Episode 75

75. Museduino: Using Open Source Hardware to Power Museum Exhibits


February 17th, 2020

10 mins 7 secs

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About this Episode

Proprietary technology that runs museum interactives—everything from buttons to proximity sensors—tends to be expensive to purchase and maintain.

But Rianne Trujillo, lead developer of the Cultural Technology Development Lab at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU), realized that one way museums can avoid expensive, proprietary solutions to their technology needs is by choosing open source alternatives. She is part of the team behind Museduino, an open-source system for exhibits and installations.

On this episode, Rianne Trujillo and fellow NMHU instructor of Software Systems Design Jonathan Lee describe the huge potential to applying the open source model to museum hardware.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 75. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

On Museum Archipelago, we focus on power in museums. On how cultural institutions have a tremendous amount of unchecked power.

But power takes many forms and one of these forms is control over the technology that delivers museum content to visitors.

From a button that plays a bird call when you touch it, to a projection screen that plays a story about the Battle of Gettysburg when you get close to it, every museum interactive requires a technological solution.

Rianne Trujillo: Oftentimes, museums will purchase proprietary solutions. Oftentimes they're very expensive, especially to maintain them, and if they break you are sort of forced to rehire the same company or rebuy new equipment, and that can be fairly costly really quickly.

This is Rianne Trujillo, lead developer of the Cultural Technology Development Lab at New Mexico Highlands University.

Rianne Trujillo: My name is Rianne Trujillo. I'm the lead developer of the Cultural Technology Development Lab at New Mexico Highlands University, and I’m also an instructor of Software Systems Design.

The Cultural Technology Development Lab is an R&D program where university faculty and students, museum professionals, and other partners work together on technology and design solutions for cultural institutions. Through working these institutions across New Mexico and the U.S., Trujillo realized that one way museums can avoid expensive, proprietary solutions to their technology needs is by choosing open source alternatives.

Rianne Trujillo: So by using open source hardware, we can basically solve that issue of cost by using fairly inexpensive, off-the-shelf components from various electronic suppliers.

And that’s how Museduino came to be. Museduino is an open source hardware controller designed specifically to be used in museums. Using this hardware controller, which is about the size of an altoids tin, and a little bit of technical knowledge, museums can create and control their own interactives instead of always hiring an outside company.

Rianne Trujillo: We built Museduino to solve our own needs when building exhibits.

Jonathan Lee: It's all open source, and if we want to put it out there, we can show anyone else how to build that and they can implement it in their museum.

This is Jonathan Lee.

Jonathan Lee: My name is Jonathan Lee. I'm a professor of Software Systems Design at New Mexico Highlands University. Either they can implement it by buying the same parts or just downloading our code if it's off-the-shelf components and then inserting their content into it as well.

Both Lee and Trujillo see a huge potential to appling the open source model to museum hardware.

The phrase open source comes from the software world: open source software is a development model where the source code of a piece of software is freely available to anyone who wants it.

We all use open source software every day, whether we realize it or not. Most ATMs, web servers, and cash registers rely on open source software simply because it’s the cheapest and most secure -- the source code is freely available so bugs are identified and fixed quickly.

Open source hardware projects, like Museduino, borrow from the software world by making the instructions of how to build and program them freely available. Yes, you still need to pay for someone to manufacture the physical components, but they are commodities -- there’s multiple vendors that can make you the exact same thing.

Jonathan Lee: We have used an open source program to create the printed circuit board design and so if you wanted to, anyone could download that circuit board design and they could actually have however many they needed printed.

This together makes for a radical way to approach exhibit hardware -- where the technical solutions that a museum comes up with aren’t confined to just one museum.

Jonathan Lee: One of the originators of the project said they liked the Linux model of put it out there, let other people make it better, make it, fix it, build something for the platform that we make and then set it free.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened with Museduino: it was built upon another piece of open source hardware, a single-board controller called Arduino.

Rianne Trujillo: What Museduino is, is essentially a Arduino shield that extends the footprint of the Arduino via four RJ45 or standard Cat-5 cable cabling in four different directions. We've tested it with up to 200 feet away. So if you're building a very large scale museum exhibit and you need a sensor in one location and an output maybe 10 feet away, you can control all of that with the one Arduino, using our system.

Exhibits components tend to be far away from each other, even in small museums, because the gallery is designed for the visitor moving through the space. The specific problem is that, unlike wireless devices like internet of things or IOT -- light bulbs or buttons, museum hardware needs to work 100% of the time, and right now, the best way to do that is with wires like the standard cat-5 cable.

Rianne Trujillo: We're from New Mexico where we work with a lot of cultural institutions, where the walls are adobe, and there's always not great internet connection in the space, or also remote sites where there might not be internet connection, so we try to stay away from IOT boards and we use our system to have solid hardwired connections because those other systems could be a point of failure for the exhibit.

From the outside, or even from the inside if you’re focusing on the museum from purely a visitor experience perspective, exactly what tools museums use to create interactives might not seem like that big a deal. But it is a big deal for the museum itself to own its means of production.

Rianne Trujillo: We primarily work with institutions who don't have a lot of funding to be able to purchase these proprietary systems. So open source hardware allows us to build relatively inexpensive exhibits. We've heard instances where maybe they purchased a piece of software from a company and then like a month later they didn't exist anymore. So that can happen to people, especially if you're putting thousands of dollars into it.

Hardware lock-in mirrors software lock in: many museums use a video player called a Brightsign. These are little closed-source purple boxes that allow museum staff to play and schedule videos. They are designed to solve a problem: to help museums not have to worry about playing videos for their visitors. But they also remove the ability of museum staff to fix the system if something goes wrong.

Museduino is already installed at many museums and cultural institutions around the U.S., like Acadia National Park’s nature center, the Carlsbad Museum, and the Bradbury Science Museum at Los Alamos National Labs. From the beginning, Trujillo and the other members of the Museduino team have been sharing their knowledge with the wider museum world.

Rianne Trujillo: We go to conferences and share Museduino and just also a general Arduino tutorials and things like that. We do workshops at these museum related conferences to get people interested in open source hardware in hopes that they can start thinking of ways to incorporate it into their museum exhibits.

Museduino represents a radical approach to exhibit technology design. By allowing museums big and small more control over the installation and maintenance of the technology in their galleries, the Museduino team shows how the principles of the open source movement fit within the museum landscape.

Rianne Trujillo: Since we've presented at these different conferences, people got to take home Museduino, so we know that it's in institutions in several places. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in California, they just recently did a project with it, where they actually made a pneumatic tube system with the Museduino for donations. They said their donations went up 10 times the amount that they normally had before. Of course, it was probably somebody with a bin or it was a drop box where you can donate. And now when you donate a dollar, you see this whole theatric thing happen where you get to watch your money go up in some twos and some lights flicker.

You can find more about Museduino at https://museduino.org, and keep an eye out for a workshop near you.