|Three-Way Plug by Oldenburg (Flickr)|
"I never made the separation between, say, the museum and the hardware store."
Hardware stores have fascinated me since my 6th birthday. My mother and I stopped at a hardware store that day to get something. I went up and down the aisles, listening to the wooden floors creak, peering into bins, and sifting tiny washers through my fingers as she did her errand. For years, I believed that going to the hardware store had been my birthday present and I was pleased with it.
I still frequent neighborhood hardware stores (and the big box stores too) whether it is Fratallone’s on evening walks; Settergren’s for bird seed; or a visit to Fredrickson’s Hardware when I’m in San Francisco.
Considering my long fascination with hardware stores and my many years working in and with museums, imagining a convergence of these two forms is not surprising. Yet, the attraction is more than simply an interesting exercise combining favorite places. Yoking together these two settings might produce a stronger museum experience for learners and tinkerers.
Bursting with an enormous variety of objects, tools, gadgets, gizmos, and materials in significant quantities, hardware stores are rich with information about the world. Cables and clamps; fans and fasteners; springs and snippers; knobs and knockers; gaskets and gutters; and pumps and pulls fill bins, shelves, cases, and aisles. Each has a size, a weight, a feel, a purpose, a design, and a beauty that tells about what it is and how it can be used.
Hardware stores are places of intention and possibility. Every day, the home-owner, carpenter, jewelry maker, chef, gardener, browser, artist, putterer, teacher, and exhibit fabricator bring experience, problems, questions, and ideas through the doors. Someone has identified a problem and needs what the hardware store has to solve it: “The building inspector says,…”; “Wasps have built a nest in the brush pile;” or “ I need an adhesive that will…”.
A sense of potential hovers about the hardware store. Pieces and adhesives, hammers and hinges, paints and parts are poised to be activated by curiosity, necessity, eagerness, and imaginations. They are ready to be assembled in order to repair, improve, or make something new. Component parts will be combined in innumerable ways to build a structure, fix the leak, wire a lamp, repair a screen, or silence the creak in the floorboards. People’s curiosity, questions, interests, practical needs, imaginations, and the moment make this happen.
Hardware Store Practices for the Museum
Hardware stores are informal learning environments, community-based settings with high levels of self-directed learning based on objects and direct experience in a social setting. They do what many museums want to do and do it well: engage learners as doers constructing knowledge as they build, repair, improve, or invent. While sometimes quaint and harkening back to the 20th, and even 19th century, hardware stores also exhibit some decidedly 21st century qualities relevant to museums.
- Connected to everyday life. Regardless of your educational level or income, something you need will, at some time, need fixing, or replacing. The toilet leaks, a key breaks off in the lock, the tire’s flat. The part, solution, or know-how will, undoubtedly, be found at the hardware store. While you yourself may not stop at the corner hardware store or head to the big box store, the solution will very likely come from there.
- Low barriers to engagement. If someone shows up at a hardware store in the middle of a project, with a question or a part to replace, he will not only get assistance from the clerk, but will also get helpful hints from experts who have stopped by for a ball valve, an electrical box, a threaded truss rod, or a chat.
- A social setting. Hardware stores are places of conversations, stories, and memories. Any time of the day, several conversations are underway–conversations that might start with a question about what to use to patch a concrete step or whether a stud-finder really works. These conversations lead to projects past. Networks of plumbers, contractors, remodelers, and woodworkers form and grow through these contacts and conversations.
- Shared learning. People bring their experience from other projects and techniques learned the hard way. They cheerfully suggest which kind of respirator to get and what paint has the best coverage. What is known by the most experienced is shared with the novice.
- A curriculum of materials. Hardware stores cover the curriculum: STEM, reading, arts, and history. Count, weigh, measure, and compare fasteners, wire, pipe, and gallons of paint. Put simple machines–screws, saws, pulleys, and crowbars–to work. Test the pH of the soil; build an electric circuit; explore sound waves in metal pipes; or find inspiration in everyday objects as Oldenburg did in the three-way plug.
• Assembly required. Typically we encounter the world preassembled. So we know little about how things fit together and why they come apart. To build it, fix it, or figure it out requires questioning, thinking, and doing. “How is this supposed to work? What does it need to work? What do I do first? Which tool do I need?”
• A loyal following. Hardware stores engender a loyal following. Needing a part, expertise, inspiration, or the company of others brings back customers.
Undoubtedly concerns about migrating materials and mess bubble up for many readers thinking about a version of the hardware store in the museum. Hardware stores, however, are not particularly messy. They have great internal organization and a purposefulness that manages the migration of materials. Perhaps some areas in museums simply need permission to be messy and enjoy the value of loose parts.
Museum Hardware Hotspots
Hardware spots in some museums do embody the rich context and possibilities of hardware stores. More than a single workbench, these spots offer learners and doers direct experience with real stuff and abundant materials in an open-ended activity. They have an internal organization that inspires curiosity, sparks the imagination, and supports doers to try, observe, explore, invent–and try again. Here are some of the hardware hotspots in museum I know of and find full of possibility.
• Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium that “promotes thinking with your hands while experimenting with art, science, technology, and delightful ideas”
• ¡Explora! “provides real experiences with real things that put people’s learning in their own hands.”
• Tinkerer’s Workshop at the Austin Children’s Museum for children 5-11 years.
I know there are more. What hardware hotspots in museums inspire you?