Bringing happy people together

Yesterday, my husband and I were walking our dog around the neighborhood when we bumped into another resident and started chatting about various local happenings. When the subject of Light City Baltimore came up, our neighbor commented that he was absolutely blown away by the event. I expected him to follow up by emphasizing the beauty or scale of the light installations, but instead he said: “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.”

Since then, I’ve been pondering the significance of this statement and how much is resonates with my own experience of Light City—and how much it can inform museums and what they offer to their communities.

My husband and I went to Light City on Tuesday night after having a disagreement earlier that afternoon. Since the evening had been soured, it seemed like an odd choice to go out into a crowd of people; however, it ended up being the perfect choice. It got us out of the house and talking again on friendly terms. And as much as we both hate crowds, it made us feel connected. We turned on the red safety light on our dog’s collar and laughed with satisfaction when several people commented that he was the best light installation of the night.

As museums have changed “from being about something to being for somebody” (for more info, read the article by Stephen E. Weil of the same name), they’ve also become increasingly about being “with” the people they serve. Light City is a beautiful illustration of this principle in action. The power and connective potential of Light City Baltimore would be absolutely nothing without the large crowds of people who attended and the positive energy they brought. Specifically, the experience of being surrounded by happy people is what makes the festival impactful.

So the next question for me becomes the following: How do we bring people to our museums and how do we make them happy while they visit? Here are some theories on why Light City does these two things so successfully:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s embedded in people’s everyday experiences and locales (the Inner Harbor being central and familiar)—so it’s welcoming and comfortable.
  • It’s part of the community’s narrative and identity. (It belongs to Baltimore, not to its organizers, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts. In fact, the Light City website contains very little trace of BOPA and its brand. Light City is also inherently participatory; and other local institutions and businesses are free to create their own related programming and displays.)
  • It’s transformative (in that it physically changes the landscape of the city).

I’d love to think more about how some of these characteristics can be transferred to museum programs and experiences. I think it would be wonderful to hear a visitor say (in addition to or even instead of “The artifacts/artworks were interesting.”) “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.”

IMG_2109.JPG

Visitors play in The Pool [Reflect] by Jen Lewin

Advertisements

Dignity & museum labor

Recently, I came across this frank and courageous blog post and I was riveted. I read it multiple times.

Then, this week, I had the good fortune of participating in my first AAM Annual Meeting and I was heartened by the number of conversations centering on museums and labor practices. But I find myself stuck on Miri’s blog post and wondering- … cultural competency, equitable hiring, empathetic practice … Don’t they all start with paying people what they’re worth and/or giving them enough time off to take care of themselves?

I’ve worked in a number of workplaces of varying quality covering a range of fields. A few were rife with bullying and aggression and were flagrantly emotionally unsafe. These issues aside, the most dignified workplaces were the ones that paid fairly for the time and effort put in—even if other conditions were not ideal.

Miri’s blog post points out that advocating self-care rather than addressing structural issues within a workplace is rather feeble. Opportunities like leaving early, attending staff lunches, and participating in staff wellness activities are also common employer strategies for allowing staff to engage in self-care and rest. But how meaningful are afternoons off or workday wellness initiatives if they actually add to staff stress by reducing the time available to complete assignments or by requiring work to be taken home? These strategies might be more proactive than simply telling your employees to engage in self-care on their own time, but they are still mere Band-Aids for unsustainable practice.

Museums pay full price for services such as accounting, IT, and construction; yet they frequently look for ways to cut costs (either by paying as little as possible or by extracting as much time as possible) with respect to artistic and cultural services—the very disciplines that they purport to value and celebrate. Why? Because these are the folks who have little choice but to accept less, or give more for the same amount.

More money (or less unpaid overtime) does in fact make a difficult situation more bearable. While museums are phenomenally important to society, they are not, for example, hospital emergency rooms; in other words, they need not exist in constant crisis. They (should) have the luxury of putting their staff before their collections, and even their audiences—but it requires honest reflection about value.

Scarcity of money or time within museum positions could have serious impacts on diversity as well. Many museum jobs are only viable for applicants with higher-earning significant others, economically privileged backgrounds, and minimal financial obligations or commitments outside work.

What would it be like if resources were allocated and projects were planned in a way that ensured sustainable and dignified workplaces? Audiences might lose in the short-term, but communities might gain so much more by being served by strong, stable museum staffs.

These changes would be difficult for sure—and I don’t pretend to know just how difficult—but I’d like to begin a conversation. If these ideas resonate with you, please reach out to chat further. I hope that the growing conversation around museums and racial and economic justice can explore some of these issues in more detail. The recent changes in overtime rules offer an interesting starting point for some of these conversations.

One reason why art is amazing—and essential to our wellbeing

“The artist is really interested in how …”

If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.

For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.

Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.

Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:

  • Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
  • The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
  • Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
  • Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.

Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).

Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.

IMG_0908

Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.

Special gifts of the house museum

Recently, blogger, Hannah Lawrence, observed that ‘no matter who you are or what your background, when you are permitted to open grand towering doors you feel a sense of self-indulgent import’ (Exploring with Hannah).

The power of this experience, for me, cannot be overstated. Period architectural grandeur and that incredible experience of opening and passing through a spectacular door is one of my favorite things about visiting a house museum.

Hannah’s comment got me thinking about the unique ways that house museums confer wellbeing on us (as visitors) by eliciting a sense of personal ‘import’—by making us feel special. Maybe they play on our childhood fondness for acting out royal, fairy-tale storylines, or pique our natural curiosity about what it might be like to live among lavish wealth and beauty. Maybe they tap into our simple tendency to romanticize a time or place different from our own.

I think, however, that house museums are more than just palettes for our imaginations and romantic fantasies. A recent visit to Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens gave me the opportunity to cogitate on the source of this experience of ‘specialness.’

The reason why we love opening ‘grand towering doors’ may have something to do with the fact that we are physically penetrating a piece of history. For house museums, the house itself is arguably the gem of the collection, and unlike the other objects in the house (and in the traditional museum), we are permitted to interact with it physically: to push open the door, to walk up and down the stairs, and to hold the banisters. We experience a tactile relationship with history; it’s quite a privilege, and we know it.

The Hillwood Mansion pantry and kitchen was a favorite for both my husband and me. It inspired so much imagination and delight as well as a sense of novelty—the obvious asset of the house museum. And after reading that Marjorie Post’s guests used prized pieces from the collection as actual plateware, I momentarily wished that Hillwood, in its efforts to act as gracious host, had considered continuing Post’s tradition of a functional collection.

However, the lovely moments of ordinariness at Hillwood’s Mansion made the most lasting impression on me. The ‘Snooze Room’ made me feel inexplicably comforted; it felt warm and familial. The placement of the rope barrier meant that I had to crane my neck to see an entire wall of photographs, adding to my sense that I was being treated to the most fleeting (and therefore, special) of peaks into another life.

In the staff dining room, my husband correctly observed that the table looked just like the one from our first apartment together. We enjoyed this simple connection to a vastly different life.

Even the banality of a roped off staircase engendered a childlike curiosity and sense of mystery. What was at the top of those stairs?

This is one of the truly special features of the house museum. It can’t avoid the moments of normality, ordinariness, and everyday life that its historic occupants undoubtedly lived through. These brushes with the ordinary help establish connections and a sense of shared humanity that reach comfortingly across time, culture, economic wealth, and life experience. House museums are places of both exciting difference and reassuring sameness. This striking contrast is less apparent in traditional museums where everything presented typically seeks to entertain, make a point, or expose visitors to something novel.

In the same way that the house museum makes us feel grand and special, we also play an important role in conferring specialness on the house. After all, we are the ones that deem it significant enough to visit, giving it purpose and a reason to continue existing long after its original occupants are gone. In this way, house museums and their visitors share a delightful reciprocity, which, it turns out, is just one of the house museum’s unique gifts.

IMG_0651

Can you have a visitor experience without actually visiting?

Last Sunday, my husband and I had an almost-visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We took a gorgeous bike ride from Old Town Alexandria along the Mount Vernon Trail to Washington’s picturesque estate.

IMG_0418 (1)

Feeling awesome from the bike ride, I then meandered happily through the Mount Vernon gift store and the front of the grounds. I told my husband I was excited to come back another day for a proper visit. It was a great afternoon.

Later, I realized I would be quite content to return again by bike, experience the site, and then ride home again. Basically, my ‘visit’ to Mount Vernon had meant something to me, even though I hadn’t technically visited.

This realization got me wondering how museums fit into the larger fabric of their communities and geographic areas. How might their presence enhance healthy behaviors (such as biking), feelings of connection, and interpersonal relationships? And how can they be a reassuring force in their communities?

Getting people into the museum is a wonderful thing, but so are the forms of subtle engagement that a museum’s simple existence and care for its community can inspire. I recently attended a job interview at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden, and truly loved the experience of walking through the surrounding neighborhood (pictured below) and being in proximity to the Estate’s incredible beauty. Though I didn’t visit the Museum, I definitely experienced it.

IMG_0407

All museums and cultural sites have natural assets. Some of those assets may be fortuitous products of the museum’s surrounding area rather than deliberate virtues of the museum: accessibility via public transport, proximity to natural beauty or tranquility, maybe even—isolation.

Part of this ‘radial’ visitor experience is also deliberate, curated. Museums project ideas and values to their communities; these are felt and experienced by all who come into its radius, even if they don’t take a tour or view an exhibition.

Maybe this subtle form of impact and engagement is a possible first step towards breaking down the museum’s ‘reproduction of disadvantage’ (see Emily Dawson’s work). If community members can feel comfortable and welcome within your museum’s ‘radius,’ maybe they can begin to feel similarly welcome and comfortable within the museum’s walls. Accessible outdoor spaces also provide opportunities to eat, socialize, and connect in a casual, affordable way.

IMG_0448

Should museums give greater consideration to the presentation of their grounds, the proximity of nearby parks and trails, casual access to tables and benches on their grounds (see above image of Library of Congress), or sidewalk access to outdoor panels and exhibits?

In many cases, museums also act as physical historical markers, reminding those in their proximity of big and important ideas. Their mere physical existence sustains our collective memory.

Recently, museum and library thinker, David Carr, gave a lecture at Smithsonian Libraries. Carr spoke about the role of museums and libraries in inspiring individual lives, understanding aspirations, and shaping the ‘story of the self.’ So I wonder—how can museums use their subtle influences to creatively contribute to individual lives?

Do you have a local museum or cultural site that somehow touches your life—that gives you pleasure, reassurance, and a sense of cultural wealth—even if you might never step inside? If so, then you are part of that museum’s impact. And that museum is responsible for contributing a greater richness to your individual life.

Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

A few weeks ago, my father-in-law asked if I’d ever considered writing about museum shops. I was a bit startled because, honestly, the idea had never occurred to me (and probably never would have). Because my blog explores ways that museums can uplift visitors and communities, I was compelled to focus my father-in-law’s proposal into the following question: Can museum shops confer wellbeing?

So I began to reflect on my experiences in museum shops. And each time I visited a museum, I made time to visit the shop. I began to appreciate the way that effective museum shops extend and enrich the wellbeing-enhancing aspects of the museum experience. Here are some preliminary thoughts (which I hope to build on in future posts).

Museum shops can extend the museum experience of wonder, imagination, and intrigue. The perfect example here (from my experience) is the Spy Museum shop, which, in my opinion, actually comes quite close to rivaling the exhibits. When I visited the museum in 2012, I became completely absorbed by the shop’s extensive selection of books, appropriately curated to deepen and extend content from the exhibits.

Museum shops can contribute towards the museum’s social mission and commitment to community. The gift shop at Logan Art Gallery (a regional gallery in Australia where I used to volunteer) is completely integrated into the museum itself with most of the merchandise displayed in cabinets under and alongside the front desk. The store sells local creations (jewelry, scarves, cards, ceramics) thereby supporting local artists and raising their profile within the community.

Shop merchandise can inspire playfulness and imagination, and extend the experience to others outside the museum. The fun Wizard of Oz products at the National Museum of American History’s shop offer an opportunity for playfulness and sharing beyond the museum; during a recent visit, my mum purchased Wizard-of-Oz-themed socks (pictured below) as souvenirs for her sisters.

2015-01-07 15.26.09

Shops can celebrate museum collections and immerse visitors in beauty. The shop at the National Gallery of Art (entrance pictured below) is a good example of the way that a museum shop can help to celebrate the museum’s collection, and re-ignite visitors’ memories of favorite works or displays.

2015-01-09 10.20.18

Museum shops are valuable because they allow visitors to carry the unique qualities of the museum outside the museum walls—and into the wider world. They bring social continuity to the museum experience, allowing visitors to seek out new discoveries, claim tangible mementos, and share the experience with friends and family through playful gifts. They also offer respite from the formality and restrictiveness of the gallery space; visitors can touch, hold, try on, and share.

Do you believe that museum shops can advance a museum’s mission? Do they have a role in the social service museum? Finally, can a museum increase its impact through its shop?

Museums and the pure joy of learning

The impact of museums on me 

I began this blog project to learn about museum practice and explore how I might contribute to the museum field. I was excited to explore D.C.’s cultural offerings and consider possible connections between museums, wellbeing, and social service.

Of course, I expected to learn a lot about museum practice. But I was less prepared for the immense casual learning (about art history, art practice, architecture, conservation, history) that my visits would inspire and the happiness this would bring me.

A month ago, I shared this sentiment on Twitter:

Then last week, with my mother visiting from Australia, I had a good excuse to visit several museums without focusing particularly on their relevance to the blog—and my thoughts about museums and the joy of learning crystalized enough for me to write this post. In short, I realized how much my museum expeditions have changed me for the better.

Through my desire to better understand visitor participation, I have become a more avid participator. These days, I can hardly walk past an interactive display, response prompt, or activity without engaging in some way. Along with this heightened interest in participation has come a newfound playfulness and desire to relate. Suddenly, I see opportunities to engage that I would not previously have noticed.

My initially-perfunctory effort to document my visits and provide visuals for the blog through photography has evolved into a genuine quest for beauty, intrigue, and new ways of seeing:

My phone (with its camera) is never far from my reach these days, and I don’t feel like I’m missing any real moments—something I admit I used to see as a reason for not taking photographs.

I have rediscovered some of my childlike awe, most recently, in the stunning presence of Richard Estes’ Realism at Smithsonian American Art Museum, an exhibition that had me continually running over to my companion (my mum, in this case) to point out particular works. I have also experienced a greater willingness to try new things and a deeper interest in ‘process’ and ‘experience.’ For example, I am increasingly eager to attempt art practice as a window into museum programs and collections.

Sketching Rodin's The Age of Bronze at the National Gallery of Art's Drawing Salon

Sketching Rodin’s The Age of Bronze at the National Gallery of Art’s Drawing Salon

While I admit I do tend to gravitate towards art museums, the blog project has helped me expand my horizons, prompting genuine interest in subjects such as architecture, urban planning, and horticulture.

I’m intrigued by these intangible museum visit outcomes, which relate less to specific facts learned and more to the emotional and identity outcomes that learning can inspire. Have you ever experienced emotional or identity outcomes in the museum, including experiences, interests, and realizations that helped you grow? If so, what were they? Museum professionals, do you ever plan for visitors to experience these kinds of outcomes? Have they ever emerged unexpectedly from your evaluations as ‘unanticipated outcomes’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum)?

This month, as I begin seriously searching for museum employment and volunteer opportunities (work permit in hand at last), I feel grateful to be striving towards a career that will afford me so many opportunities to learn, enquire, feel amazed, and develop myself.

For an aspiring museum professional, the opportunity to attend numerous museum exhibitions and programs has been a gift—and an important part of my professional and emotional education. I believe that all museum professionals and museum studies students should make time for this pursuit, and employers and academic programs should encourage and support this important process.

The opportunity to write has also been important for me, professionally and personally. Writing the blog has brought forth a more candid and expressive and less reserved side of me that has been valuable as I seek to learn from others and exchange ideas.

I look forward to continuing my blog project, and my ongoing personal education.

Enjoying museum architecture through photography while passing by Library of Congress

Enjoying museum architecture through photography while passing by the Library of Congress

Dropping in on museums

On the Monday before Christmas, I decided to combat pre-holiday restlessness with a somewhat impromptu visit to the Freer and Sackler Galleries to see their (relatively new) exhibition, The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia.

I am starting to think of the Freer|Sackler as an old friend, someone I can drop in on casually when I’m bored, or unsettled, or somehow in need. Fittingly, my first visit (back in 2008) began when my mum and I stumbled through the Freer Gallery doors desperately seeking refuge from the scorching D.C. summer day outside.

I am truly fortunate to live in a city with so many free, conveniently-located cultural refuges. Providing a cultural space where visitors can enter easily, cheaply, and regularly is a powerful community service and one that I feel more museums might strive to facilitate and augment, if possible. This is one way that a museum could, if it made sense for the particular institution, become more like a park (see my past post on the subject).

Every museum is inevitably restricted by physical and geographical constraints and limited resources. However, I wonder how museums might augment what they already have to make themselves community spaces that support casual, drop-in visits. If a museum or exhibit can’t offer free admission, what are some other ways it can reduce barriers to entry and encourage regular, spontaneous visitation? I’ve noticed that many museums offer free admission days. Also, lunch-time museum programs seem like a great way to provide value and regularly varied content.

Here’s another thought: Could museums offer month-long passes, or multi-visit passes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could return to something you enjoyed, or split a museum’s galleries into multiple short visits, or return to a favorite exhibit with a friend—without having to pay for admission a second time? Perhaps this option would increase visitation without reducing admissions revenue? Does a market (beyond me) exist for such options?

Museums that are set up to support short, casual visits seem particularly child and family-friendly. The pressure (on caregivers) to make the visit meaningful and successful is possibly alleviated by the knowledge that they can easily come back another day. And if things go really well, then the ability to return easily becomes an opportunity to re-visit favorite displays or show them to other family members!

Based on my experience leading outings (both as a nanny and a support worker), free or ‘no-fuss’ exhibits and programs definitely feel more accessible than paid ones, and can frequently be undertaken more spontaneously.

Which museums do you frequent, and what museum qualities make this possible? Do you see value in drop-in style or narrowly focused visits? What might be the role of design in supporting these visits? In my experience, the museums with which you develop these kinds of relationships are lifelong companions, fondly remembered and indelibly imprinted on your experience. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the Johnson Museum of Art, the many times I used the art to help my language students practice their English, and the peaceful times I spent looking out over my college campus from the fifth floor gallery.

What can museums learn from parks?

Recently, I discovered a Northern Virginia gem: Green Spring Gardens. Two visits later, I began wondering whether this dynamically educational and therapeutic space could offer a fresh perspective on traditional museum approaches.

Green Spring Gardens is many things: a garden and park, a museum, and an intellectual hub for horticulture and conservation. The site is home to the Horticulture Center and Historic House; both buildings have gallery spaces and lively exhibition programs, and the Horticulture Center features a research library and glasshouse.

Reflecting on this unique nature-driven and largely outdoor museum, I decided to explore some of the special qualities of the ‘park,’ examine the ways that Green Spring embraces and augments the park paradigm, and look for applications within the more traditional museum setting. I managed to distill my observations into six key thoughts:

Parks are seen as essential.

NBC’s Parks and Recreation depicts a fierce rivalry and mutual disdain between the local parks department and the library department. The joke, I think, is partly based on the axiomatic idea that parks and libraries are essential services both highly deserving of resources and deeply necessary to communities. Why are museums typically left out of this esteemed group? What could museums do to better demonstrate how essential they truly are?

In her essay, ‘Museum as Soup Kitchen,’ Elaine Gurian (2010) wondered whether local museums could expand their traditional offerings with other services, becoming active community spaces. She also asked readers to consider the idea of local museums providing ‘“free indoor public parks”’ for days when outdoor activities are not possible (Gurian, 2010, p. 79).

Parks are inextricably embedded in the social fabric of communities, and in many cases, come to define neighborhoods. Can museums find similar security in their communities by figuring out ways to understand, provide, and market essential community services? Museums have special resources to offer, and as Gurian (2010) suggested, could use these assets to provide relevant community programs that are perceived by more people as essential.

Parks are social spaces.

Parks are arguably quite effective as ‘third places’ (a term developed by Ray Oldenburg). They are social gathering sites where people can visit easily and regularly to connect with others. Are museums also third places? In a 2010 post, Nina Simon questioned whether museums are really suitable as third places since they are markedly less casual and more intellectually focused than true third places.

I think gardens such as Green Spring suggest a possible middle ground—a visitor experience that is both social and intellectual. Green Spring has the accessibility characteristics of a third place with the intellectual richness of a museum (and the social purposefulness of a community center).

Parks are dynamic spaces.

During my second visit to Green Spring, I realized one of the most engaging qualities of the Gardens: the fact that it looks and feels different every time you visit. My first visit was on a Sunday afternoon when families were out taking photographs and people were walking their dogs. It was a relatively warm day and the whole park was bathed in sunlight. My second visit was on a weekday afternoon and, by chance, a much colder, gloomier day. Instead of families and dogs, I saw a school group enjoying the grounds and the educational programs. Due to the gloomy weather, the grounds looked much darker and more solemn, but equally beautiful.

I realized—parks are dynamic spaces, changing daily and taking on the characteristics of that day’s particular weather, seasonal influences, and visitor motivations. By comparison, I would argue that museums are frequently more static in their appearance and character. Though their visitor base may change depending on the time of year and day of the week, the exhibitions, programs, and displays generally remain unchanged for extended periods of time. I would probably not be able to visit the same museum twice in one week and have two distinctly different experiences.

Perhaps one of the reasons that parks appear so dynamic is that they embrace their many potential uses. They are explicitly multipurpose spaces where visitors can choose to engage in a myriad of acceptable ways. At a park like Green Spring, visitors engage with the displays in personal, active ways. They might sit on a bench and read a book, walk a dog, or have a family picnic. A school trip or family outing might use the space as an ‘outdoor classroom,’ as the website suggests.

Recently, I visited the U.S. Botanic Garden, and after thoroughly exploring the exhibits, I sat down on one of the many benches and read a book, enjoying the tranquil, multisensory surroundings. By providing the appropriate environmental supports (abundant seating in a variety of locations), this museum facilitated a diverse, but valid use of its space—much like a park.

A good example of a museum that encourages multiple routes of engagement is Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia.

IMG_0081

Photo by David Konigsberg.

Parks strive for social equity.

Social Equity is one of the three pillars of the National Recreation and Parks Association (along with Conservation and Health and Wellness). This video of NRPA’s President and CEO, Barbara Tulipane, CAE helps explain the uniqueness and importance of this quality for parks.

Parks are characterized by open spaces and blurred boundaries, and in the case of free public parks, are open to all. Recently, in a post about autism friendly museum programmingTincture of Museum described ‘access’ in a way that I think aptly describes what parks do well:

 ‘ … it is not always physical things a museum does, the signage, ramps or toilets. It is often about a way of thinking, it is about creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and accepted. It is a mindset, an ethos.’ (Claire Madge, Tincture of Museum)

At Green Spring, the open outdoor spaces created a mindset for me where I felt quite comfortable walking right into the Historic House, having no idea what it was at the time and responding only to the following basic invitation: ‘Open’ (see below).

IMG_0081 copy

Once inside, I was left to my own devices to explore. No one greeted me initially except for two equally confused fellow visitors who initially mistook me for a guide. The three of us ultimately had a great time exploring the gift shop and exhibitions without any of the usual supervision.

Ordinarily, I might be inclined to criticize a visitor experience that began with no greeting or acknowledgment or even confirmation that I was allowed to be present. However, on this occasion, it worked beautifully, making the experience fun and exciting and facilitating conversation with other visitors. The ‘park paradigm’ is wonderful in this sense—laidback, inclusive, unintimidating. I walked in wearing sneakers, yoga pants, and an oversized hoodie—an outfit that I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing into a very traditional museum. Ultimately, I did chat with a staff person at the end of this visit and on my return, and these experiences reinforced my initial impressions of the House as a casual, welcoming space.

Parks promote physical and mental wellbeing.

By encouraging exercise and time spent outdoors, parks actively improve visitors’ health and wellbeing.

They are also empathetic visitor spaces that anticipate and respond to visitor needs, particularly basic physical and social needs. They typically provide plentiful seating (even in unexpected places such as the glasshouse at the Green Spring Horticulture Center).

Parks help protect our natural world.

Through teaching about conservation, parks such as Green Spring help promote pro-environmental attitudes and respect for the natural world.

A ‘park-influenced museum’ (or a ‘museum-influenced park’)…

As I mentioned, Green Spring Gardens is more than a park. I feel it is a good example of how the special qualities of the park could enrich and deepen a museum experience, possibly enhancing its social equity, increasing its social and therapeutic impact, and elevating its ‘essential-service’ cachet. Though the ideas explored here might not be relevant for all institutions, they hopefully contribute to a dialogue about multidisciplinary approaches.

 

Reference

Gurian, E. (2010). Museum as soup kitchen. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(1), 71-85. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2009.00009.x