Hackers Welcome

Hackers Welcome

Museums are finding new ways to engage the public, in person and online.

You may not think of them as places to find hackathons, attend rock concerts, or until recently, watch cat videos, but Minnesota’s museums are changing, exploring ways to bring new people through their doors, and inviting the public to co-create programs with their curatorial experts, both in person and online. In May, Minnesota Museums Month, it’s worth taking a closer look at these important institutions.

0513_perfphilanthropy_p1.jpgLast summer's Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis drew a crowd of 10,000.

Minnesota is home to approximately 600 museums, with at least one in every county in the state. We have one museum per 9,000 residents, twice the national average. The Twin Cities alone have 55 museums, more than twice as many as Chicago. But for these museums to survive and thrive, they must adapt to stay relevant.

Museums today face substantial challenges. Acquiring, storing, studying, and exhibiting objects are expensive. About 100 hours of staff time are involved in adding a work of art to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ collection, and the average annual cost of stewardship of each object is $66, according to Kaywin Feldman, the MIA’s director and president. Multiply that stewardship cost by the 84,000 objects the museum holds: That’s more than $5 million annually, more than 20 percent of the Institute’s total annual operating expenses, before any spending on programming or audience engagement activities.

At the same time, fewer people are attending museums, according to a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts study, and more people are choosing to participate in cultural activities online.

The Center for the Future of Museums helps institutions identify trends and explore creative responses to changes in the economic, political, and cultural environment they work in. Recent ideas from the center, a project of the American Alliance of Museums, include learning from the video game industry to make exhibits more engaging, and responding to changing demographics in an increasingly multicultural and multilingual world.

The Center’s just-released annual Trendswatch report for 2013 highlights several cutting-edge ideas worth copying, including several related to 3D printing, an area where Minnesota companies like Stratasys are industry leaders.

According to the report, at least four museums have recently held hackathons, inviting artists, “technology geeks,” and the public to explore 3D printing and other digital tools. For example, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is host to the Wanger Family Fab Lab, a workshop that allows the public (including children as young as 8) to “dream up, design, and make almost anything you can imagine” in a lab equipped with tools like CAD workstations, 3D printers, and laser-cutters.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art held #Met3D, inviting artists and tech staff from MakerBot Industries, a manufacturer of small 3D printers, to explore how technology could help museum visitors engage with the collection. One result: The Met has made digital data for some of its objects available at MakerBot’s first retail store.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore offered $5,000 in prizes to teams who came up with the best ideas related to arts education and accessibility, with local tech companies serving as judges. One contestant brought his own MakerBot replicator with the idea of scanning and printing 3D miniatures from the museum’s sculpture collection.

Trendswatch suggests that 3D printing could become a valuable tool for a museum’s own exhibit fabrication and object documentation, allowing institutions to make the interior of an object visible, or to change the scale of an object to allow viewers to see it in greater detail. Local partnerships between Minnesota museums and our tech companies, anyone?

The report also highlights how museums are offering digital badges as certifications for online and real-world learning. Imagine a “badge” in contemporary art drawn from the collection and expertise of the Walker Art Center, or one on conducting historical research from the Minnesota Historical Society.

We should care whether our state’s museums keep up with changing times. According to a University of Minnesota-led economic impact study, there were 14 million visitors to Minnesota museums in 2011, more than double the combined 5.9 million who attended Twins, Vikings, Lynx, Timberwolves, and Wild events. Our museums directly spent $337 million, employed 1,700 full- and part-time workers, and were supported by an estimated 1.1 million volunteer hours. About 12 percent of museum attendees are tourists who’ve traveled more than 50 miles to visit; they contributed $53 million to the state’s economy. Museums have an impact on other industries, including construction (they spent a whopping $157 million on capital improvements in 2011), health care, and restaurants. But beyond that, museums are places “that foster imagination, preservation, and a connection to others,” says Lin Nelson-Mayson, chair of the Minnesota Association of Museums.

Why not visit a museum this month that you’ve never visited before? Thanks to the new Minnesota Museums app, you can easily find one near you. When I looked up the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was led to their mobile site, and learned there’s now free Wi-Fi in all the galleries, so you can access detailed online information about the exhibited works of art.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.