Makerspace goes Digital. What we learned in 2020

In the autumn of 2019, at the beginning of the Erasmus+ supported CREMA (Creative Making for Lifelong Learning) project, none of the participants from six European countries could have imagined how complicated it would be to implement the concept of makerspace in museums. To date, none of the participants has managed to begin piloting an interdisciplinary and/or intergenerational co-learning method, even in a temporary makerspace. Due to social distancing requirements, physical makerspaces have been put on hold indefinitely.

Photo: Creative Museum, Latvia (c)

Therefore, in 2020, most of the project participants directed their energies toward ‘mapping the territory’, i.e. studying theory and appraising best practice examples implemented in another time and place, even though there aren’t many such examples in museums anyway. Furthermore, owing to closed premises and financial difficulties, the creators of the few examples of good practice were in no mood to grant interviews or fill in questionnaires. Promises to include best practice examples of makerspaces in project communication materials didn’t help much, and partners’ progress reports at regular online meetings (as the obligation to continue reporting as stipulated under Erasmus remains in force, even as people are barred from travelling and learning from one another) became increasingly predictable.

In spring 2020, when we were all forced to work remotely (or more precisely, digitally), it did not take long for criticism to emerge of the concept of the exclusively physical makerspace. Whereas initially proposals to expand the makerspace by including various forms of digital co-creation were treated cautiously, as time went by, acceptance of the ‘new normal’ led to a general change in attitude. At the final project partners’ meeting of 2020, which was supposed to have been held quite physically at the Radiona – Zagreb Makerspace, we discussed co-creation in the digital space as something obvious. Naturally, sharing of best/worst practice was only open to those who over the course of the year had not abandoned co-creation altogether, even if it had to be transferred to the digital sphere.

For Creative Museum part, we had the opportunity to talk about the projects successfully implemented side by side with the colleagues at the Žanis Lipke Memorial where I work as a curator, and by the thinktank.

Photo: Creative Museum, Latvia (c)

I recall that at the very first opening meeting of the CREMA project at Kristianstadt Regional Museum, where the representative of the Zagreb makerspace, Deborah, gave an impromptu introductory lecture to us museum professionals about the maker and hacker concepts and the movement related to them, I said that a week later I would be taking part in my first hackathon, which would be my debut in the role of task or challenge giver. At the 2019 Riga International Film Festival, the museum educator and researcher Maija Meiere-Oša and I formulated the challenge, and we set out as RIGA IIF GOES VR Magnetic Latvia Hackaton partners, offering the challenge of the Žanis Lipke Memorial’s resources, i.e. its architecture and digitalised collection.

It is important to add here that without a digital database (with high resolution images), it would be difficult to achieve a result after 48 hours of intensive work. In our case, the database was a simple folder on a Google disc, where we uploaded documentary evidence and images of objects for the use of the hackathon participants. Of course, we also gave advice and the possibility to inspect the memorial space at the request of the teams.

As the task setter and information resource in a hackathon, one must consider the possibility that none of the teams will accept the challenge. Fortunately, on the first occasion, the task centring on the historical situation in the Riga Ghetto during the Nazi occupation was taken up by two teams, one of whom gained second place in the hackathon. We continued working with the winning team on the virtual reality project for the Lipke bunker, which was shown to the first visitors exactly a year later, as part of the programme of the Žanis Lipke 120th Anniversary Symposium in November 2020. While the national epidemiological situation prevents us from unrestrictedly receiving visitors and offering them an education programme using VR glasses with the Lipke bunker experience in the memorial, there is an opportunity to re-evaluate the service design solutions and equip the space for a better experience.

We also have the job ahead of us to make the content of the experience available in English (and preferably other languages too) and prepare the Lipke bunker VR app for release on the VR platform Oculus , which would allow access using Oculus Quest VR glasses anywhere in the world. Similarly to the award-winning Anne Frank House VR, which is the source of inspiration for our team comprising the memorial staff and new media artists (Ieva Vīksne, Līga Vēliņa, Kaspars Lēvalds and Lauris Taube), it is also planned to make the VR version of the Lipke bunker available free of charge on Oculus. We hope that as the digital era advances and technological opportunities expand, this tool first of all will be used in Latvian school history lessons to tell the stories of Latvia’s most famous saviour of human beings.

Another cooperative digital project for the Lipke memorial implemented this year is unique for a different reason. Based on intergenerational cooperation in research, it has resulted in an innovative digital resource for constructively using leisure time. Memorial researcher Anete Jenča currently has the honour of assisting Holocaust survivor and founder of the museum ‘Jews in Latvia’ Marģers Vestermanis in systematising the list of people who rescued Jews. An informative book with commentaries is being prepared. Mr. Vestermanis’ information gathered over many years about persons who assisted Jews in Riga and elsewhere in Latvia was the basis for the digital map ‘Underground Riga’ released in 2014. During the first period of restrictions in 2020, an audio guide for walks in the city of Riga was added to the map via a mobile application with the same name on the platform iziTravel.         

Whereas in the case of the Lipke bunker’s VR and the Underground Riga audio guide the physical and digital co-operation environments were half and half, another hackathon held this year – HackCreative: An Industry Transformed – was entirely digital, as it took place from May 1 to 3, during the strict lockdown period in Latvia. 

At this international hackathon, over 48 hours, Creative Museum board member Līga Lindenbauma’s team developed a proposal for a museum visit planning application. Using data from the centralized national culture data portal, it would eventually make it possible to calculate optimal visitor flow in each museum, offering possible visiting times alongside online ticket purchasing, thus meeting safety regulations.

The idea gained third place at this major international competition. The concept made use of the layout plans for the Žanis Lipke Memorial to demonstrate that even modern buildings (opened to the public in 2012) designed specifically for museum functions are not ideal for ensuring physical distancing so that visitors can feel completely safe. Individual visiting times are still an unrealized service in Latvian museums, as delivering such a sophisticated booking system would require significant resources and coordination on the part of the Ministry of Culture. Nevertheless, a tangible result of this hard 2020 lockdown hackathon is the possibility of purchasing museum tickets online, for which the Latvian Ministry of Culture granted funding (under the rules for small-scale acquisitions). While it is definitely not yet a solution on the scale of e-Latvia, the possibility of purchasing museum tickets online is the first step in this direction. Time will tell whether we will need to return to the idea of reserving individual visiting times for museums, libraries and archives. It is both a joy and a concern to see that at the time of writing (November 2020), there are queues on weekends at ticket offices to see some exhibitions in Riga. Booking individual visiting times would be an elegant solution to this problem!

A short time ago, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) published its traditional ‘International Museums Day 2021’ poster. Whether we like it or not, the virtual and digital world is having an ever-greater impact on museums. And having heard about the successful hackathon, our CREMA team is considering taking part in or perhaps co-organising such an event while restrictions on travel and gatherings remain in place. And naturally, people can’t wait for the chance to once again grab their drills, sewing machines, scissors, soldering irons and 3D printers essential for a banal physical makerspace. Until then, we will have mastered various new CMS’s (content management systems), acquired necessary new skills of communication in online conferences and producing coordinated work and decision-making. This also is lifelong learning.

Written by Ineta Zelča Sīmansone and Raivis Sīmansons from Think tank Creative Museum, Latvia

Article republished from 
Since October, 2019 Radiona – Zagreb Makerspace is part of the CREMA or CREative MAking for Lifelong Learning.
CREMA is 3 year ERASMUS+ project (2019 – 2022).