Arduino in Museums

The Arduino as a tool for artists and designers is being introduced in art museums and galleries. The growing popularity both in the mainstream and museums reveals that artists and designers are embracing this as a tool for their medium, as the tool was intended. Edward Shanken reports that "… throughout history, artists have created and utilized technology to envision the future, not just of art, but of culture and society in general."[1] The Arduino's path into museums closely resembles the route of photography into art museums by way of science museums in the 1800s. At first, photographs were seen as a new technology belonging to science rather than an art.[2] Science museums, conferences, and galleries tend to lead the exhibition of artwork involving technology.[3] Arduino artwork can be found in several science museums, on Arduino's Exhibition[4] webpage, and a handful of art museums.

The Arduino's Exhibition page functions as a virtual art gallery for Arduino.[5] For several artists using the Arduino microcontroller, online exhibits are the first place their pieces are shown. Arduino's forums, blog and website each designate an entire subject thread, category, and page (respectively) to exhibition, which is an area to talk about what Arduino users have created.[6] The Ar(t)duino section of the Arduino blog is most likely the first exhibit of the Arduino in art, albeit virtual. Science museums that have hosted Arduino include the Museum of Science and Industry[7], Ars Electronica[8], the Exploratorium[9] and the Science Museum of Minnesota.[10] Conferences such as ACM's SIGGRAPH[11] are also a welcoming place for computer driven art featuring new technologies.

The examples that follow were chosen among the only instances of the Arduino in art museums which include modified Arduino designs for the sake of art and design. Three of the four artists exemplified have modified the Arduino board for various projects: Usman Haque,[12] Bjöern Hartmann,[13] and HC Gilje.[14] Rebecca Stern is an artist that uses the LilyPad which was modified from the Arduino by Buechley. Stern created an art piece entitled LilyPad Embroidery: A Tribute to Leah Buechley, Figure 3-11, which exposes the LilyPad as her tool.

rebecca-stern-lilypad-embroidery.pngProvenance: BildMuseet, Museum of Craft and Folk; photograph provided by Rebecca SternFigure 3-11 Rebecca Stern LilyPad Embroidery: A Tribute to Leah Buechley, 2008, LilyPad, sensors, embroidery

Stern's piece was originally shown in the Open Source Embroidery exhibit at BildMuseet in Umeå, Sweden. The Museum of Craft and Folk Art of San Francisco also exhibited Stern's LilyPad Embroidery: A Tribute to Leah Buechley. LilyPad Embroidery: A Tribute to Leah Buechley is an embroidered design around the LilyPad Arduino. It uses a light sensor (a photocell) to increase or decrease the rate at which the LEDs blink and the speaker beeps.[15] Below two people are interacting with the embroidered piece by covering the light sensor which rapidly blinks the LED and increases the metronome coming from the speaker.

interaction-lilypad-embroidery.pngPhotograph provided by Rebecca SternFigure 3-12 Interaction with Rebecca Stern's "LilyPad Embroidery: A Tribute to Leah Buechley", 2008, installed at the Cartel Coffee Lab.

In her piece, Stern asserts the beauty of the LilyPad as her artist's statement. Stern feels that artists can identify with the Arduino microcontroller because it catches the eye in its aesthetics, which was why she attributed her artwork to Buechley. What makes this piece unique is that the artists' tool has not previously been the centerpiece of an artwork. Paul asserts that "museums and galleries commonly have to build structures or walls to hide 'ugly' computers and need to assign staff to the ongoing maintenance of hardware".[16] In the instance of Stern's piece, the hardware is celebrated.

Another example is Haque's Remote created using an Arduino. Remote was a commission of the New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. for the Mixed Realities Exhibit.[17] In this exhibit, a chair was placed in a room at Emerson College in Boston (the first image in Figure 3-13) and another chair in the virtual space Second Life (the second image in Figure 3-13).[18] The virtual and real worlds trade humidity, temperature, light, speech, mist, wind, sound, and proximity data to effect one another's environments. If the chair in Boston is rocked from side to side in Boston, the cartoon chair in Second Life rocks from side to side. Avatars in Second Life can sit in the chair causing the mist machine to turn on in the room in Boston. Light sensors in Boston control the atmospheric light in Second Life. The wind in Second Life triggers fan speed in the room in Boston.

usman-haque-remote.pngFigure 3-13 Usman Haque, Remote, 2008, Arduino, mixed media, Emerson College, Boston and Second Life.

Hartmann created the Digital Dacha Murals: Affinity, Blueprint and Wishing Wall[19] with Scott Doorley, Parul Vora, Kevin Collins, and Dan Maynes-Aminzade. The murals were displayed at the San Jose Museum of Art.[20] Wishing Wall, Figure 3-14, was a visual representation of the sounds of a person answering the question "What do you wish for?" into a telephone.[21] The Wishing Wall was built with one PC, an Arduino, two speakers, and a microphone, and the projection was running a Processing applet. The image below shows the telephone in use in the foreground and a visualization of the sound being projected in the background. It was displayed a second time at the ZeroOne Festival[22] which celebrates inspirations of art and technology.

wishing-wall.pngPhotograph provided by bpunktFigure 3-14 Bjöern Hartmann with Scott Doorley, Parul Vora, Kevin Collins, Dan Maynes-Aminzade, "Wishing Wall", 2008, PC, Arduino, two speakers, and a microphone, San Jose Museum of Art, California

Wind-Up Birds, Figure 3-15, created by Gilje was installed outdoors as part of UT-21: Polish Norwegian Art Project. UT means "out of the museum" or "without title".[23] Gilje's project introduced a new species of electronic bird to be accepted into the cultures of forest creatures. It took fifteen minutes for a woodpecker to perch on the same tree as one of the Wind-Up Birds, which were programmed to create woodpecker sounds, and it easily fooled human ears.[24] "This was the initial motivation for me, the movement of sound in a space, and the effort involved in trying to localize the source of the sounds which lead to a stimulation of our perceptive apparatus." Gilje used an Arduino StandAlone, an Xbee for wireless communication, and a solenoid for pecking. The pieces each had a roof to protect the electronics from the elements.

wind-up-birds.pngPhotograph provided by HC GiljeFigure 3-15 HC Gilje, Wind-Up Birds, 2007, Xbee, ATmega 168 microchip, solenoid with wooden box and metal roof

Furthering the growth of the Arduino microcontroller in art museums is Paola Antonelli,[25] a senior curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA in New York. The Arduino is something new in her field that she is currently learning about.[26] Antonelli sees an impact on art created from the Arduino just as Processing affected physical computing. The impact Antonelli articulates is that the Arduino microcontroller as a tool is more accessible to artists and designers, just as Processing debuted code that was centric to art and design. She states from her role as a curator, "If I know what it is about, then it must be a universal and accessible tool." Using herself as an example, she perceives that you don't need to know the low level bits to recognize the potential the Arduino microcontroller has. This statement mirrors the findings in Section 3.1. Antonelli states that "The basic bricks to design everything in the art world, such as the Arduino and the automation of objects, are becoming really open to the artists and designers themselves, and that's the big revolution of open source". Open source in the art world is interesting because it gives others the source code to recreate the same artwork. Antonelli requires the source code for both open and closed source artworks acquired by MoMA. Collecting code in this manner will make MoMA a library of all source code for their collected digital artworks. This would be equivalent to obtaining every paint recipe to accompany every painting in the collection.

The difference between the open source code is that the museum or the creator could publish this code for the public. The museum would not have those privileges with closed source code. Antonelli considers the code and the physical attributes as one; the piece would not exist without the source code or the hardware for both open source and closed source pieces. "Museums exist to preserve things," says Antonelli. However, preserving becomes complicated when collecting interfaces or websites, as the dimension of time erodes technology. It is difficult to acquire them in a static way when their living state was dynamic and interactive. Antonelli articulates,

"What does it mean to acquire computational pieces, you have to acquire many different states; there are several ways. You can acquire the code, and the hardware that it originally ran on. But the original hardware may crash, and putting it on a new piece of hardware may appear phony, so you can record a video of it functioning and show it, or do a combination of those".

Open source projects as part of the art and design domain will be beneficial to the future preservation in art and design. Museum documentation for preservation of open source art works will be more accessible and easier to maintain than reverse engineering the technology to determine how it functions. However, there may be other preservation challenges that museums will need to explore. Several participants echoed maintenance and preservation concerns in their interviews. Some artists were concerned that their interactive piece would not be allowed to be touched and the entire point of their artwork would be overlooked. Nine artists were concerned that if their piece malfunctioned, the museums would not be properly staffed to fix it. From a curatorial perspective, museum staff modifying the code to fix artwork may alter the meaning or authority of the art. If the original software does not work, that also raises a question of which software version is appropriate to display, the original code or the code that functions. Versioning raises a question of what is the art; it could be considered the software, hardware, interaction or all of those. Some art may also need to have software updates to continue functioning. Participants who interact with the piece may change the physical positioning within the gallery so that other viewers have a different experience happening upon it. For future exhibits and documentation, the correct positioning could be argued in pieces that include interaction.


  1. Edward A. Shanken, Concluding Reflections: Art History, Interdisciplinary Collaboration, and the Interpretation of Hybrid Forms. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007, Media Art Histories, 65
  2. Karen A. Verschooren, .art: Situating Internet Art in the Traditional Institution for Contemporary Art. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, 97
  3. Frank Popper, From Technologies to Virtual Art . Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007
  4. Arduino: Playground. Arduino, http://www.arduino.cc/playground/Projects/ArduinoUsers (visited on 05/19/2009)
  5. On Arduino's website, engineers, artists and designers are all celebrated as makers who contribute to the project.
  6. Arduino Forums. Arduino, http://www.arduino.cc/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl (visited on 09/26/2009)
  7. Smart Home: Green + Wired. Museum of Science and Industry, http://www.msichicago.org/whats- here/exhibits/smart-home/ (visited on 10/18/2009)
  8. Ars Electronica was originally constructed to be a museum of the future. Digital Communities. Ars Electronica Archive, http://90.146.8.18/en/archives/prix_archive/prix_projekt.asp?iProjectID=13789 (visited on 10/18/2009)
  9. Learning Studio. Exploratorium, http://www.exploratorium.edu/ls/collaborators.html (visited on 10/18/2009)
  10. Science Museum of Minnesota. http://www.smm.org/adultprograms/catalog/ (visited on 10/18/2009)
  11. ACMSIGGRAPH. http://www.siggraph.org (visited on 10/18/2009)
  12. Usman Haque (Founder of Haque Design + Research) in discussion with the author, September 2009.
  13. Bjöern Hartmann (Creator of Phidgets shield for the Arduino microcontroller) in discussion with the author, September 2009
  14. Hc Gilje (Creator of the Arduino-Standalone) in discussion with the author, October 2009.
  15. LilyPad Embroidery. Sternlab, http://sternlab.org/2008/04/lilypad-embroidery/ (visited on 10/05/2009)
  16. Christine Paul, The Myth of Immateriality: Presenting and Preserving New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007, Media Art Histories, 252
  17. Mixed Realities. Turbulence, http://turbulence.org/mixed_realities/ (visited on 10/18/2009)
  18. Remote. Haque Design + Research, http://www.haque.co.uk/remote.php (visited on 10/20/2009)
  19. Digital Dacha Murals. Bjorn.org, http://bjoern.org/projects/murals (visited on 11/10/2009)
  20. San Jose Museum of Art. http://www.sjmusart.org (visited on 11/10/2009)
  21. Dacha. http://digitaldacha.com/ (visited on 11/10/2009)
  22. Artsopolis. http://www.artsopolis.com/org/detail/502 (visited on 11/10/2009)
  23. Conversations with spaces. HC Giljge's Blog, http://hcgilje.wordpress.com/2008/09/03/ut-21-polish-norwegian-art-project/ (visited on 09/03/2008)
  24. wind-up bird(s). HC Giljge's Blog, http://hcgilje.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/wind-up-birds/ (visited on 09/04/2008)
  25. Paola Antonelli (Senior Curator of Design and Architecture at MoMA) in discussion with the author, October 2009.
  26. Paola Antonelli. Metropolis, 2009, 108