In addition to the daily offerings of tinkering activities on the museum floor, we often participate or organize public events that allow us to increase our reach, try new things, develop for a different audience, and build connections with a larger community of makers and tinkerers. Usually we approach these unique opportunities as a chance to quickly prototype new ideas or activities, or to dip our toes into completely new and unfamiliar territory by supporting a guest artist’s project. Here are some of the most successful and notable events we have participated in.
Maker Faire deserves a special mention. The “greatest show and tell on earth,” as they describe themselves, began in 2005 in San Mateo, just south of the Bay Area, as a gathering of local makers, tinkerers, engineers, and assorted misfits who did not have an official outlet to share their passion and the results of their obsessive tinkering. We were there since the beginning, hosting a Cardboard Automata activity on a simple picnic table with a very enthusiastic audience of kids and adults. Since then, we have participated at every Maker Faire; and as the event has grown bigger and more ambitious in scope, we have expanded our participation: our booth is now representative of the whole Exploratorium, rather than just our tinkering group. Many of the Exploratorium staff are makers and tinkerers in their own right, regardless of what they do as part of their day to day job, and we love being able to give them a chance to share that side of themselves with a large audience.
We also utilize the Maker Faire event as an annual opportunity to expand our reach and try something new and a little bit crazy: some years we've focused on highlighting other people’s projects alongside Tinkering Studio activities; in others we put a lot of effort into offering deep and well thought out workshops throughout the Faire. Some years our booth has grown to gargantuan proportions, and some it has stayed small and intimate. Every year it becomes a ritual “family reunion” of sorts, where we connect in person with friends, makers, and people we have admired from afar; but we also believe our presence has an important role to play. In a culture where the word “maker” has come to be associated more and more with high-tech, programming, fabrication technology, and engineering challenges, we like to offer a counterpoint and an alternative interpretation of that word, one that focuses on process rather than product, personal expression, whimsy, and delight, combined with deep thought and serious conversations with the materials at hand.
Tinkering Social Club
Tinkering Social Club (TSC) came about because we are interested in engaging adults in tinkering activities on their own, not vicariously through their children. The Exploratorium is open Thursday evenings for the 18+ crowd, and we quickly discovered that adults are a little more reticent in giving themselves permission to play, slow down, and spend a large portion of their night out on one project.
So we developed Tinkering Social Club as an experiment in learning through tinkering as a community. We want to provide an opportunity for the curious and the adventurous, experts and novices alike, to come together and mess about with tools, materials, and technologies in a low-stakes, comfortable social environment. It’s a chance for people to share what they know and what they don’t know, to talk about their passions and discover new ones, and to meet other delightfully quirky people.
Each TSC centers around a theme or topic, and a special guest artist, tinkerer, or maker shares a bit about their passion, craft, art, or obsession. Then we all get our hands dirty with a related activity. These can vary wildly in focus, scope, and participation. We have taken things apart (including a full-sized Hammond organ!) with photographer Todd McLellan; we have sewn circuitry onto fabric with textile artist Grace Kim; we made our own human-powered letterpress posters with Michael Swaine; and even publicly dissected rats with museum visitors thanks to Stephanie Bailey!
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Open MAKE began as a collaboration between the Exploratorium, MAKE Magazine (now Maker Media), and Pixar Animation Studios. It consisted of a series of monthly programs highlighting the tools, techniques, and ingenuity of local Makers: each month we chose a theme, and organized a list of guests whose work was connected in some way to that theme. Visitors were invited to participate in tinkering and making activities inside the Tinkering Studio and, throughout the museum, Makers from around the Bay Area shared their work and passion. We also selected a few Featured Makers to be interviewed during a forum open to the public, to give them a chance to share their process, inspiration, and what motivates them to create.
Open MAKE events were not just a chance to showcase some of the best tinkerers around the Bay Area, they were organized in conjunction with the Young Makers program. This was a grass-roots effort to mentor a cohort of teenagers toward developing projects for the Bay Area Maker Faire each year. Each of the Open MAKE events represented a monthly opportunity for these Young Makers to bring their works-in-progress to the Exploratorium, show and critique each other’s work, and be inspired by the panoply of projects on site. It was also a chance, through the Featured Makers interviews and Q&A session to follow, to hear directly from a variety of makers how they got into their craft, what mistakes they might have made along the way, and what they learned from them.