Sometimes we see a relationship develop in the maker community that becomes a source of inspiration for us all, and the relationship between the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (BBCM) and Milwaukee Makerspace is one of those instances. Ready for a feel-good story that very well may leave you inspired to run out and follow in their footsteps?
This is the story of what happened when a cultural institution and a group of makers joined forces to create the largest free Maker Faire in the United States. Maker Faire Milwaukee, now in its third year, is set to take place this weekend, September 24 and 25 at the Wisconsin State Fair Park. We chatted with two of the key players, BBCM’s Director of Exhibits Kathy Cannistra and BBCM’s Associate Director of Exhibit Development Pete Prodoehl, both of whom are Milwaukee Makerspace members, producers of Maker Faire Milwaukee, and exceptionally nice folks.
How did the partnership between BBCM and Milwaukee Makerspace first develop?
Kathy: In 2013, when the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum was starting a family makerspace, a coworker and I joined the Milwaukee Makerspace to be part of our local maker community. Milwaukee Makerspace was having a Maker Fest that year, and we had just visited the Maker Faire Bay Area and were exploring hosting a Faire in our community.
When the Milwaukee Makerspace hit max capacity for their building the first year of their Maker Fest, I approached the Milwaukee Makerspace board of directors and fest organizers with the idea of joining forces to organize a Maker Faire and take it to a public venue. After a few meetings with museum staff and makerspace members, we had developed a shared vision for a free Maker Faire leveraging the museum’s sponsorship connections and the makerspace’s relationships within the regional maker community.
What is the collaboration process like between these two communities?
Pete: Milwaukee Makerspace has about 250 members, and there’s a small dedicated group that’s involved with planning Maker Faire Milwaukee. It’s not always the same people every year, but we have a good group who believe in working towards making the largest free Maker Faire in the U.S. happen for our community.
There are also members who don’t want to get involved with the planning but who step up to build things or to just volunteer for the event. We have regular bi-weekly planning meetings at the makerspace, and staff from BBCM join in and help lead the meetings and keep things moving along. Some makerspace members, like Adrian Volden, volunteer for big projects, like organizing our Nerdy Derby activity at Maker Faire. Adrian handles pretty much everything for that. (He’s pretty awesome!)
For many of the Maker Faire projects, BBCM people will come up with an idea and provide the materials, and makerspace members will pitch in to help it come to life. We did this with Artemis in 2015, and we’ve got a few things you’ll see this year as well.
Kathy: We draw each community to their strengths. When a challenge presents itself, the planning committee discusses who would be best to address the need. People from the makerspace often step up to work on technical problems, industrial equipment loans, and maker relations for the event, and the museum uses their existing infrastructure to work on marketing, contracts, and financial support.
What has enabled this partnership to work so well?
Kathy: Since the beginning of the collaboration, there has always been at least one museum employee who was also an active member of the makerspace community. It’s difficult to evaluate the impact that this crossover has had on the success of the partnership, but in some ways, it has helped to keep the dialogue open as the membership and culture of the makerspace evolves and changes over time. One thing is certain: members of both communities are passionate about our city and spreading the maker culture of learning, curiosity, and skill-sharing. [Yes, that’s Kathy pictured below, at the Power Racing Series last year.]
Pete: To be honest, I think a large part of it is friendship and respect. I think both organizations respect what the other is doing and do what they can to help the other. I guess you could say the two organizations are friends? There’s also friendship between museum staff and makerspace members, and I think that’s crucial to making things work. Who doesn’t want to hang out with their friends and do awesome things?
Tell us about some of the unexpected benefits of makers and cultural institutions working side by side.
Kathy: One of the unexpected benefits for the museum was meeting so many talented and dedicated people. The Jack-of-all-trades/skill collector/maker personality is what we call a unicorn at the museum — a coveted, rare, and elusive creature. Since the partnership started, the museum has hired two makerspace members as employees, has collectively worked on a maker-related educational grant, and has had makerspace members create exhibit components on contract. The tinkering that happens in a makerspace and the interactive exhibit prototyping that goes into creating an engaging museum are like butter and toast.
Pete: I’ve been a member of the makerspace longer than I’ve been an employee of the museum, but the former definitely contributed to the latter becoming a reality. So many of the skills I learned at Milwaukee Makerspace contribute to my being a useful employee of BBCM. Kathy and I also consult with members about many things, including tools, equipment, and processes involved in making. (Kathy and I are part of the Exhibits Shop at the Museum, so building and making things is pretty much what we do.) I’ve also seen knowledge flow in both directions, and all parties involved seem to benefit in some way.
What advice can you give to other maker communities and cultural institutions who want to collaborate?
Pete: For institutions, reach out to local makers! Visit your local makerspace during open nights or events and start talking to people. In my own experience, a lot of makerspace members are looking for new challenges or interesting projects to get involved with, and often, cultural institutions can offer those sorts of things. For maker communities, check in with your local museums. Chances are there are makers working there creating and maintaining exhibits, and they may be open to collaboration if there’s mutual benefits for all involved.
Kathy: Face-to-face meeting and working sessions go a long way. It’s easy to try to do most of the collaborating online, but getting together and discussing things over snack or drinks fosters energy and enthusiasm. It also helps create a familiarity and cohesiveness that is essential on event days.