We held a Maker Faire at my institution this past weekend, and it was an amazing expression of artistic/technological creativity. There were around 300 makers, and several tens of thousands of visitors who had to the opportunity to learn how to solder, knit and pick locks; to ride on strange bicycle merry-go-rounds; to watch and hear neuronal activity in a cockroach’s leg; to listen to a light-triggered player piano play “Let It Be” while nearby an Edison phonograph from our collection played a popular song of a different age; to open a computer and see how it works. (And Tim O’Reilly visited the museum and called it “the Louvre of the industrial age!”) It was an inspiring experience.
A post on the Make blog rightly argued that one great thing about Maker Faire is the “relative mainstreaming we offer to creative weirdness:” that the silly things (the art car with the Billy the Basses that sing Gilbert and Sullivan) are as important as the serious science stuff, but in a different way. One power wheels racing hacker I talked to said that he learned all kinds of mechanical skills working on his little power wheels car. I think a willingness to find value at the fringes and in the everyday is also reflected in our museum practice. We have important steam engines; we also have Speak n Spells.
I’ve been thinking about the accessibility and visibility of kinds of technological activities–and in this context I mean accessible as in “readily understandable to a visitor.” A human-powered vehicle that shoots flames is pretty accessible in this sense. A Casio keyboard opened up for kids to learn how to rewire it to make strange noises is a little less accessible. A RepRap busily printing its own parts is much less so; it requires significant interpretation for a visitor to understand what it is and why it’s important. The emphasis at Maker Faire is on hardware, on what people can see and touch easily, without much prior experience or frame of reference. Software history and innovation is harder to display–which of course we’ve found in exhibit practice–what you show is not the thing (the code) but what it can do. But the code is important too. A lot of our museum practice, especially for cultural heritage technologists, is, in this sense, very inaccessible to the public. When I ran into some librarian colleagues, they talked about the player piano they had just seen and how one might catalogue player piano rolls and to what standard–this is the kind of work that LAM types do, but it’s work that’s not visible to visitors, and needs explanation (why do you care? why does it matter?). I’d like us to try harder to make our practice as museum types visible and accessible to the public.
It’s been instructive to prepare for and experience Maker Faire while watching the development of One Week One Tool, the NEH Summer Institute at CHNM where folks created a digital humanities tool in one week. The process of doing software development in the digital humanities was as important as the eventual tool. I found the fact that they were doing the work in public (though keeping the tool a secret) inspiring, helping to throw open what digital humanities might be by showing how it’s done.
Throughout Maker Faire I was waiting for a stranger to ask me, “What do you make?” I make history. Let’s show everyone how it’s done, and how the public can be makers of history too.