Open hardware belongs in your museum

Miriam Langer, New Mexico Highlands University, USA, Jason Alderman, Cloud Chamber / Balboa Park Online Collaborative, USA


What is open source hardware? Should my museum should use it? What does the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) certification mean, and how can it apply to museums? This paper will address an observed need for awareness and understanding of the role open hardware can play in museums and cultural organizations. Our mission, as members of OSHWA, is to develop shared, open source hardware that is useful for museum exhibits, educational outreach, makerspaces, and an overall more inclusive visitor experience. While the language of open source software has become more familiar in recent years, open hardware is a newer concept, and its value can be difficult to comprehend. This paper will begin to clarify how open hardware is an option worth considering, although at this early stage not always the easiest choice. Learn how your museum can join the small, but growing, movement toward open source hardware.

Keywords: open hardware, arduino, certification, OSHWA

1. Introduction

Let’s say you want a small, inexpensive video player that plays HD video off an SD card, so you purchase a Micca Speck ( from Amazon for $50. It is inexpensive, simple, and works perfectly for your purposes at first. Then you realize that your exhibit would work much better if the video were activated by a button, or triggered by a motion sensor when people walked into the room. Now you’re calculating ways to build something to push the Speck’s remote control in a gloriously kludgey way, or pondering redesigning your exhibit to accommodate the technology by simply looping the video.

Perhaps, instead, you are designing interactive exhibits for small museums. These institutions are often (always) short-staffed, especially with regard to technology, and some are in remote locations. Therefore, exhibits must be engineered to have a very low threshold for technical maintenance, ideally none at all—while it’s simply good design to plan for low maintenance, the reality of using any kind of electronics means occasional updates or resets. Your goal should be to build with parts that are inexpensive, easily replaceable, and hopefully not produced by a company that will go out of business, taking its proprietary electronics along with it.

We’ve all been there

We all dream of being adequately staffed and resourced, with budgets appropriate for purchasing and upgrading technology. However, the limitations under which we work are all too real. Even if that were not the case, the issues surrounding tech obsolescence, institutional continuity, and hardware wear and tear make our technology choices Faustian at every turn. We think that open source hardware (OSHW) can help solve these problems. Choosing OSHW is just one decision among many that galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs) must make, but mentioned above are some fairly common issues that come up these institutions, especially when planning for interaction and media in the gallery.

At the Open Hardware Summit in Philadelphia in September 2015, the majority of speakers represented K-12 and higher education, academic sciences, hardware companies, and small startups. The absence of GLAMs (libraries were only nominally present as potential makerspaces) was glaring. While not having representation at a conference does not mean that open source hardware is not used in museums (it is), it does demonstrate a lack of communication and cohesion around the topic. Vowing that 2016’s summit would have a GLAM presence, we’ve designed this paper as a guide to spark conversations, make plans, and take action—with the goal that museums will have a stronger voice in the national conversation around open source hardware in the next few years.

2. Defining open source hardware

Open source hardware refers to physical objects whose source files (schematics, plans, circuit board diagrams, documentation) have been openly shared and can be freely copied or modified. This means that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, or sell hardware based upon these designs (

OSHW can take many forms, from microcontrollers to small linux-based computers to larger systems built from these components. Some open source hardware products have become known outside the niche artist/hobbyist community through newsstand magazines like Make:, do-it-yourself sites like Instructables, and crowd-sourced technology projects on Kickstarter. OSHW doesn’t have to mean electronics, but for this paper, open source electronics will be our focus.

Perhaps you’ve heard of, or seen in use, the Arduino family of inexpensive, open source microcontrollers. Microcontrollers are small computers that can be programmed to listen for inputs from sensors and send actions to outputs (actuators) such as motors, lights, and video/audio. The Arduino was not the first microcontroller, but it was the first one designed both to be inexpensive and to encourage non-engineers to do their own prototyping. Arduino’s popularity and standardized tools have led to a wide range of products. These tools and extensions are offered by not only the Arduino organization (, but also other companies. Some come with built-in sensors; some are restructured to be small enough to be sewn into wearable items.

Offering more processing power than microcontrollers are small Linux-based computers, which, like Arduino, are also generally around the size of a credit card. A popular semi-open model line, the Raspberry Pi (including Models A, B, B+, 2, and Zero), ranges in price from $5 to $50, and can do fairly heavy processing, running Web servers or even gathering and processing real-time data for live visualizations.

These components are often combined and extended to create larger tools, such as open 3D printers, computer numerical control (CNC) routers that carve designs from solid blocks of wood or metal (, scientific lab equipment used at schools and in the field (Pearce, 2015), tools for farming and food security (http://opensourceecology.org, and sophisticated equipment for citizen science, such as the Volunteer Space Program ( or OpenROV ( All of these products, from microcontrollers to tools, share their construction files, printing software, and electronics hardware schematics.

The goals of the OSHW community are similar to those in open source software. Using shared files in public repositories, the community hopes to guard against early obsolescence (planned or natural) by making modifications as needed, sharing designs to allow for rapid modifications, and developing cost-sharing models (Gibb & Abadie, 2014).

To standardize and certify open source hardware, community members have created an organization to monitor the growing pool of hardware that developers are defining as open source. The Open Source Hardware Association ( is a non-profit organization dedicated to the mission of defining terms concerning open source hardware, supporting developers, and continually updating best practice standards and documentation ( OSHWA’s board is composed of leaders in the open source hardware field, representing science and research, education, arts, and business. They hold the annual Open Hardware Summit each autumn (2016 will be its sixth year), featuring a full day of presentations and demonstrations on different approaches and uses for OSHW.

It is relatively early in the open source hardware movement, but not too early for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums to get on board with the mission of this small but growing community.

3. Why museums should care about open source hardware

“We’ve been going through our interactive exhibits and replacing proprietary hardware with open source versions, like arduinos, beagle boards, and Raspberry Pi computers. They turn out to be more robust and easier to modify when we need to update something.” (Montoya, 2015)

To investigate the prevalence of open source hardware in the museum world, we surveyed people working in museum exhibits, visitor services, and exhibit design shops. Our intent was to discover commonalities and differences among those regularly using hardware in different capacities. Was OSHW preferred for exhibit work, and when did exhibit developers opt for it? The seven respondents returned thoughtful and varied answers, and several unifying themes emerged.

Shane Montoya’s quote above demonstrates the changes that some museums, particularly those with many hands-on, user-initiated exhibits, have begun. In fact, on January 8, 2016, a job posting arrived from Michael Cosaboom, senior Exhibits director at the New York Hall of Science (emphasis added by authors):

“… Basically I’m looking for a fixer first, and prototyper second. Someone with experience migrating computer-based interactives to newer cheaper/open platforms would be the ideal candidate.” (Cosaboom, 2016a)

This brings us to our first why: open source hardware is less expensive. As mentioned above, the microcontrollers and small computers that are usually adequate to run gallery interactives or audiovisual (AV) equipment can cost between $5 and $50, and electrical components (wiring, sensors, various outputs) are available inexpensively through many sources designed to serve artists, hobbyists, engineers, and do-it-yourself-ers (DIYers). The ease of finding these components means that they can become the de facto standard for museum projects:

“… For what I do, working with hardware and software to make custom interactive experiences, I know of no other alternatives than using OSHW for the physical computing aspects. In other words, it is not a deliberate choice; it is the only option that I am aware of. It is what I know how to use, what there is the most accessible documentation for, and what works with the open software environments that I use.” (Record, 2016)

The open nature deters obsolescence. When it breaks, you can swap out components, making upgrades and modifications on top on an existing system. Open and available manufacturing plans mean that you can find a replacement part more easily.

Figure 1. Replacement Arduino components for Acadia National Park RFID bird call exhibit.

Figure 1: replacement Arduino components for Acadia National Park RFID bird-call exhibit. Each set includes an Arduino Uno, Adafruit RFID reader, and Adafruit Wave Shield audio player. The unit cost is ~$100, with several backup units prepared in case of hardware failure.

The longer that a good OSHW project is on the market, the more documentation you will find. Because the first widely used versions originated in experimental academic laboratories like the MIT Media Lab, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and the now-defunct Ivrea Design Institute, open source hardware is often well documented by not just the creators of the technology but also those who use it. This documentation and dedicated community is often easier to find and more comprehensive (e.g., than proprietary alternatives. This year, the Eyeo Festival (, a conference that draws creative coders and visualization designers, has added OSHW as a new “area of interest.” The open culture of the community encourages extensive documentation and sharing, so you will often find detailed, photo-illustrated examples for almost anything that you need to do.

There’s a bit of a shift here, away from thinking of established custom hardware companies as the only option.

“The reputations of big name hardware vendors aren’t worth as much as you think. The support communities on the Internet for technologies like Arduino are surprisingly responsive and useful for keeping these types of exhibits going.” (Cosaboom, 2016b)

By making the choice to get on board with open source hardware, you become part of a growing community of users and developers. You, or your institution, is no longer merely a consumer or end user.

Figure 2. Prototyping Arduino controlled pneumatic tubes at MCN 2012

Figure 2: prototyping Arduino-controlled pneumatic tubes for the “Layer of Chaos” installation at the Museum Computer Network conference, Seattle, 2012.

With much (but not all) OSHW, most of the complicated low-level electrical engineering/embedded systems work has been done for you, which allows your staff to brainstorm and prototype quickly, without needing an advanced degree, a large budget, or an outside consulting agency. You can put together a proof-of-concept (a simple test with the bare essentials that comes before a prototype) to illustrate your vision, then iterate and adapt it, regardless of whether or not you hand it off to others later.

“Get out of the mindset that your only solution to computer interactivity across GLAM projects are outside consultants. That is an expensive trap! Once you start open source solutions you will quickly realize the broad applications across visitor services that your staff (and even you) can implement.” (Kelly, 2016)

Education and outreach can use OSHW to take a long view on engagement. As making/tinkering pedagogy continues to proliferate in schools, libraries, and other venues, the number of people familiar with open source tools will grow significantly. Makers around the world rely on low-cost open source hardware and software solutions to fuel their creative endeavors. Since the culture of “making” shows no signs of slowing down, and museums, K-12, and universities continue to develop spaces to expand their offerings, the number of people comfortable with these tools and development environments will grow. These developments indicate that the future workforce might be skilled in working with these tools already, and might prefer to work with openness, sharing, and an eye for flexibility for future adjustments and modifications.

“I think there is a lot of intimidating mysticism around code and physical computing, and companies with open source ideologies tend to do more to create accessible tools and documentation to help people cut through that. Having some coding skills (and perhaps some physical computing skills as well) is what it means to be literate today. Those skills are not being widely taught in schools, so GLAM institutions making some room to introduce those skills, especially in a friendly creative context, is valuable.“ (Record, 2016)

From across different fields, the number of OSHW users is growing, even if it’s not yet highly visible. Since documentation doesn’t originate exclusively from the distributor, but rather from the user base, examples and support for the most popular devices are extensive. From a participatory standpoint, there are opportunities for both on-site development and outreach. Community members working in other fields may be approached to form partnerships and set up skills exchanges. Fablabs (“fabrication labs,” where you can learn to make almost anything) and similar makerspaces, which have locations worldwide (, are good places to seek out enthusiastic tinkerers and developers who can share ideas and make recommendations for problem solving and troubleshooting.

4. It’s not all mountain sunsets (or palm trees and dolphins)

As enthusiastic as we are about OSHW, we will admit it is still an early adopter realm, especially in the museum world. However, we are seeing wider adoption in industries like science, education, and the small farms movement. As open source hardware drifts toward the mainstream, to ignore it would be to miss out on its potential to change the way museums interface with visitors and engage with larger trends in technology and society.

Granted, learning to use OSHW does take time. Like open source software users well know, “Linux is only free if your time has no value” (Zawinski, 1998). Both open source software and open source hardware (which often runs open source software) have a steep learning curve, compared to off-the-shelf options. They require a certain level of experience in creating simple electronic circuits, or at least the curiosity to explore. Installing the tools you need to get started can be tricky or difficult for novices, and there are initial configuration steps that are needed to get up and running. The good news is that “getting started” workshops are becoming more common, and there are many online learning opportunities. Annual events such as International Arduino Day ( are held at schools, libraries, and makerspaces/fablabs and are designed to offer introductory workshops on open source hardware.

Even when choosing OSHW, most users are not modifying the hardware. Rather, they find what they need in currently available versions and do much of the creative work on the code side.

“I think of hardware as something that I buy, not make, and I have rarely-if-ever had a hardware problem where making something myself was cheaper or easier than buying it. Sometimes you need something that doesn’t exist, and then you have to make it, but outside of that… I think a lot of it has to do with economies of scale. Buying a fully-populated board off Adafruit is both cheaper and easier than going to oshpark, printing a circuit board, buying components, and soldering them together myself.” (Newbury, 2016)

It would be remiss not to remind ourselves that all hardware, including open source hardware, has an environmental cost (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2015). It might even require additional awareness due to its perceived low cost (Arieff, 2014). When the cheapest Raspberry Pi processors are $5, Arduino Unos are $25, and the most expensive boards still only hit the $50 range, it is easy to think of them as disposable computation. But these chips and boards are no different from traditional hardware—they are manufactured using toxic chemicals requiring safe disposal and containment. Just because something is extremely inexpensive does not mean it should be treated as an infinitely renewable resource.

5. Examples of OSHW solutions to existing museum problems

The following sections are by no means exhaustive. They are presented as a brief introduction to the extensive number of applications that are well documented and available as low-cost alternatives to proprietary products.

The super cheap video player made with Raspberry Pi/Pi Zero

Figure 3. Raspberry Pi0 configured to support hdmi video Circuit credit: Stan Cohen

Figure 3: Raspberry Pi Zero configured to support HDMI video for in-gallery video/slideshow controlled by button press. Circuit credit: Stan Cohen.

This HDMI video player uses the new Pi Zero ($5), and with a few jumper wires, power cord ($10), and a micro-HDMI cable connected to a $160 pico projector, allows the user to press a button to play/select video clips stored on a micro SD card. The code to run the video is publicly available ( The basic setup, including loading the operating system (OS) and code and wiring the circuit, takes about two to four hours. The Pi Zero can be controlled remotely for shutoff/startup, or programmed to do so. Modifications to this basic design could include natural user interfaces, such as capacitive touch input or motion detection.

Arduino/capacitive touch sensing

Figure 4. Museduino satellite board with capacitive touch sensor Circuit credit: Rianne Trujillo

Figure 4: Arduino Uno with Museduino satellite board using a capacitive touch sensor to activate marsh and ocean audio and visual environments for Acadia National Park Nature Center. Circuit credit: Rianne Trujillo.

Using capacitive touch sensors can create a responsive touch surface from any conductive material. This exhibit turns a metal railing into a set of switches to trigger illuminated images and sounds for the Acadia National Park Nature Center exhibit on marsh and seashore climate change. The hardware is all open source, using an Arduino ($25), Museduino shield ($100 kit), capacitive touch sensors ($6), and relays ($2 to $4) for the lighting. The capacitive sensors could be easily switched out for traditional buttons or motion/proximity sensing using infrared or ultrasonic sensors.

Controlling lights and sounds in an exhibit from an iPad using a Raspberry Pi

Figure 5. Raspberry Pi computers with amps and relays controlling lights and sounds on a model through an iPad quiz Circuit credit: Duncan McRee

Figure 5: Raspberry Pi computers with car stereo amplifiers and relay switches controlling lights and sounds on a model train village through an iPad quiz. Circuit credit: Duncan McRee.

Installed near a train set at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum recreating scale buildings of Balboa Park in 1915, an iPad loads a Web page quiz from a Raspberry Pi B+ ($35) running a Node.js Web server. The Pi listens for a person to answer multiple-choice questions correctly and then tap a button the iPad, and then plays back sounds and/or triggers a relay ($2 to $4) to switch on a fountain’s water pump or light up strings of LEDs on the model.

These three examples demonstrate simple OSHW solutions in museums. While our descriptions gloss over the many steps to making these exhibits function, the common thread is starting with an open source base and building the solution best suited to the project.

6. How to get started with open source hardware for museums

If you’ve made it this far, and you think you’d like to give OSHW a shot, here are practical steps to help introduce open source hardware into your museum. This undertaking may require finding some other interested staff, those who might have a small project or exhibit component in mind. You may find that OSHW is already in use within your institution, but its usage and its advantages may not be well advertised, which limits its network effects to be a cost-saving and community-building tool for your museum.

“Go for it! OSHW is especially great for low-budget or short-term projects. Plus, a lot of the hardware can be [repurposed] into the next cool installation.” (Olivier, 2016)

If you’re not sure where to start, observe the people who work on the exhibits in your museum. Consider solutions you are currently using that are expensive and/or frustrating. How could you improve them? Try to figure out what you want to do, then tell a story of how your new system would work, breaking the solution into smaller steps.

Deconstruct your problem into inputs and outputs. What are you sensing? Is it proximity, touch, audio levels, temperature, or a change to a feed on the Internet? What do you want to happen when a sensor or a button is triggered? If you have fewer than ten inputs and outputs, you’re probably in good shape using a microcontroller. If you have many input/outputs, or a complicated sequence or logic to them, a minicomputer might be better (Di Justo, 2015). We’ve made a short quiz that can help you choose the right kit for your project (, and we put a table of many popular open source hardware products at the end of this section.

Now you need to gather your components. We suggest beginning online with stores like SparkFun (, Adafruit (, or DigiKey (, or going to physical stores like RadioShack ( or Fry’s Electronics ( We recommend getting a starter kit with several different components with which you can experiment to learn their capabilities. Arduino Starter Kits are available for under $100 (; you can also find similar starter kits for Raspberry Pi (; and even the kid-friendly electronics prototyping tool littleBits ( can be a good jumping-off point.

Once you have your ingredients, you may still need a recipe! Sites like Make: (, Adafruit (, and Instructables ( provide project ideas, step-by-step instructions, and sample code. Alternatively (or additionally), reach out to your local maker community. Take a class at a local makerspace or fablab (three-hour workshops tend to run in the $25 to $80 range), or bring in someone to give a workshop to the museum staff.

Ask questions from your peers in the museum technology field. Many of your colleagues have kept active blogs of their adventures in open source hardware and have tips and tricks to share. Write debriefs of your projects, and share the source code on sites like GitHub (

Most important, don’t forget to share what you’ve learned with your museum colleagues!

The chart of things

We would like to present a comprehensive list of all available open source microcontrollers and mini-computers, but the field is expanding and diverging too rapidly. We’ve listed the models that we think work best for museum applications, and added a rating of 1 to 10 on the level of community support available (10 is the highest). The market adds new boards regularly, many of which are expanded, mashed-up, and reworked versions of the ones we’ve selected below.

Board Family Cost Range Popular Uses Programming Environment Getting Started Community Support
$20–$60 responsive exhibits/ sensors and actuators Arduino IDE easy 10
Raspberry Pi
$10–$45 Web server, video and audio playback, Wi-Fi Linux OS, Python, Javascript medium/difficult 8
$25–$50 keyboard emulation, gaming, music-making Arduino IDE easy 9
$9 Web server, video and audio playback, Wi-Fi Linux OS TBD (now shipping) 3 (new!)
$149 responsive exhibits, sensor mesh networks Linux OS, Javascript, REST API easy/medium 5

Table 1: open source hardware products useful for museum applications

7. Conclusion

“On a general level, open-source hardware pushes knowledge further than closed-source hardware. OSHW isn’t and cannot remain a static product because of the demands of the community surrounding it. If a product is needed, it will be created…if not by you, then by someone else!” (Olivier, 2016)

Whether or not you or your institution is ready to jump into OSHW at this early stage, it’s important to be aware of its growing role in the technology landscape. On top of the potential for educational outreach, OSHW brings the possibility of making connections with skilled professionals and hobbyists from outside the museum field. Since open source hardware boasts better documentation, wider community support, and a lower cost than many custom solutions, you should ask your in-house or contracted exhibit development teams if they are using OSHW. Ultimately, open source hardware gives your museums more options in achieving your vision of a better visitor experience.


Dr. Stan Cohen, Michael Cosaboom, Michael Kelly, Shane Montoya, David Newbury, Alex Olivier, Caroline Record, Miles Tokunow, Rianne Trujillo


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Cite as:
Langer, Miriam and Jason Alderman. "Open hardware belongs in your museum." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 15, 2016. Consulted .