by designers who have studied from the Met’s collection. While the Met continued to encourage creative production, however, the physical museum became less of a site for art making itself. In 1926, studio programs geared toward artists and artisans were limited to lectures and study hours; the museum saw its role as fostering a sense of high taste in its audiences (Elliot, 1926). Into the middle of the twentieth century, the Met’s programming shifted its focus: educational offerings for adults were primarily in the form of lectures, while art-making courses were geared toward children.

The decline of art making at the Metropolitan was echoed at museums throughout the United States in the early twentieth century. This decline aligned itself with what Levine has dubbed the “sacralization of culture,” in which popular and high arts were increasingly differentiated. Shakespeare became exclusively highbrow; the opera was the domain of the wealthy, rather than all audiences. Sacralization also went hand-in-hand with the decrease of amateur art practice:

The blurring of that distinction [between amateur and professional] had been one of the characteristics of music in America for much of the nineteenth century. But by the end of the century the gap had widened. More and more it was asserted that it was only the highly trained professional who had the knowledge, the skill, and the will to understand and carry out the intentions of the creators of the divine art. (Levine, 1988)

Pianos no longer served as the home’s cultural hearth; according to Ivey, the radio, and later television, would come to replace it (Ivey, 2008). Arts and culture participation was now an act of consumption, 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.

American museums went through a similar pattern of sacralization. As Levine notes, museums transitioned from “the general and eclectic to the exclusive and specific,” solidifying the generic distinctions between art, natural history, history, and science institutions that we know today (1988). In building collections, art museums opted for exemplars of the finest taste, eschewing the mix of popular and high-cultural objects of yore. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston represents this trend: when it opened its doors to the public in 1876, the MFA’s collection consisted of both original artworks and reproductions. Over the next years, the museum “began to relegate the photographs, casts, and a variety of ‘curiosities’ to storage and dedicate its galleries to what its director in 1912 called ‘higher things’” (Levine, 2008).

Since their establishment, museums have been seen as educational institutions, but it was around this time that that the field of museum education emerged and professionalized. In line with the ideals of the Progressive Era, education departments formed to provide programming and outreach as a service to “uplift” the masses of workers who had increasingly more leisure time. Elliot Kai-Kee (2011) cites the 1930s as a time when “creativity,” rather than training in particular skills, “became the chief goal of art instruction.” However, docent-led art historical lectures and tours with the aim of instilling a sense of aesthetic appreciation became de rigueur for adults, with art making primarily left for children.

As the field of museum education became professionalized, museum workers looked for a body of scholarship to inform their practices. The writings and teachings of figures such as inventor of kindergarten Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952), and philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey (1859–1952) shared a dedication to self-directed and hands-on learning, tenets that would be widely adopted by museum educators. (Paradoxically, the attitudes behind these educational theories were core to art-making museum offerings for children at a time when museums were phasing out art-making programming for adults.) In the 1970s, Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget built on and codified the ideas of Frobel, Montessori, and Dewey in what is now known as constructivism. This epistemology posits that knowledge does not exist separately from individuals, but is instead constructed based on experience. In museums, constructivism—in the form of “visitor-centered learning” and the “visitors experience”—became a dominant discourse in the 1990s (Kai-Kee, 2011; Hein, 2012). Interactive exhibitions, hands-on discovery through creation, movement, and improvisational theater were some of the approaches being introduced into the galleries at this time.

Above, I’ve discussed nineteenth-century museums’ role in training artists and artisans in particular crafts and aesthetic sensibilities, efforts to fulfill their missions as educational institutions. These efforts, however, do not mean that museums’ relationships to living artists have always been painless, nor should they imply that museums’ goals have always aligned with those of artists. Sociologist Vera Zolberg has written extensively about the tense relationship between artists and museums. She argues that “although museums of modern art have many occasions to deal with artists, they have rarely viewed living artists as forming a community toward which they have particular obligations” (Zolberg, 1992).

Many museums see their primary goal as collecting artworks of high caliber, thereby conferring status on them; most artists will never enter a museum’s collection. Despite these tensions, a few museums in the twentieth century have served as sites for art making (or at least support for the development of artistic practice) by professional artists. And unlike programs in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, which aimed to train artisans in skills or to proselytize the museum’s concept of good taste to the masses, these programs were (or are still) often directed towards artists who are either represented by the museum’s collection, on par with the perceived caliber of what the museum exhibits, or have the potential to make their name within the realm of contemporary art. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (founded in 1970) and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s residency (founded in 1968) are two examples of programs that help promising artists and curators develop their practices. Around this time, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began its historical Art and Technology Program, from which today’s Art + Technology Lab takes its inspiration. In the original program, which ran from 1967 to 1971, curator Maurice Tuchman placed an impressive roster of artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell in technology corporations in order to conduct research and develop new, experimental projects.

Thus far, I have discussed the prevalence of art practice in the United States in the nineteenth century and its subsequent decline into the twentieth century. Within this context, museums have served as sites for art making in many ways: at first as sites for instilling artisans with skills, subsequently limiting art making programming efforts to younger audiences, and, more recently, occasionally inviting professional contemporary artists through prestigious residencies and study programs. Today, arts participation through amateur art practice is again on the rise in the United States, and subsequently museums are being reinvigorated as sites for art making for all ages and levels of professionalization. Over the last few decades, museums have hosted hands-on classes and workshops for adults, geared both toward training students in skills and encouraging creative exploration. Some programs even take a page out of their institution’s historical roots: In December 2014, the Metropolitan announced that it will relaunch its copyist program, inviting anyone who applies to set up an easel to paint and draw directly from the works in the museum’s collection.

I will return to the rise of arts participation—or as I will argue, creative production more generally—in the final section. For now, I’d like to conclude that the forms of programming emerging in museums now, in which participants are invited to create with new technologies, fit within this larger history of art making in museums. In this sense, such efforts are not all that new. But these technology-oriented programs are also stemming from another historical lineage, one that brings with it particular attitudes: that of hackers and makers, which I will discuss in the following section.

3. On technology: Hackers, makers, and the rhetoric of innovation

Hacker: it’s a troubled term. The White House, NASA, National Science Foundation, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies were all sponsors of this past year’s National Day of Civic Hacking. Yet, commenting on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden’s extradition to Russia in June 2013, President Obama disparagingly remarked, “I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker” (Gregg & DiSalvo, 2013). “Hacking” strikes the imagination precisely because of these two contradictory perceptions: a hacker is creative, inventive, and industrious, but also unruly and dedicated first and foremost to his or her beliefs.

The earliest computer hackers emerged at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1950s and 1960s, when student members of the Tech Model Railroad Club would break into off-limits offices to use giant mainframe computers in the evenings, spending all night coding and debugging their irreverent and playful programs. For these hackers, programming computers became a way of life. In Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy (2001) outlines the doctrines underlying their community:

  1. Access to computers—and anything which [sic] might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!

  2. All information should be free.

  3. Mistrust Authority—Promote Decentralization.

  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.

  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

This “hacker ethic,” as Levy calls it, reveals a countercultural, anti-authoritarian leaning that is still central to our image of computer hackers today. Hackers held a steadfast belief that information should be accessible to all, a tenet that would become further solidified in Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation and the free and open-source movement. They also shared the belief that coding was ultimately a creative endeavor.

The so-called maker movement—a name that was coined in 2005 to identify a growing subculture interested in using technology for do-it-yourself projects—builds on the same do-it-yourself attitude of hackers. Unlike hackers, “makers” are not just interested in software, the stuff of computers; they apply their knowledge and enthusiasm of the digital and electronics to creating objects for the physical world. In his book Makers, technology and business writer Chris Anderson (2012) identifies three phrases of his personal DIY journey: working with his hands in his grandfather’s workshop in 1970s Los Angeles, the punk scene in Washington, D.C., and the spirit of community of the nascent Web in the 1990s. The maker movement, he explains, borrows from these and other precedents a willingness to experiment, an emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and access to tools and knowledge. If open software was a defining tenet of the early hackers, then open hardware is a key a component of “maker culture.”

Despite its DIY ethos, maker culture lacks the kind of subversive agenda that fueled early hackers. From its beginning—at least as a branded entity— the maker movement was not a grassroots movement, as the hackers had developed, but rather an initiative led by a for-profit company. Anderson places the official birth of maker culture in 2005 with the launch of Make magazine. Dale Dougherty, a cofounder of the prolific technology publishing group O’Reilly Media, spearheaded these efforts along with Sherry Huss and Dan Woods. (The magazine would spin off into its own publishing company, Maker Media, Inc., in 2013.) Modeled after older periodicals such as Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, the magazine focuses on DIY projects involving, among other topics, electronics, computers, robotics, and fabrication. In addition to issuing the bimonthly magazine, Maker Media now also publishes digital and print books, produces Maker Faires—large “show-and-tell” convenings in which makers show off their projects—around the world, and operates Maker Shed, an e-commerce site that sells DIY electronics, kits, and publications.

What has proven to be compelling about the maker movement is how it includes virtually all disciplines within its rhetoric of innovation. Case in point: Dougherty’s essay on the maker movement in MIT Press’s innovations journal, which veers toward the promotional (Dougherty, 2012):

When I talk about the maker movement, I make an effort to stay away from the word “inventor”—most people just don’t identify themselves that way. “Maker,” on the other hand, describes each one of us, no matter how we live our lives or what our goals might be. We all are makers: as cooks preparing food for our families, as gardeners, as knitters. Although this view may not be part of mainstream thought, there once was a time when most Americans commonly thought of themselves as tinkerers. Tinkering used to be a basic skill, and you could get a little bit more out of life than the average person if you had good tinkering skills—if you could fix your own car, for example, or improve your home or make your own clothes.

With this kind of all-encompassing language, Dougherty invites everyone to his utopian vision of a maker-fueled future.

Community-building is central to the maker movement, and this often happens through maker spaces. Also called “hackerspaces” and “fablabs,” these are shared workshop spaces in which people can tinker with high and low technologies. Some, like the TechShop network, are membership based, allowing members to work on projects during repeated visits. Community centers, libraries, and schools have started implementing maker spaces for their patrons and students. In an educational context, they have been heralded as spaces for open-ended exploration, allowing learners to tap into their own interests through the development of personal projects.

While maker spaces may be a communal gathering point for the movement, making can also happen in the home. The technological equipment found in maker spaces is increasingly becoming cheap enough to own; for instance, 3D printers have dipped below the $1,000 price barrier. New startups, companies, and products targeted towards makers have emerged in the last five years: Adafruit and Sparkfun are well-known online purveyors of DIY electronics and kits, and the open-source microcontroller Arduino allows users to create interactive objects and environments. Additionally, online communities have formed around knowledge and file sharing: how-to guides are crowd-sourced on websites like Instructables, Howtoons, and Fritzing, while on Thingiverse users share 3D objects files that anyone can download and fabricate on their personal printers.

“Maker spaces,” “makers,” and “maker movement” have increasingly become commonplace terms in popular discourse as the so-called movement increases in attention. Dougherty has discussed the movement’s implications on business, government, and education, and he’s not the only one touting the maker movement as a supposed disruptive force. In The Tinkerers: The Amateur, DIYers, and Inventors Who Maker America Great (2013), Alex Foege argues that tinkering has been a bedrock of innovation and industry in the United States, from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison; he applauds the country’s return to tinkering, now manifested in makers. The subtitle of Chris Anderson’s book Makers (2012) says it all: the maker movement is ushering in a “new industrial revolution,” one in which manufacturing is no longer bound to large-scale corporations. With a DIY ethic and access to cheap equipment and open-source software, individuals now have the power to fabricate the products they want. He proposes that the maker movement will foster a new and formidable class of small businesses. And makers have made it all the way to the top: on June 18, 2014, President Barack Obama hosted the inaugural White House Maker Faire, which brought together over a hundred people, projects, and companies creating with new tools and technologies.

Whether or not the maker impulse will be a revolutionizing force is yet to be seen, but it has undoubtedly seeped into the realm of education. Attracted to the maker movement’s emphasis on creativity, learning-by-making, and self-directedness, educators view maker projects as a way to excite their students about science and mathematics. Thus the same educational theories valued by museum educators (as discussed in the previous section) align with many of the goals of a maker-infused curriculum. Like their art museum counterparts, proponents of hands-on educational technology look to the theories of Montessori, Dewey, and Piaget, and have added a newcomer to the list: Seymour Papert. In the late 1950s, Piaget tapped the mathematician to collaborate on his research investigating how children construct knowledge. Papert took Piaget’s theory of constructivism one step further in what is now called constructionism, which posits that learning is most effective when individuals create tangible objects (Papert, 1980; Kafai & Resnick, 1996). In 1968, with Cynthia Solomon, Wally Feurzig, and others, Papert developed Logo, a computer language designed to teach programming concepts to children. He has since advocated for the educational use of computers in new, imaginative ways that align with the ideals of learning-by-making, whether the activities entail composing original music, controlling puppets, or doing mathematical modeling.

More generally, recent years have seen increased advocacy for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in primary, secondary, and higher education. The STEM movement is inextricably aligned with the rhetoric around innovation that dominates in this country. Supporters claim that without a workforce trained in these fields, the United States will not be able to maintain its dominance in innovation. Backing for STEM has professionalized and solidified through a bevy of national and regional nonprofit advocacy organizations such as the STEM Education Coalition. The Boy Scouts of America, Department of Defense, and National Science Foundation alike have announced programs dedicated to improving STEM literacy.

In the past few years, certain stakeholders have proposed adding a new letter to the acronym: A for Art, transforming STEM into STEAM. Designer and computer scientist John Maeda (2012), a pioneer in the STEAM initiative, wrote:

I would argue that STEM alone will not get us there. Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real.

Without the critical thinking and design skills nurtured through art, Maeda and others argue, we will not be able to achieve economic goals in a holistic and ethical way.

The countercultural impulses of the hackers begat the more mainstream DIY attitudes of the maker movement, which is inextricably tied to today’s dominant discourse of technology’s economic promise. It is within this context that art museums have begun to invite creators to experiment with new technologies, which I will discuss further in the final section.

4. Participatory culture at the intersection of art and technology

Hackers and makers are but a part of what some might call a participatory attitude that has become widespread in the United States (and throughout the world) in the last fifteen years. In a participatory culture—as opposed to consumer culture—amateurs take the reins of the production of media and cultural artifacts. Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi (2008) describe a participatory culture as:

one where there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, where there is strong support for creating and sharing what one creates with others, and where there is some kind of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed to novices.

As the Internet increasingly provides easy access to tools and networks with which to contribute and distribute culture, everyone becomes a media maker. Wikipedia, video-sharing site YouTube, and fan-fiction websites are just a few examples of platforms that allow and in fact rely on the participation of grassroots creators.

Many museum thinkers have adopted this participatory ethos over the last decade. (Case in point: a search on the Museums and the Web archives for the term “participatory” yields hundreds of results.) The word “participatory” is equally beloved and abhorred within the art world, both employed as a rallying cry for engaging new and often underserved audiences and denounced for “dumbing down” the art-viewing experience. In 2010, Nina Simon published The Participatory Museum, a widely read guide to designing museum experiences in which visitors contribute, collaborate, and create. In an essay titled “The Exploded Museum,” Peter Samis of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art speaks of the turn to social media in museums. He argues that a collection’s meanings can be enriched through user-generated content; the interpretation of works of art has now shifted to creation (Samis, 2012). Like museums of the nineteenth century that offered art-making opportunities in keeping with the broader culture of amateur arts practice, museums today recognize the greater participatory zeitgeist and incorporate such strategies into their own offerings.

The previous two sections have thus far distinguished art making from computer- and electronics-based forms of production. But throughout my narrative, there have been moments of intersection, if subtle ones. Museums have been sites of information sharing and skill building, offering (often free) classes since their beginnings; early computer enthusiasts advocated for open access to information. Similarly, educational programming in museums and maker-inspired initiatives today have in common the same theoretical underpinnings, rooting their practices and goals in an ethic of hands-on and personalized learning.

I’d like to suggest that while art museums exhibit a very particular kind of visual art that follows the conventions of the contemporary art world, increasingly, more generalist audiences are blurring the boundaries between art, media, and technology. The maker movement encompasses all kinds of creators, from robotics builder to knitters; STEM has made room for art in STEAM. Platforms like Etsy (an e-commerce website for handmade or vintage items) and Kickstarter (a site that allows individuals, fledgling companies, and established organizations to raise funds for creative projects) have emerged as new marketplaces for creative production, agnostic of labels such as “art” and “technology.” New York University founded the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in 1979 to foster the interdisciplinary study of new and computational media; in 1985, MIT established its Media Lab, a research center that situates itself at the intersection of engineering, technology, design, and art. (These programs themselves are outgrowths of initiatives such as Experiments in Art and Technology and MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, both founded in the late 1960s and both of which paired engineers and artists to work on creative projects.) ITP, the Media Lab, and other similar programs have spawned alumni who go on to lead careers as artists and establish startup companies alike.

Technology, hacking, makers: these words are increasingly common in popular discourse today. Art museums are adopting the tools and strategies of the technology scene today for many reasons. On the one hand, it is easy to see a parallel between artists and hackers, both groups dedicating themselves to the enactment of counterculture through creative production. Like hackers, artists are known for eschewing authority, forming a community of creators around this subversive practice. The image of a hacker resonates with the image of the irreverent artist who uses his craft to convey an anti-authoritarian, if not full-on political, message. But in practice, tapping into the contemporary tech ethos isn’t all that radical, as the maker movement rushes into the mainstream. The maker movement has now been normalized, keeping the elements of creativity while stripping itself from more subversive leanings. In fact, maker culture co-opts tinkering with technology to align itself with the mainstream interests of growing the economy and boosting innovation. Art museums are attracted to technology, the maker movement, and hacker culture because these attitudes align with the creative practices art museums have always championed while imbuing these (often considered staid) institutions with the cache of progress and futurity.


Thank you to Ian Condry and William Uricchio for your continued guidance on this paper in particular and my thesis project in general. I’d also like to extend my sincere gratitude to all of the museum makers who have graciously shared their time and thoughts with me; in particular, thank you to Don Undeen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Juliette Fritsch and Ed Rodley of the Peabody Essex Museum, and Amy Heibel and Joel Ferree of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Finally, I’d also like to give a shout-out to John Craig Freeman, whose EEG ARG: Things We Have Lost—currently being developed at LACMA through the Art + Technology Lab—is the fantastic project I refer to in the very beginning of this paper.


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Cite as:
. "Museum making: Creating with emerging technologies in art museums." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 1, 2015. Consulted .