Making space

How museums are turning to makerspaces to encourage informal connections with diverse local communities
3d Printing Digital Making
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Deborah Mulhearn
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The MuseumLab makerspace at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, in Pennysylvania, US
The MuseumLab makerspace at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, in Pennysylvania, US © Eric Staudenmaier. MuseumLab. Design Architects: KoningEizenberg; Architect of Record: PWWG

Makerspaces do what they say on the tin: they are spaces to make things in. They are places where people can participate in building, creating and making activities, from ceramics to computer coding. They tend to be set up for and by hobbyists, entrepreneurs and inventors (children and adults), and provide tools and equipment such as 3D printers, lathes, laser cutters, sewing machines and, crucially, space.

They have a social as well as a societal purpose: from hacker spaces that attract coders to spaces that house more traditional crafts to those that are largely self-explanatory (and gendered), such as Men in Sheds, makerspaces can be turned to almost any pursuit.

While they originated as grassroots initiatives, they often find homes in institutional buildings, including libraries, community centres, schools and university campuses, business parks, and sometimes museums and galleries.

Some makerspaces work with museums on a temporary basis. Examples include National Museums Northern Ireland partnering with FabLab Nerve Centre in Derry, Bright Box Makerspace running its mobile unit at Museums Sheffield, and MakerEd UK taking its Steam Works team to the National Railway Museum in York.

A digital maker club at Ulster Museum, which was set up by National Museums Northern Ireland and the FabLab Nerve Centre

All are run by independent makerspaces teams, so their informal, often quirky, qualities don’t get lost by having to follow a museum’s agenda. Naturally, it gets more complicated when they become part of an institution’s programming and hierarchical structure.

“The diffusion of maker culture into institutions is an evolving process,” says Kat Braybrooke, a research fellow in engineering and design at the University of Sussex and founder of creative research lab Studiõ Wê & Üs. “Collections makerspaces are both privileged and fragile,” she says. “They are privileged because they are able to access

resources and kit provided by their host institution and its partners. But they are also fragile, because they are only safe as long as their institutional host finds their work to be valuable. Material participation can be hard to quantify, so if a museum focuses only on numbers through the door, a lot of the richness of these spaces won’t be captured.”

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This is perhaps one reason why museums do not often see themselves as locations for hosting makerspaces. A database of makerspaces compiled five years ago by Nesta, a charitable foundation set up to promote innovation, listed only a couple of museum-based ones outside London.

New ways of working

But the picture is beginning to change, with makerspaces opening in several UK museums including the Museum of Making in Derby and the Harris in Preston. Both are embedding making in not just the building but in the whole ethos of the museum, including access to collections.

Some makerspaces can be classed as interactive galleries, such as National Museums Wales’ Gweithdy gallery (see box) and the Crafts Council’s new multi-space gallery in a converted chapel in north London. These welcome the public with activities and events, but also act as a showcase (and source of income) for professional artists and makers.

Material gains

Gweithdy (the Welsh word for workshop) opened as part of a larger redevelopment of St Fagans National Museum of

History in Cardiff. Although it was conceived and designed with a contemporary makerspace ethos to inspire making and creativity, underpinned by the museum collection, it is perhaps more of a hybrid as a museum gallery with a separate workshop space and cafe under one roof.

Sioned Williams, the principal curator of modern history at St Fagans, contests the word “makerspace” and calls it “an interactive gallery with a workshop attached”. It has different areas based on materials – textiles, wood, plants, metal, clay, stone – with commissions from local makers introducing each area with a piece based on their specialism. As well as supporting contemporary makers, Gweithdy provides a platform for traditional crafts.

“St Fagans has always interpreted traditional crafts and still has demonstrating craftspeople: a blacksmith, clog maker, miller and weaver,” says Williams. “Gweithdy provided the opportunity to include activity as an integral part of the experience alongside the exhibits, giving it its workshop feel. It is an active space with participation at its core. We wanted to create different learning environments for visitors to experience archaeological and historical evidence, including multiple narratives and user contributions in its interpretation.

“From the early concept of the gallery and the fitout of the workshop we consulted with makers, teachers and other such spaces across Wales to inform the design along with workshop best practice. We also brought together local makers via our craft forum to discuss ideas, share information and plan craft courses and workshops.”

Each activity table has drop-in, self-led activities relating to different materials and there are also tactile interactives within the interpretation.

“The gallery feels more relaxed than other spaces, especially when people are knitting and chatting on one of the large tables,” says Williams. “We’d like to offer more activities – we held half-term craft activities [pre-Covid] this year. The place was buzzing with creativity.”

Braybrooke wanted to understand how makerspaces in institutions operate, so launched the first academic study of these kinds of sites in the UK. She also looked at five London cultural institutions that were early adopters of such spaces – the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the British Museum and the Wellcome Collection.

The British Museum Samsung Digital Discovery Centre was formed in 2009 (and relaunched last year) through a partnership between the museum and Samsung Electronics. It offers digital making workshops for schoolchildren via actual and virtual visits to the galleries.

Braybrooke found that the Samsung Centre had its greatest impact when challenging the traditions of its host institution by offering staff examples of new ways of working that were more open and less hierarchical.

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“The latest tech is important,” a member of museum staff told her, “but only as much as we know how to use it. Finding the cleverest use of a technology is much more important than the technology itself.”

This is crucial to the success of the makerspace. Braybrooke says collections-based makerspaces transform how we interact with and change “high culture”.

Gweithdy, the workshop space of St Fagans National Museum of History in CardiffAmgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

“They can challenge traditional methods and attitudes by offering staff tangible examples of different working methods and structure,” she says. “This matters a great deal in the UK, where census data shows us that while the cultural sector is growing, there is decreasing diversity among those who go to museums,” says Braybrooke. “And engagement remains unevenly associated with socioeconomic status.”

Community connection

This concern is at the heart of the Museum of Making, Derby’s £17m newly reconfigured Derby Silk Mill, due to open in spring 2021. “There is no point in parachuting in ideas,” says Hannah Fox, its director of projects and programmes.

“The staff need to feel they are makers. If we are going to unlock that passion for making in the public, we need to unlock it in our teams. So they have been involved in the delivery of the museum and building prototypes of cases and furniture.

Curators, volunteers and workshop staff have all worked together,” she says. “The staff act as facilitators. They understand the technology and are comfortable as makers.”

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The museum did research on what was needed in the venue. “We were particularly impressed by the awe-inspiring MuseumLab makerspace at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh,” Fox says. “From it we learned that you can have good intentions but if you don’t have the market it won’t work. We identified a need and then built a model that is community- and site-specific. What you define as a space for making is personal to your site, your community and your demographic.”

In a sense, the whole venue is a makerspace and the Museum of Making celebrates making in a comprehensive way. “It’s inspired by the makers of the past and tells Derby’s story without ignoring the negative connections of the slave trade and the industrial revolution,” says Fox. “But it also connects to Derby’s ongoing story of manufacturing – with firms such as Bombardier, Rolls-Royce and Toyota.”

Derby Silk Mill will reopen in 2021 as the Museum of Making Derby Museums

Fox is particularly keen to attract young people, from school leavers to graduates. “Derby has branded itself as a city of innovation, but it has a problem with low aspiration and attainment, so those big manufacturing firms struggle to recruit locally, which in turn leads to wage depression,” she says.

“The aim is for Derby’s young people to have the broadest skills that are needed to build resilience and the ability to develop their ideas into products and services,” says Fox.

“We embed Steam (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) principles and material knowledge but also soft skills. So the museum not only acts as a stimulus for young people thinking about what to do next, but also as an exemplary showcase, including a co-working hub to impress executives of local manufacturing firms,” she says.

“We will be offering the activities among our 50,000 objects and artefacts. There’s no hidden storage so everything is out,” Fox says. “I hope it feels like you’re in a treasure trove of objects and stories, where you can see how relevant it is to your life and can relate to the way the object is made, who made it and what it’s made from.”

Fox hopes the activities will create a rounded experience that expands the perspective of what museums are and how they can be relevant to communities.

(L) An artist's impression of the Assemblage space at the Museum of Making and (R) a workshop volunteerThe Creative Core, Derby Museums

Museums have to figure out what will work for them, as there is huge variation in types of makerspaces, the activities they can house and the ways in which they can exist in institutions. At the Harris in Preston, the planned makerspace in a capital project to redevelop the museum and art gallery takes elements from similar

spaces in other cultural venues, including the Making Rooms in Blackburn and Storyhouse in Chester, which don’t have their own collections but are part of wider cultural services.

Tangible benefits

“The makerspace at the Harris is not so much a dedicated physical space as it is an ethos of making that is embedded throughout the building and whole service,” says Tim Joel, the head of culture at Preston City Council.

“We are moving away from a traditional static museum and gallery. Our capital project is looking to address the thread of making that is the bedrock of Preston’s wealth and heritage, and rethinking making and creativity across the service,” says Joel. “It’s very rooted in Preston’s cotton heritage, but it’s now also digital making and coding.”

Culture is on the agenda, but in a way that has tangible benefits and not just lovely paintings on a wall

Tim Joel, head of culture, Preston City Council

There is a mix of participatory makerspaces throughout the building to reflect the different activities and needs of groups. Activities are geared towards communities rather than professional artists and makers. One successful example has been the coders club run by a teenager, but there are also more traditional craft-based groups, including calligraphy, leatherwork and bookbinding.

“Where we can manage it, these are held in spaces linked to the collections, so there can be an explicit connection – for example, the Silverdale hoard sets the scene for jewellery making and silversmithing,” Joel says. “Feedback tells us that people find inspiration from the collections.”

Embedding skills

“We also work with homeless creative groups and mental health providers to ensure we develop a community empowerment model where we have a collaborative approach to service delivery,” says Joel. “We have dropped the formal approach and making groups can use the building and access the collections within our making thread, so that they get a sense of ownership of the building itself,” he says.

“That diversity of offer in our making strand is important. It’s a coordinated approach to health and poverty so it becomes part of that conversation. Culture is on the agenda, but in a way that has tangible benefits and not just lovely paintings on a wall.”

As seen by some of the newer efforts by museums, makerspaces based on collections have the potential to shift traditional power relations within venues. It requires daring and a willingness to learn, but if museums want to be relevant, especially in the post-Covid landscape, there is an abundance of tried-and-tested community approaches that can help to show the way.

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist

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