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Archive for February, 2012

I know posts have been a little thin on this blog over the past few months. One of the reasons is that I’ve been working on two other projects that I’m now ready to share with my CityStories readers.

The first is an exhibition that came out of a fellowship I had in fall 2011 at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I was at JNBC to continue my research on city museums, but while I was there I also worked with five JNBC graduate students to develop an exhibition about what it means to live in Providence, drawing from the field of psychogeography for our methodology.

Pyschogeography isn’t exactly a household word. Loosely defined, it involves mapping abstract concepts like emotion, sensory experiences, and personal meaning, in contrast to our traditional concept of mapping physical elements—roads, landmarks,  topography. I had been grappling a lot with the disconnect between what city museums think is worth knowing and preserving about their cities, on one hand, and what city residents know and preserve as living, breathing “archives,” walking around their cities each day, on the other. The exhibition was an experiment to see what it would be like to create a city collection where the emotional, sensory, and personal experiences of residents command center stage. After this project I am further convinced that city museums should be incorporating psychogeography into their ongoing work. The exhibition, You Are Here: Archiving Providence in the Present, is documented here.

The second project is a little more personal, but still strongly tied to my professional practice. I’ve been developing a blog for my five-year-old cousin Thomas, who wants to be an explorer when he grows up. I post photos from cities I have visited as part of my research, and I challenge Thomas to figure out the location of each photo. When he solves one, he and his mom report on how he did it, which gets posted on the blog. It’s called Thomas Sees the World.

The blog happened organically. Thomas was working on one of Andrew Sullivan’s “View from Your Window” challenges, but it was really hard. I offered to send him a few of my own photos that I had screened to make sure they contained enough visual clues. Thomas attacked these photos with an overwhelming eagerness to learn, and I was fascinated by his thought process, which almost never conformed to my expectations. After four or five of these challenges yielded such rich responses from Thomas, his mom and I decided to try a blog. We are developing a small but devoted following, and this game is bringing us all a lot of joy. I think about cities—and the differences between them—all the time, but I have never thought about them quite this way before. I am learning all sorts of new things as I look at cities through Thomas’s eyes. Take a look at the blog and you’ll see what I mean.

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A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours at the Museum of the City of New York seeing the temporary exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which runs through April 15. I’m really glad I got down to New York for this show, because it reinforces a lot of the concepts I’ve been exploring on this blog, and in my research on city museums in general.

I got there around 1:00 pm, and the museum was a lot busier than it had been the last time I visited in July 2011, when the main temporary exhibition was about colonial revival architecture. I had to wait in a line 20 people deep at the admission desk, and it was a good thing I arrived when I did. By the time I left at 3:00 not only had the admission line gotten longer but there was also a separate line for The Greatest Grid; the exhibition was so popular that the gallery housing it reached fire code capacity. I talked to a security guard who said it had been that crowded every weekend since the exhibition opened. At one point the exhibition curator, Hilary Ballon, showed up to do a gallery talk and had to use a microphone to be heard amidst a sea of attentive visitors.

Blockbuster exhibitions happen all the time at art museums, and at a lot of science museums too, but they are rare at city history museums. Why is The Greatest Grid so popular? From what I observed during my visit, I would say that MCNY struck a chord with New Yorkers. The museum could’ve presented a fairly standard urban planning exhibition, filled with historic maps, and gotten a reasonable turnout. But instead a decision was made to structure the exhibition around the concept of the Manhattan street grid—why and how it was developed, and what effect it has had on the city over time. That’s a concept that New Yorkers can really sink their teeth into.

Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan contends with the grid on a daily basis (click here to see an excerpt from 12×155, a video installation by artist Neil Goldberg, included in the exhibition, that illustrates this point quite effectively). Not only (says the gal from Boston) is it a particularly easy system to navigate—because of the grid you always know which way is north, and how long it will take to get from one place to another—but it also has a lot to do with what makes New York, New York. For example, the 19th-century real estate boom set in motion by the introduction of the grid is one of the big reasons NYC became such a financial powerhouse. And because the grid doesn’t really allow for inner courtyards, it constantly pushes Manhattanites out on the streets, ratcheting up the energy to that frenetic level we all associate with NYC.

Consequently, what I observed at the exhibition was a gallery packed full of locals in small social groups, spending a very long time pointing and talking about this grid and what it means to them. Often they were trying to find themselves—their home—on the historic maps, but just as often they were pointing out all the interesting things they noticed about how other parts of the city had changed. Here’s my slide show of all the pointers:

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Anyone who follows Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog knows that museums have a new imperative to craft social experiences that compel visitors to engage with one another while learning. The Greatest Grid is very effective on this level.

Another thing the exhibition team did really well was to develop a small companion exhibition, The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan, installed upstairs from the main gallery. It features the eight winners of a call for ideas sponsored by MCNY and the Architectural League of New York that asked architects and urban planners to envision ways of improving the grid for the 21st-century. These proposals are quite creative, and pull in visitors even further by asking them to consider whether the grid actually works in its current form. They also reinforce a theme introduced by the main exhibition, that the grid was not inevitable but exists because of—and will continue to be shaped by—a series of urban planning decisions. I’ve written before about the need for city museums to address not just the past but also the present and future of their cities. Therefore I was glad to see The Unfinished Grid help visitors extend the historical timeline to include both contemporary urban life as well as hopes and dreams for a New York still to come.

But the exhibition team missed an opportunity to address another new imperative that Nina Simon regularly writes about: creating experiences where visitors actively participate in making meaning, alongside the curators. If I were a New Yorker visiting this exhibition, filled with excitement and new knowledge about something that feels very personal and real in my daily life, I would want to express it beyond my own social group. I would want to stick comments on a giant map of Manhattan, or photograph myself sharing the most interesting thing I learned, or vote on my favorite avenue. And doing so would help me see beyond my own experience, to the collective life on the street that all New Yorkers share.

New Yorkers, get thee to MCNY to see this exhibition, and then tell me what you think. Do you find it compelling? Did it make you want to share your own experience of the grid? What did you point at?

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