Lately, I have been thinking a lot about museums and ‘place’—ever since finding my undergraduate university art museum, Johnson Museum of Art, on Twitter and Instagram, and feeling a strong sense of nostalgia and connection to this past life.
Then last Tuesday, I attended an engaging panel about public art and creative placemaking (EALDC’s Annual Creative Conversation), which got me thinking about the connections between museums and place, and the active role that museums can play in building place-based value.
Two comments from Tuesday’s panel proved very provocative for me. Early in the evening, panelist, Braulio Agnese (of Dupont Underground), explained that Dupont Underground’s space ‘compels’ and directs the project. To elucidate this constraint of creative placemaking, Agnese contrasted Dupont Underground with Hamiltonian Gallery (the event’s host): Hamiltonian Gallery could simply pick up and move to another site while retaining its particular character and relevancy, whereas Dupont Underground could not, he explained.
I understood Agnese’s point, and suspected his assessment was fair for some museums and galleries; however, I wondered if a completely rootless museum/gallery was quite so typical or inevitable. After all, all the great museums that I could think of had built rich, complex identities around place.
The other comment that continued to percolate several days later came from panelist, Irfana Jetha Noorani (of 11th Street Bridge Park). She used the phrase ‘building champions’ to describe the process of building community momentum and advocacy for her project. Bringing people to your site often and early is one such way to build champions, she explained. She seemed to be describing the process of building connections to place—and I felt her point was relevant to not only community cultural spaces, but also museums.
Many of our memories are grounded in place. The memory of place follows us, enlivens us, and conveys that feeling of homecoming when we return to something.
Already, I have strong place memories of last Tuesday’s visit to Hamiltonian Gallery, most of them relating to the alarmingly large and inappropriately named ‘slice of pizza’ that I grabbed across the street before heading over to the Gallery. I experienced the Gallery within the context of the larger neighborhood and my own needs at the time (food-related as usual).
‘Place’ helps build institutional champions. This was the message I was getting. And it made sense because all my memories of favorite museums were built around place. I would fight for these institutions even those I no longer live near—because they belong to a particular social landscape that is important to me.
Does ‘place’ exist in an exclusively physical sense? That would be awfully limiting for those people unable to visit a cultural site in person. Fortunately, I think that place can be conveyed and experienced very effectively in the digital realm. And I see a lot of great examples of this on social media: museums posting about their gardens or grounds, their weather, their current facility and preservation initiatives, or their staff’s daily experiences. Live tweeting of programs also brings a sense of immediacy and shared presence to online audiences.
Visitors, as potential ‘champions’ and stakeholders, can and should be part of the museum place-making process. Social media meetups such as tweetups are one way that visitors can share their physical experiences within a museum space. Tweetup participants build their own narratives into the museum space and share them broadly and loudly across their networks. A recent example of this was the #GuggDetails tweetup where participants wove personal and creative narratives into the physical space of the museum.
The space compels and guides our decisions, and is constantly teaching us, explained Braulio Agnese at Tuesday’s panel. Museum spaces certainly constrain our decisions at times, but they also evolve, expand, and grow in positive ways as more and more stories are incorporated.
Place in the museum is fluid and constantly striving. If sufficiently strong and cohesive, it can transcend physical space or even inhabit new space.