DIY Culture and Cultural Institution – the first framework

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Interior Redpath Museum, McGill University, Montreal, QC, 1893

This spring I have been working on some theories on DIY Culture and the special relationship I believe there is with Cultural Institutions (such as museums, libraries and archives or MLA). I have been working on this subject as a part of a class I have been teaching at University of Copenhagen and have recently been to Maastricht to present my thoughts on the matter at the Assembling Value conference. This is however, a work in progress.

First lets take a quick look at DIY culture. I define it as the social world of people engaging in DIY activities, which again is any activity done without any formal training. The activity itself is secondary here to the autodidact learning and information behaviour that takes place in DIY activities. In relation to cultural institutions I have so far identified three different aspects of DIY culture:

  • Amateurs
  • Volunteers
  • Hackers


The phrase amateur comes from the Latin word Amator (meaning to love) but often has a more negative meaning today as well as being the opposite of professional. I believe that amateurs are motivated by their own passion for and interest in the activities they undertake as amateurs. In relation to MLA amateurs could be:

  • Family historians/genealogists
  • Historical reenacters
  • Amateur musicians
  • Hobby artists
  • Collectors

They all have that in common that they work on projects in which they themselves are to gain.


Volunteers are people who do various activities without expecting any payment in return. Volunteers volunteer for many reasons but their main motivation is often that what they are doing benefits someone or something else. I choose to say that their currency is “a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling inside”. Volunteers in MLA could be:

  • Local historians
  • Educational or outreach helpers
  • Charity workers


You could say that hackers are a rather new group on DIYers in the world of cultural  institutions because much of their current work is with technology. Or you could argue as Catherine Bracy does (see her TED talk) that hacking has its roots in people like Abraham Lincoln, and that the founders of many of our cultural institutions were hackers. Hackers seek to change the status quo from the outside and often find innovative solutions for this. So hacking doesn’t have to be technology related. Last year I participated in Hack4DK, a weekend long hackathon arranges by a group of Danish flagship cultural institutions. I did some interviews (a report on this work is underway) to try and understand their motivation for taking part. The motivation I initially found was a wish to do something fun with a unique dataset which nobody has worked on before. In MLA hackers could be:

  • Heritage hackers
  • Wikipedia editors
  • Readers of historical documents
  • Authors

Areas of research so far

  • Examine this hypothesis within MLA public interaction
  • Better understanding of the motivations of amateurs, volunteers and hackers that goes beyond anecdotal evidence and assumptions