Member Spotlight: The Lost City Museum

The Lost City consists of a series of archaeological sites that run for 25 miles along the Muddy River Valley near the town of Overton in the Moapa Valley of Southern Nevada. In 1924, brothers John and Fay Perkins from Overton, informed Nevada Governor James Scrugham of the Native American ruins. Governor Scrugham then enlisted the help of archaeologist M. R. Harrington who was at that time associated with the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Harrington verified the importance of the archaeological sites, and named them Pueblo Grande de Nevada, the grand city of Nevada. He recognized the artifacts as belonging to the Anasazi (now called Ancestral Puebloan) civilizations that had flourished in the American Southwest for over 2000 years. He began excavations on the site in 1924 and continued off and on until 1938.

Fay Perkins, approximately 1940.

Fay Perkins, approximately 1940.

The name Lost City was given the area in the mid-1920s by the press. Pueblos were constructed and a train brought people to view a pageant with Native dancers and actors.

Union Pacific advertisement for the Lost City.

Union Pacific advertisement for the Lost City.

During the 1930’s, the waters of Lake Mead rose as a result of the construction of the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). Under the direction of Harrington, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to excavate the sites and ultimately protect the Ancestral Puebloan artifacts. In 1935, CCC workers built the Boulder Dam Park Museum (now the Lost City Museum) for the National Park Service to house the artifacts that were being recovered from the excavations. The building is now on the National Register of Historical Places.

The Boulder City Museum (as it was known before the Lost City Musuem) being built, circa 1935.

The Boulder City Museum (as it was known before the Lost City Musuem) being built, circa 1935.

 

The Lost City Museum, present day.

The Lost City Museum, present day.

The Lost City Museum has since been under the direction of multiple organizations. During World War II, the National Park Service used the Museum building as its Overton headquarters, keeping the Museum open to the public for a few hours each day. During the early 1950’s, Clark County provided funds for a caretaker to run the Museum. In 1953, the National Park Service turned the Museum over to the State of Nevada and removed their nationally owned artifacts. Private collectors loaned artifacts to the State to fill the Museum. It was not until 1955 that the Museum was officially funded through the Nevada State Department of Buildings and Grounds and was renamed the Lost City Museum.

Pueblos behind the Lost City Museum.

Pueblos behind the Lost City Museum.

In 1973 and 1981, new galleries were constructed with funds appropriated by the Nevada Legislature. In 1971 and 1973 additional funds were appropriated to purchase the loaned artifacts. The Museum became one of the seven museums managed by the Division of Museums and History Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs of the State of Nevada in 1979.

A model of Pueblos.

A model of Pueblos.

The Museum is constructed on this historical excavation site. The walls of the 1981 gallery were built around the foundation of a Pueblo complex, thus protecting it and making it one of the displays. Visitors today will also see a recently updated exhibit that tells the story of the the excavations; information about the geologic and cultural history of the area; a special exhibit with an overview of the last 150 years of Nevada history celebrating Nevada’s Sesquicentennial; and a display that changes monthly of the works of one or more local artists. In addition to the three exhibit galleries, there is a small orientation theater; a research library; a museum store; outdoor archaeological and historic exhibits, including reproduction pueblos; and a picnic/barbeque area. Every year the Lost City Museum hosts a variety of children’s activities, Native American Day, a special Christmas Open House, and other programs and activities.

A pithouse in front of the Museum.

A pithouse in front of the Museum.

Visit the Lost City Museum, as well as Michael Heizer’s landmark piece Double Negative and Valley of Fire during a pre-conference tour at WMA 2014! Learn more here.

Program Perspectives: An Interview with Mark Hall Patton

By Lauren Valone

Mark Hall-Patton

Mark Hall-Patton

With his more than 35 years of experience in the museum field, Mark Hall-Patton will certainly have stories to share during his Keynote Address at the Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting. In addition to 14 years as a Board member of the Nevada Museums Association where he served as President from 2000–2002 and 2008–2010, he has also served on the California Association of Museums and WMA boards. Mark is regularly seen on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars as a visiting expert. He has also appeared on American Restoration and Mysteries at the Museum.

In this brief interview, Mark gives readers a taste of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.

How are Las Vegas’s and Southern Nevada’s culture and museums unique?

Las Vegas and Southern Nevada have a unique history, which is presented in the museums here. Given a history, which includes unique foci, including Atomic Testing, Gaming, and a water table that brought settlers, the railroad, and eventually a large community, our museums tell this fascinating story. We Las Vegan museum professionals have to tell the story with a backdrop of massive advertising for alternatives to what we offer. We also have to realize that we do not have the resources to outshine the glitz and glamour of the strip, and must focus on our core stories to bring our visitors to the museums. One other point to make is that visitors to Las Vegas are normally not coming for a museum experience, so we have to recognize that when we reach out to them.

 

Many museums rely on tourism in addition to their local community. How does the Clark County Museum System approach both types of visitors?

The Clark County Museum uses every avenue possible to get the word out about the Museum. As we do not have an advertising budget, it is not possible to take out ads, so we are active in speaking to local groups. We also have the media access which comes from my being on Pawn Stars, and that drives both tourists and locals to the museum. We actively work with the Clark County School District to bring in school tours, and seek out any free source of advertising, including an active Facebook page and working with our Clark County Museum Guild supporters through their social media efforts. In terms of tourists, much of that is now driven by Pawn Stars who come in from 151 countries to visit and meet people from the show, including the museum administrator.

 

The Clark County Museum System consists of a 30-acre site covering pre-historic to modern times, and a collection of restored historic buildings in Las Vegas, Boulder City, Henderson and Goldfield. You are also the administrator for the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum and the Searchlight History Museum. What are some of your lessons learned when telling such an expansive story?

The stories often overlap and intersect, and we can use these intersections as a way to cross-pollinate between museums. We can interest visitors who arrive by air in the history of Clark County through the Aviation Museum, which can bring people to the County Museum, and if there, we can be sure they are aware of the Searchlight Museum. I also find that you have to bring the stories down to the personal level, using the story of a family or a house like the Henderson Townsite House to make accessible the greater story of World War II and its impact on Southern Nevada.

 

You have extensive experience consulting start-up museums, have served on association boards, and were even a past board member of the WMA. What advice do you have about developing strategic plans for museums?

I think it is necessary to be realistic in planning. At one point about 15 years ago, I sat my staff down for a five year planning effort, and started by saying that over the next five years we would not be getting any more staff, money or space—now what were we going to do with that time? The resultant document was a great plan and allowed us to accomplish quite a lot, both internally through directed effort, and externally by building up our recognition within County Government and the greater community. Planning should not be, in many cases, the “don’t worry about what we will need to accomplish this, just say what you think we should do” kind of document. Those tend to become great space holders on shelves, but seldom are accomplished.

 

Leadership is a very important topic among museum professionals. What advice do you have for becoming an effective leader?

Have a clear vision for your institution, and make sure you are actively and vocally following it. Listen to your staff, and make sure they understand and are part of that vision. Are you serving your community, or waiting for them to serve you (with more resources, space, etc.)? Is your staff aware of what their role should be with the community? Are you aware of what your staff is thinking? Leadership is not yelling or directing, it is making sure your staff is with you in the direction you are going, not getting lost or walking away. Always remember that leading in a void is rather ineffective.

 

Can you relate any of your experiences working on TV shows to working at a museum?

Working in museums brings a number of ethical challenges, which are somewhat magnified on television shows. Boards, staff, volunteers, visitors all can ask for efforts which are not in keeping with museum ethics at times, and television crews do this on a regular basis. It is important to know your boundaries, and not let yourself be pushed outside of what is appropriate. You are on your own in controlling what you are willing to do and whether what you are being asked to so is ethical, and you have to take that responsibility seriously.

 

How has working on TV shows changed they way you think about museum public/media relations, as well as how you interpret objects and stories for the public?

I don’t think it has changed it. My brother once described my role on Pawn Stars as “Mark on steroids” meaning that I have always understood artifacts as teaching tools, and now have a greater podium. I find now that I have a greater podium from which to speak, and a concomitantly greater responsibility to try at all times to get what I say right and within the bounds of good museum practice. On a different level, I am also aware of my role as presenter of the museum field and our work to the public, and often take the opportunity to explain why I say and do what I do, and how it is informed by my professional background.

 

Your book Asphalt Memories discusses the origins of street names in Clark County. What is the most interesting street name story in Las Vegas?

My favorites are two intertwined stories, that of Colanthe and Gilmary. When Larry G. McNeil of McNeil Construction, which built the Basic Magnesium plant and later built subdivisions and a number of other buildings, wanted to name a street for Florence Murphy, the first female vice-president of a scheduled airline in the United States, she refused. Eventually she said alright, but only under the condition that he use her real first name, which she hadn’t used since the age of five, and that he name a street for his real middle name which he never used. Hence, Colanthe and Gilmary Avenues. Florence was the person who told me the story initially, and it was one of the tales that led me to write the book. After the book came out, McNeil’s grandson visited me, and I told him the story. His response was “That was his middle name?”

 

What can WMA2014 attendees expect from your Keynote?

I hope they will have some laughs as well as some information that will help them think about whether they want to work with the media as I have. There are good and bad stories to being in the media, no matter how good the final product can be for your institution. I also hope they will find it at least enjoyable enough to stay awake, since it is first thing in the morning.

 

What is the most unexpected piece of information is about Las Vegas?

It is a very nice place to live and raise a family. My wife and I have raised two children here, a daughter who is a hydrogeologist in Reno and a son who is heading to graduate school this fall. There are wonderful historic and natural areas here, which are readily accessible, often within minutes of the Strip.

 

What would you like to say to attendees as they prepare for WMA 2014 in Las Vegas?

It may be warm and it may be cold. That may seem a little self-evident, but do check the weather forecasts before you pack. Take advantage both seeing the Strip and getting off the Strip. Among other things, the Las Vegas Strip, which is in Clark County not Las Vegas, is a unique walk (wear good shoes) and an All-America Road. And finally, plan to have a good time. We are pretty good at providing one.

 

Register for WMA2014 and attend Mark Hall-Patton’s 2014 Annual Meeting Keynote Address. Additionally, he is a panelists on two sessions—Revenue Diversification: Your Museum as an Event Venue or Film, and Photo Shoot Location and Collections That Can Kill: Safe Handling, Display, and Storage of Hazardous Materials and Weapons.

Learn more about the 2014 Annual Meeting here.

Lauren Valone is the Program Coordinator for the Western Museums Association. She has served on the Marketing Committee of the Waterworks Museum, and as Web Content Manager and Production Manager of Publishing and Social Media for an independent publisher. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, a BA in Studio Art, Photography from Lewis & Clark College, and has been published in and copy-edited for the Journal of Museum Education.

WaMA Conference Review: Keeping it Real in Port Townsend

By Joseph Govednik

The Washington Museum Association’s (WaMA) 2014 Annual Conference was in beautiful Port Townsend, a waterfront town known for its Victorian architecture, artistic influences, and maritime heritage. The meeting was held at the Fort Worden State Park conference center. Fort Worden is a former U.S. artillery garrison with a commanding view of Puget Sound and surrounding majestic topography. Conference goers had several options for lodging including staying in the officer’s quarters, enlisted barracks, or opting for one of the fine historic hotels in town. Port Townsend proved an ideal setting for attendees to not only network, attend sessions, and reconnect with old colleagues, but also get away from the worries of their everyday lives.

Commanding Officers Quarters at Ft. Worden State Park

Commanding Officers Quarters at Ft. Worden State Park.

This year’s conference, running from June 18-20, 2014, encompassed the theme “Real Things, Real Stories, Real Places.” Opening with pre-conference workshops, tours, and our annual “Registrars to the Rescue” program, participants had ample opportunities grow professionally, explore the geographic history of our host city, and give back to the museum community. Being trained in museums collections management, I had the opportunity to participate in Registrars to the Rescue (R2R), now in its third year. This program was created by Rebecca Engelhardt from the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. It’s an active hands-on task force where museum registrars and collections professionals gather at a local museum in need of curatorial collections assistance. This year’s recipient of the “R2R” task force was the Jefferson County Historical Society’s Historical Research Facility. Our task this year was repacking, photographing, cleaning, and condition reporting an entire collection of bird mounts dating from the 1890’s. It was a pleasure to work with colleagues from other institutions on a collaborative collections task and give back to our community!

The opening reception on the first night took place in an 1883-built Victorian mansion with a panoramic view of the waterfront, ferry terminals, and Mount Rainier. Owners Linda and Bob McGuire graciously opened their home to conference attendees with live music, generous hors d’oeuvres, and beverages. Several other historic homes were also available for visitors to tour during the reception.

Attendees at the WaMA 2014 Opening Reception at Victorian house from 1883

Attendees at the WaMA 2014 Opening Reception at Victorian house from 1883.

The second day of the conference opened with a general meeting attended by David King, Mayor of Port Townsend, and Jefferson County Commissioner John Austin. Both gentlemen gave a warm welcome to the audience and stressed the importance of heritage and arts organizations in communities. Our annual awards program honored exceptional works in the areas of exhibits, programs, and projects to name a few. The keynote speaker, Knute Berger, an award-winning writer, historian, and preservationist presented an inspirational and personally touching address. Knute brought up personal experiences and connected them to the challenges of humanity, culture, and real experiences. It was inspirational and thought-provoking, leading to many discussions amongst our attendees after the address concluded. His keynote address can be seen here.

A special thanks goes to our program committee for selecting relevant and compelling sessions related to “Real Things, Real Stories, Real Places.” They included topics ranging from surviving AAM accreditation and digital photogrammetry to using fiction to delve into the world of “real” things. Concluding the day’s sessions, attendees proceeded to the annual banquet at the Northwest Maritime Center. This venue was a spectacular place for our banquet, welcoming visitors with to a spread of oysters, drinks, and a buffet that included seafood selections catered by Mystery Bay Seafood Company. If eating delicious seafood at a waterfront maritime center wasn’t enough to give a local and real Port Townsend experience, the addition of sea chanty singers took things to the next level. The singers performed lively tunes that encouraged audience participation, and as the sun got lower on horizon, we headed out for more chanties and stories around an open bonfire on the beach.

Beautiful Port Townsend at sunset.

Beautiful Port Townsend at sunset.

The Washington Museum Association conference in Port Townsend was a huge success due to the hard work of an active board of directors, volunteers, and engaged members. Also contributing was the wonderful hospitality afforded us by the host location of Port Townsend, which welcomed us with open arms. Having municipal representation at our meeting from the host city demonstrates a commitment toward promoting the importance of heritage and arts organizations.

On a personal note I wish to express special thanks to outgoing WaMA Board members Brenda Abney (Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center) and Maya Farrar (University of Washington Museology Program) along with Past President Eric Taylor (4Culture) for striving for excellence in our association. They have contributed greatly to a legacy our membership can be proud of, and inspiration to our current Board.

This was my fourth WaMA conference since moving to Washington State over three years ago. I have always been impressed with the WaMA and consider it an honor to work with this state-wide museum organization. I look forward to building greater ties and partnerships with regional associations like the WMA. In our tradition of holding conferences on alternating sides of the “Cascade Divide,” we are looking forward to our June 2015 conference in Goldendale at the Maryhill Museum of Art along the Columbia River. We hope to see you there after the October WMA conference in Las Vegas!

Joseph Govednik is the Curator at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma and President of the Washington Museum Association Board. He is active with heritage organizations at regional, state, and local levels.

Updates From the Museum Association of Arizona 32nd Annual Conference

By Nancy Cutler

Mutual Engagement: Museums and Communities was the theme for the 32nd Annual Conference of the Museum Association of Arizona (MAA), held May 1st and 2nd, 2014 in the fun mountain town of Flagstaff, AZ, “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.” Centered at the Northern Arizona University’s duBois Conference Center and hosted by Museum of Northern Arizona and the Arizona Historical Society, Northern Division, the Conference was attended by more than 100 delegates, speakers, and guests.

The Wednesday evening President’s Reception, hosted by Riordan Mansion State Historic Park provided an informal atmosphere for Arizona museum professions to begin networking with comrades, familiar and new.

Three Arizona EMPs at the President’s Reception

Three Arizona EMPs at the President’s Reception

Keynote Speaker, Candace Matelic, PhD, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, gave an inspiring address on the “Transformative Power of Community Engagement.” This was followed up with a well-attended workshop, “Tools for Engaging Communities” giving guidelines on the process of how to begin involving sectors of the community with the museum as the focal point.

Candace Matelic delivers the Keynote Address

Candace Matelic delivers the Keynote Address

 

Keynote speaker Candace Matelic’s follow-up workshop

Keynote speaker Candace Matelic’s follow-up workshop

Sessions featured several roundtable discussions, as well as a Collections Track, including a hands-on discussion of basketry care and curation by the staff of the Arizona State Museum Conservation Department. Four off-site afternoon tours allowed participants to visit significant sites in Flagstaff, including the Lowell Observatory, a Walking Tour of Historic Downtown Flagstaff, further tours of the Riordan Mansion SHP, and the Museum of Northern Arizona’s new Easton Collection Center, which has achieved a Platinum LEED designation and has received the “Best of the Best” Award from McGraw-Hill.

Other events included a silent auction, which raised over $1500; dinner and live auction, at the Museum of Northern Arizona; and the Annual Business Meeting and Awards Luncheon celebrating significant achievements of individuals and cultural institutions in Arizona’s museum community. Awardee Navajo Nation Museum fascinated the Luncheon attendees with clips from the film “Navajo Star Wars”. The Conference was capped off by the Flagstaff First Friday ArtWalk of downtown art galleries, which began with a wonderful reception hosted by Hidden Light Framing and Photo Gallery featuring a bountiful selection of delicious appetizers provided by Simply Delicious Catering.

Navajo Nation staff receives the 2014 MAA Award of Institutional Excellence

Navajo Nation staff receives the 2014 MAA Award of Institutional Excellence

Post-Conference saw some delegates attending a joint workshop with MAA and the Registrars Committee-Western Region on Photographic and A-V Materials Preservation Issues at the Museum of Northern Arizona, and others taking a post-Conference tour of the historic La Posada Hotel and Old Trails Museum in Winslow, AZ on Old Route 66.

Overall there were many opportunities for collegial networking, an important element of our Annual Conference, and we achieved our goal of involving and introducing the Flagstaff community to the Museum Association of Arizona while engaging with the local community.

Nancy Cutler has served as Chair of the Museum Association of Arizona’s Annual Conference Committee for the past three years. She is also a member of the Board of the Central Arizona Museum Association and was a founder of the Museum Educator’s Council of Arizona. Following 12 years in the Education Department of the Desert Botanical Garden, she now works as a consultant, leading workshops at the state, local and national level, including the American Association for State and Local History. She is the co-author of A Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques (2008, AltaMira Press).

Reframing L.A.: Awarding Excellence in the Getty’s “Overdrive” Exhibit

By Christopher James Alexander

When my Getty colleagues and I embarked on the development of an architecture exhibition about the rapid evolution of one of the world’s most dynamic and influential cities, we had to embrace one harsh reality. People love to hate Los Angeles. Despite the fact that this region has inspired the creation of some of the most iconic structures of the twentieth century, including Griffith Observatory, the Capitol Records Tower, John Lautner’s Chemosphere, the space age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, and Case Study House 22 by Pierre Koenig, many are more inclined to associate this vast metropolis with haphazardly assembled banality than engineered excellence. Reframing the public’s perception of L.A.’s built environment was an exciting and daunting opportunity. Thanks to the extraordinary contributions of scores of talented individuals, Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 was able to reveal how Southern California’s latent landscape was transformed into a vibrant laboratory for architectural innovation.

There are multiple ways to engage with the exhibit including videos, iPads with sound wands, and 3-D viewers.

There are multiple ways to engage with the exhibit including videos, iPads with sound wands, and 3-D viewers.

Receiving the Western Museum Association’s (WMA) Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for Exhibition Excellence was a tremendous honor for the entire Overdrive team. This project was full of unexpected challenges that were overcome as a result of the nimble ingenuity and tireless efforts of colleagues throughout the institution. The recognition from our WMA peers was a profound endorsement of our ambition to create a vivid experience that would engage, inform, and delight museum visitors with underappreciated dimensions of L.A.’s complex architectural legacy.

Within the 'Community Magnets' section, there are a variety of objects to tell the story of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Within the ‘Community Magnets’ section, there are a variety of objects to tell the story of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The exposure that Overdrive received as a result of this important prize bolstered the National Building Museum’s presentation of the exhibition in Washington, D.C., which opened soon after the award’s announcement. The WMA buzz factor also resulted in increased traffic to the exhibition’s website, which still includes 23 videos highlighting the region’s growth and impact through animated maps, lively historic film footage, and intriguing oral histories. Interest in the exhibition’s catalogue also grew, due to the vibrant WMA network’s awareness and promotion of the project.

In the final gallery, the relationship of furniture and graphics define the space.

In the final gallery, the relationship of furniture and graphics define the space.

Every new exhibition provides an institution with the chance to redefine how complicated ideas and unique material may be presented to diverse audiences. The strength of the WMA community encourages us all to forge ahead with our ongoing goal of creating inspiring narratives and stimulating environments that spark fresh insights and cultivate meaningful moments of interaction. My colleagues and I are extremely grateful for the WMA’s support, and we look forward to exploring all of the compelling contributions from this year’s Charles Redd Center Award nominees.

The deadline for nominations to the 2014 Charles Redd Award is
July 31, 2014.

Learn more about the Award here.

Christopher James Alexander is the assistant curator of architecture and design at the Getty Research Institute. Since arriving at the Getty in 2004, he has co-curated the exhibitions Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 (2013); Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles (2007); Julius Shulman, Modernity and the Metropolis (2005); Bernard Rudofsky: What Would Intrigue Him Now? (2007); and the Getty’s installation of Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky (2008). He is the co-editor of Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 (2013) and the author of Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles (2011). Alexander earned his M.Arch degree from the University of California at Los Angeles and B.A. in Fine Arts and Art History from The George Washington University.

Program Perspective: Illuminating the National Atomic Testing Museum

Las Vegas, the Atomic City, was at the center of the nuclear era. At the National Atomic Testing Museum resides one of the most comprehensive collections of nuclear history.

One step into the Atmospheric & Pacific Testing gallery will transport you into another era.

The Atmospheric & Pacific Testing Gallery

The Atmospheric & Pacific Testing Gallery

The Museum tackles all aspects of atomic testing in the United States from underground testing and the specific tools used, to radiation, and to the intense geo-political struggle of the Cold War. The current collection includes thousands of rare photographs, videos, artifacts, scientific and nuclear reports and data and one-of-a kind scientist artifacts.

Underground Testing gallery

Underground Testing gallery

 

Underground testing drill bits

Underground testing drill bits

 

Display on drilling for underground weapons testing

Display on drilling for underground weapons testing

 

Tactical Nuclear weapons display

Tactical Nuclear weapons display

 

Downhole Fisheye Motion Picture Camera

Downhole Fisheye Motion Picture Camera

 

An installation on Soviet era memorabilia

An installation on Soviet era memorabilia

Southern Nevada was the testing ground for America’s Nuclear Testing Programs, and the city had a unique reaction: to revel in the magnificent display of science and become an Atomic City where tourists could attend atomic test parties. A popular watering hole in Las Vegas was Atomic Liquors, a local bar frequented by Frank Sinatra, The Rat Pack and Hollywood actors like Shirley McClain while performing in Las Vegas. Bar Patrons today can still order the famous Atomic Cocktail.

Items in the Atomic Age Gallery

Items in the Atomic Age Gallery

The special exhibit Area 51: Myth or Reality immerses you in the black world of Area 51, America’s most secret place that is certain to raise questions about UFOs, advanced technology, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

The "AREA 51" Poster

The “AREA 51″ Poster

During the Atomic City Evening Event at the WMA 2014 Annual Meeting, attendees will have the opportunity to see some of the more than 12,000 unique artifacts in a retrospective and comprehensive light.

Learn more about the 2014 Annual Meeting here.

Join WMA in Las Vegas and register today!

 

Explorations in Making, Tinkering, and Learning With Hands

By Susan Spero

Last week (June 16, 2014) the White House held its first ever Maker Faire, an effort that at least for me, signals a coming of age of the Maker/Tinkering movement within the United States. From the earliest beginnings of Maker Faires, museums have partnered to create, design, and engage audiences with these events. The Exploratorium played a strong role during the Maker Faire inaugural event in 2006 in Silicon Valley; two additional museums—the New York Hall of Science in the East and The Henry Ford near Detroit—now hold respective “flagship” Faires on their grounds. In fact you might not know that your institution can partner with parent organization Maker Media to create your own Maker Faires.

Variations of the hacked "The Art of Tinkering" book showcased at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. (photo by S. Spero).

Variations of the hacked “The Art of Tinkering” book showcased at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. (photo by S. Spero).

While do-it-yourself exploration has been present for a long time in museums, more recently several institutions have dedicated significant space for maker-style activities. In 2013 the Exploratorium opened its new site with more floor space committed to its Tinkering Studio. Likewise, in June 2014 the New York Hall of Science debuted its new Design Lab. To go along with the White House Maker Faire, the Institute of Museums and Library Services released these talking points (pdf) about Museums, Libraries and Maker Spaces. Museum work and the Maker movement readily go hand-in-hand; its increasing popularity allows doing and visitor participation totake center stage.

If you haven’t yet rubbed hands with the Maker movement, there are several resources about making, tinkering, and learning. I offer three to start.

The Art of Tinkering (Weldon Owen; First Edition [February 4, 2014]) is a joyful read wherein you meet playful artists, tinkerers, and their work. Authors Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich are the co-directors of the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium and have assembled a staff of tinkerers who not only at times tinker with physical material, but also have spent years together tinkering with this hands-on approach. You meet their tinkering spirit the minute you crack open the book: “Hack this book,” commands the opening line. Sure enough, readers can hack this book by completing circuits on the front cover, which has been printed using conductive ink. Add your own power source to make it blink with light, beep with sound, or whatever your mind can imagine.

Tools for playing with circuitry in the Tinkering Studio

Tools for playing with circuitry in the Tinkering Studio

In their opening essay, Wilkinson and Petrich offer a sense of what tinkering is, “..in our minds [tinkering] is more of a perspective…It’s fooling around with phenomena, tools and materials. It’s thinking with your hands and learning through doing. It’s slowing down and getting curious about the mechanics and mysteries of everyday stuff around you. It’s whimsical, enjoyable and ultimately about inquiry.” They go on to say more in the text, and their extensive experience shines through the entire book.

The book offers fifteen guiding principles of tinkering that in and of themselves make it worth a read. These include such notions as: Merge Science, Art and Technology; Create Rather than Consume; Revisit & Iterate On Your Ideas; and one of my truism favorites: Take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously.

The book is both a how-to guide and a collection of dozens of artistic/tinkering approaches seen through the photographs of studio spaces, tools necessary, and the end-results. Throughout the story, readers explore the tinkering mind-sets and methods that have been developed and refined over time, frequently after artists worked with the Tinkering Studio. Reviewing these varied approaches to making should inspire you to find makers within your own community and encourage them to work with visitors on your own museum floors. And if you have no interest in tinkering, consider the book as a great introduction and tribute to tinkering itself.

A second resource for learning more about Maker concepts is an anthology of voices gathered around the key ideas suggested in the title: Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators (Routledge [March 15, 2013]). Margaret Honey and David E. Kanter, both from the New York Hall of Science, edited this book, which includes articles by established leaders of the Maker community. Several of the texts focus on how the Maker movement connects to STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math). For those in the art world, the ideas within these chapters apply equally well to STEM’s morphing corollary, STEAM, an acronym that adds an A for Art into the mix.

Authors offer insight into creating Maker spaces and activities on the museum floor, such as describing the evolution of the classic Maker activity “Squishy Circuits.” Games, block parties, and puzzle-solving technology demonstrate the wide range of experiences welcomed within this playful and problem-solving arena. Combined together, the articles strongly advocate that play and fun through making encourage exploration and discovery. Authors in all case studies explain the reasoning behind Maker activities, offering rationales that can be cited when arguing for your own Maker project.

If you need a summer read try Frank R. Wilson’s thought provoking The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, and the oldest of my suggestions having been published in 1999. This third resource is a well-written, non-fiction book about the capabilities of our hands. The book’s subtitle accurately emphasizes the whole point of the book: Wilson’s claim that we learn about our world not only by using our brain, but also through the partnership of our brains and hands. Making is deeply dependent upon how we use our hands, so the more we can learn about them the better. Wilson’s book is a great guide.

Wilson spent his career as a neurologist who often worked with professional musicians suffering from hand ailments. He presents a well-told and scientifically fascinating story of the hand from multiple perspectives—from the academic anthropologist and physiologist to the performing puppeteers, musicians and even magicians. It is a dizzying array of views on a part of our body that most of us use daily, generally without thinking.

The connection of this hand tale to the Maker movement seems direct as you read through the book, especially the notion that our hands are one of the keys to understanding the world. After reading this book I have a better sense of how the hand works and how its behavior lets me learn. The challenge is to set up compelling making and tinkering events that ask us to use our hands in both recognized and new ways.

Before ending I must acknowledge the incredible irony that this post on making is dedicated to resources you read to learn lessons about this movement. My hope is that perhaps by reading about successful Maker models, you can pick up the spirit of the Maker movement. With enough inspiration you can then use the ideas and approaches to construct a program within your own institution. Nonetheless, I do realize that the best way to get the power of the Maker movement is to actually go to a good Maker Faire and use your hands to learn. Reading is good, but not enough. Find a Maker Faire near you, and go—then read the books!

Susan B. Spero, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University. Two years ago she was fortunate to spend time with the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio Team during a multi-day workshop with the Arkansas Discovery Network. The experience was enough to revive her long-lost tinkering tendencies, and she has returned to playing with materials for their own sake.