Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Museum Hype or Museum Hope?

How do you know if a trend lighting up the Web, or the latest issue of Museum magazine, will be something of lasting value,  or whether it's almost pure hype?

More importantly for your museum, and the people who visit your museum, can you tease out the actual "hows" and "whys" for implementing a buzzy program idea, instead of just the "whats"?

It's amazing (and a little disheartening) to me how often the real answer for doing something new at a museum is a combination of:

• everyone else is doing it

• we can lots of publicity out of doing it

• anything connected to [insert hyped topic here] can get us funding   (As an aside, the acronym STEM should really stand for "Simple To Extract Money")

So let's take two different topics that have been buzzing around the cultural sector for the past few years:  Maker Spaces and the notion of "Hacking The Museum."

Setting up a Maker Space at a museum (or increasingly often, the local public library) can readily veer into the "hype" zone:

• lots of places are doing it (I'm actually working with FIVE different projects right now that want to include Maker-type Spaces in their new buildings!)

• Media outlets love to do stories on cute kids and/or wacky nerd types making things

• Funders love Maker Spaces!  (Especially if you tie making to STEM.)

The good news is that there actually is some long-lasting value in Making and Maker Spaces underneath the hype, especially if the institution creating a Maker Space is committed to being thoughtful about staffing, community engagement, and appropriate tools and materials (it's not all about 3D Printers!)

The further good news is that thoughtful, and readily available information exists online about the qualities that constitute a great Maker Space.

The slight bit of bad news is there are still plenty of museums merely rebranding their existing "recycled crafts areas" (filled with cut up magazines and cereal boxes and glue sticks) as Maker Spaces to latch onto funding.

That doesn't mean Maker Spaces are just hype, but it does mean those particular museums are as bogus as their pseudo "Maker Spaces" are.  In a similar vein, my jaw dropped (literally!) at a recent Science Center conference session where at least a dozen folks admitted that they received funding for creating a Maker Space, but had no real idea of how they were going to go about doing that!

In sum, even though there's much righteous hype surrounding Maker spaces, there's a long-lasting, meaty core of programming, content, and philosophy there that thoughtful museum folks can build upon.

Unlike "Hacking The Museum" which is 99% hype.

What does the term "hacking the museum" even mean beside being naughty or transgressive?  As the late great Steve Jobs would tell upstart software developers before crushing them, "that's a feature, not a product."

And the hopeful "feature" that makes the 1% non-hype aspect of "Hacking The Museum" worth your attention is the piece that gets you to think about re-examining the way of doing business at your institution. Not merely with the aim or being shocking, but with the aim of adding programs or approaches with lasting value to visitors.

And that should always be the core "product" behind our work, not just some buzzy "feature."

What do you think?  Where's the line between hype and hope in the museum biz these days?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below!

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