Last month I made a trip up to Calgary to visit Protospace (a hackerspace) and see the Spark museum, which is a brand new science center that took more than ten years and $160 million to build. The transposition of these two types of spaces – one low-profile and grassroots, the other high-profile and formal in organization – got me thinking about how hacker/maker culture can have a conversation with the world of public interactive exhibits in museums. One surprise was how strongly designers and developers in the museum space were inspired by the maker movement. Ann Poochareon and Mark Argo run a company called Aesthetecs, which specializes in designing interactive exhibits. They created a standardized Arduino-compatible platform with a dev environment in OSX for controlling valves, sound, gears, and nearly anything you can think of.

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They draw inspiration from the maker movement, both identifying with a hands-on craft background and taking part in events such as make faire. As Ann put it, “There’s so much consumer culture… that getting up and making something is an act of rebellion, and it makes you feel a little more powerful.” I had heard this sentiment among makers, who describe how getting more people to learn to solder is essentially a political statement; the iron is a tool and also a symbol of understanding that hardware isn’t durable, but eminently reconfigurable. It hints at a larger world beyond the confines of our devices, one that has largely been taken from us through walled gardens and black boxes.

What do hackerspaces and museum exhibits have in common? They both engage what I like to call possibility spaces, where creativity and imagination can take hold. We are used to encountering electronics, particularly those used for educational purposes, in very culturally-charged climates. To expand on this, Papert and Turkle discussed what they called epistemological  pluralism necessary for learning. Their example was of a female software developer who felt obligated to think about code using particular metaphors, and that “there is only one right way to approach the computer, a way that emphasizes control through structure and planning.” Engaging with technology thus requires one to feel like they need to become a certain type of person and think a certain way.

While school settings can be said to often reject it, hacking embraces epistemological pluralism through more open and freeform environments. Rather than be confined to prescribed models, individuals can encounter materials and define projects according to their own interests. Both are types of public spaces, with slightly different requirements for entry: Spark will run an adult about $20 for a day, while a hackerspace may require inside knowledge and connections to find. Exhibit designers such as Dana Schloss (video posted above) are inspired by makers, a broad cultural movement that emphasizes DIY skills and tinkering. What is refreshing to me personally is to see the rich connections between the maker and public interactives worlds, with kids getting curious about how technology works.

More on Protospace coming soon… 

Huge thanks to Ben Reed, Andrew Preece, Paul Brodeur, Donna Venzi, Dana Schloss, Mark Argo and Ann Poochareon for being so kind with their time.

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