Attention Makers, consider this… An Interview with a Science Museum Director

The maker movement has been growing at an exponential rate. Every day we see hundreds of awesome projects on various sites around web. Some are hacks meant to improve life, most are self learning projects or feats of engineering. I often wonder what happens to these projects after they are documented and their purpose fulfilled. I think there’s a place we could be directing all this new maker energy that could do a world of good.

Across the country there are small museums, most non-profit, that I think could benefit from getting some attention. With that thought, I’ve taken the time to sit down with the director of my local science museum, the Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida.


(1) Name and title.

Tish Sheesley, Executive Director

(2) What is you primary role at the Center?

I handle all of the day-to-date operations and, in a museum or science center, that can be a lot of details and logistics. Most people have never stopped to think about the different components that make up a science center, even a small one like ours.  We do informal education through our exhibits…that’s a big portion of what we do because no other industry teaches through exhibitry. But we also provide formal education opportunities — everything from week-long camps and science programs on school holidays to Astronomy sessions for adults.  In many cases we also run retail stores, restaurants, and theaters.

(3) What made you want to work for a science museum? How did you start?

There’s so many reasons — the joy of providing informal education opportunities and seeing the “aha” moment when a visitor understands a new science concept is probably the best reasons.  It’s exciting when you know that you’ve helped make ghat kind of connection for someone. It’s also a great feeling to know that what you do for a living has been a big part of someone’s vacation or leisure time.

I’ve always been interested in museums so I started volunteering at one. Then I saw a teeny, tiny, little ad for an executive director’s position and applied. I’ve now worked in the museum industry for over 7 years.

(4) Where does the Center get it’s funding?

Part of it is contributed and part of it is earned income. Contributed sources include donations, sponsorships, grants, and governmental monies.  Earned income comes in the form of things like general admission, special exhibit fees, memberships,  birthday parties, program fees for camps and other educational opportunities like scout programs, room rentals, and retail operations.  Larger museum might also have food service, theaters, etc.

(5) And where does that funding go? How much does the typical exhibit cost?

Because earned income is such an important part of our budget, we need to constantly expand our capacity to earn even more funds in that way. Therefore, we have staff who coordinate money-making programs so that the net profit can go back into creating even more programs, exhibit purchases, exhibit rentals, and exhibit development.

Because science centers vary vastly in size, so too do the sizes and associated costs of exhibit rentals. Like most products you can buy on the high end or the low end but hope that you can find something that fits your budget, looks correct aesthetically in your institution, and teaches at the level you were hoping for. So, something like a Bernoulli Blower could be built for a couple of hundred dollars but it may not be all that pretty. Big, pretty, dramatic, and with great signage could be 20 grand. And that’s just for one piece.   I just read in one of the trade publications that a new, fully-developed exhibit with multiple high-tech exhibit pieces that was just installed at one “big city” museum was eight million — of course that would have included idea inception to completion and probably took several years and dozens of people to develop, from researchers and educators to fabricators and installers and many, many more people.

(6) Who repairs the exhibits?

In a museum or science center our size, that’s a tough one — for years we’ve only had 3 full-time staff members and a handful of part-timers and seasonal folks.  Because of our limited resources, we don’t have anyone on staff who has that level of expertise so we’re always looking for qualified volunteers who can pitch in to repair broken exhibits.  It’s an on-going task that keeps us hopping with more than 25,000 people visiting our property annually.

(7) What could someone like me, a weekend maker/hacker with engineering and electronics knowledge, do to help?

I think that there’s a lot of things, including exhibit repairs. I have one exhibit on the floor right now that works…but not really to the degree it should. It could be a lot more dynamic if it was repaired but I can’t seem to get anyone to find the time to do it. But the sad truth is that it will soon either get a “sorry…please enjoy one of our other exhibits” sign on it or we will pull it off the floor completely. Either way the community loses a valuable hands-on piece of exhibitry that is no longer available as an education tool for them and their family.  None of us wants that.  We need it fixed…we just don’t know how.

The other thing that maker/hacker folks can do is assess ways that they can improve current, permanent exhibitry, including a ballpark figure on what it will cost and the timeframe to get it done.

(8) How should a young maker/hacker like myself approach a science museum to offer their services?

That’s always the tough part, isn’t it?  Most of us that are with small institutions don’t have Volunteer Coordinators, so that kind of call could easily throw some us for a loop. I think that the important thing is to be persistent until you can get to the right staff member in that particular institution.  In some cases, you might actually be connected to another volunteer, which can also slow down the process because they might need to contact you after their work day or when they get home from their kid’s ballgame. So you may not get a call back right away. So, in addition to persistence, I would have to add patience.

If the museum or science center you contact have doesn’t have an exhibits team or coordinator, the skills you’re offering are going to sound completely foreign to them, so I think it’s important to break down your project — whether it’s a repair suggestion or new exhibit idea — in simple terms that a lay person would understand.

Before you know it I think you’ll realize that a “beautiful relationship had been born” and that you and your new friends at the science center look forward to your next call and meeting!

Look around your workshop. Do you have an old line following robot collecting dust? Imagine it having a second life inspiring young kids at a museum. Trust me, I have some experience showing off to kids and the simplest things to us can inspire a child.  Looking for another challenge? I bet there’s a malfunctioning exhibit at a museum nearby that would be the perfect opportunity for you to flex your maker muscle. I know I’m going to pick up a soldering iron and head over there the next free weekend I get.


Electronics exhibit. Notice the inductor one is off the floor due to failure.

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  1. Bill,

    This was extremely on-topic for our hackerspace, “Institute of Exploratory Research”, because our space is actually in the basement of the InfoAge Science and History Learning Center and Museum!

    The museum is still in it’s nascent phase, and it’s a grassroot effort powered solely by it’s amazing volunteers. Part of IXR’s arrangement with InfoAge is that we are provided with very low-cost space, while in return we will help InfoAge build “Exploratorium” style, interactive learning exhibits. It’s a win-win, and IXR has an opportunity to really make a difference in inspiring kids to learn STEM.

    I also envision in the future that IXR will host, as part of the museum, a public Makerspace, where kids and parents can stop in and make stuff together. I’ve seen articles on about the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which does exactly that. I think it’s a wonderful idea, because many kids today have no idea how much fun it is to build or create something from scratch because they’ve never had the opportunity.

    Thanks for the article, and I look forward to many more like it!

    -Dan Wobser

  2. Thanks for sharing Dan. I’m actually in the process of working with the Center to start a Hackerspace in one of their back rooms. This adds another argument for!

  3. Hey, thanks for the tip! This will give me the impetus to revisit the local Hands-On museum, and work with them. Hopefully, they will give my TTL Etch-A-Sketch a good home, once the 7400 contest is over. I will have to ruggedize it some, but that shouldn’t be too hard to do.
    Our museum:

  4. Anyone who volunteers to work on the exhibits pictured will have a leg-up on the 7400 series design contest. Unless I’m mistaken, they originated at the science center I work for.

    The designer of the exhibits used standard logic chips in VERY non-standard ways. Figuring out how some of them worked was a challenging part of my early work in the business.

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