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Archive for the ‘Locals’ Category

Rainy Day, Boston by Childe Hassam, 1885, Toledo Museum of Art

Rainy Day, Boston by Childe Hassam, 1885, Toledo Museum of Art, via Google Art Project

For the first time in my life I have found a weather forecaster who actually matters to me. His name is David Epstein, and I am a big fan of his blog Weather Wisdom on boston.com. So are many of my local friends. Why do I care so much about David Epstein? Because he is the first meteorologist I have encountered who not only delivers the forecast, but then truly explains how it is going to affect my life.

Take his post yesterday about the impending Hurricane Arthur. He was precise and thorough in describing exactly where and when to expect significant weather across southeastern Massachusetts. But more importantly, he told me what I needed to know to effectively adjust my plans for the July 4 holiday weekend. Yesterday afternoon many Bostonians were still trying to figure out whether it would be okay to attend last night’s outdoor Boston Pops concert at the Hatch Shell, a local Fourth of July tradition. Knowing it would be on our minds, Epstein made sure to advise us that as long as we cleared out of the Esplanade as soon as the concert ended, we should be able to avoid any significant downpours. He also knew many Bostonians would be thinking about today’s Red Sox game, so he told us what to expect there too: it would probably get cancelled, and if wasn’t then count on getting soaked (eventually it did get postponed until Saturday). Indeed, he advised that any outdoor events for this afternoon and evening would get cancelled if they hadn’t been already. He even weighed in on flight delays. And finally, he told us it would all clear out for a beautiful Saturday and Sunday: dry, not too hot, and great for all outdoor activities except ocean swimming (currents will still be strong). Which lets me know definitively: Pops but not Sox; no to my friend’s outdoor picnic this afternoon but yes to my other friend’s indoor party tonight; and Saturday’s farmer’s market–as well as brunch afterward on the patio–will be glorious. Weekend planned.

All last winter, whenever snow was predicted in my city, David Epstein told me whether to head out early, on time, or late–or to skip going out altogether. He also gave me shoveling advice: was it going to be the kind of light, powdery snow where we can save the shoveling til the next morning, or a wet, heavy snow that means we need to shovel every 2 hours or risk throwing our backs out. Because some storms bring down trees on power lines and others don’t, he told me which one I would be dealing with so I’d know whether it was worth my time to get out the flashlights and fully charge devices. And all year long he has been telling me what the weather is going to mean for my yard–when to plant, when to water, when to protect from frost.

Other forecasts simply don’t provide this context. They give me some information, and then it’s up to me to interpret how this information is going to affect me. Therefore they are interchangeable. They come and go, from one weather service or another, hovering right at the line of mediocrity where they’re neither remarkably bad nor remarkably good; they just are. But not David Epstein’s forecasts. He understands his audience’s needs. He knows right now we’re thinking about the holiday weekend, and on Monday morning we’ll be thinking about a whole different set of concerns, and we’ll always be thinking about the Red Sox. He understands that the whole reason to have a forecast in the first place is so people can apply it to their daily lives, and so he helps me make good decisions. For this reason, I am loyal to David Epstein. I recommend him to everyone I know. If boston.com tried to drop him I would care; I would fight for him. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

So what does David Epstein have to do with city museums? The shift that he has made in terms of delivering a useful forecast is the same shift that city museums need to make in delivering useful content. Most city museums think of themselves first and foremost as history museums, dealing with things that happen in the past. But just as it’s not enough to get the forecast right but leave your audience on their own to apply it, it’s not enough to get the history right without explaining what it has to do with everyday lives right now.

For city museum workers, this means paying attention to what’s going on in your city–following local news and social media, talking to fellow residents–and then looking for opportunities to make connections between past and present. If your city is in the midst of a particularly intense local election, dig up some stories that help put it in context. If it’s the first day of spring and everyone has turned out on the street with bare arms and legs for that collective joy that only the first day of spring can elicit, find some photos in your archive of spring 50 years ago and post them on your social media channels. Moreover, your content doesn’t have to be historical to be meaningful and mission-driven for city residents; holding a town hall forum about an important local issue or investigating the here and now in urban neighborhoods is also compelling work for city museums.

Anticipating audience needs and delivering content that applies to everyday lives right now is how city museums build loyal fans who will recommend the museum to friends and neighbors, and fight for the museum when it’s threatened. It’s how city museums rise above mediocrity to become institutions that matter.

 

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Something came across my desktop today that I had to share. It touches on everything I care about: the power of story, the way that people inhabit and experience cities, museums, creative practice, how objects can be reframed to shine a spotlight on their meaning and emotion, and simple human kindness. In this case the story in question is that of Loes Veenstra, the city is Rotterdam, the museum is Museum Rotterdam, the creative practice is knitting, the objects are sweaters—many, many sweaters—and the kindness comes from neighbors.

Loes Veenstra spent the last 60 years compulsively knitting sweaters, until she had amassed 550 of them. They were never worn—each time she finished one she would put it in a box in her apartment and start another. Last year folks from Museum Rotterdam discovered her collection and asked if they could exhibit it as part of a project on her neighborhood, Carnisse. Then artist Christien Meindertsma got involved, and low and behold one day this happened, on the street outside Veenstra’s home:

I’ve seen photos online of the exhibition of the sweaters, and that’s beautiful too—a sea of colorful forms, suspended from the ceiling like a sculptural installation. But this video—it’s something different, something much more. First, the sweaters are worn. Standard museum practice is that nobody gets to touch the objects—they must be protected and preserved. But see what happens when these sweaters are put on bodies and come to life: they are human kindness animated. And second, the sweaters come to life not in the exhibition gallery but on a residential street. In this context—in this sense of place—they become an instrument of community.

I think a lot about the hyperlocal experience—what it means to know every nook and cranny of a five-block square, how each of us is an informal historian, logging the small changes that happen each day in our neighborhoods. We come to learn a lot about our neighbors, and on the other hand, there is always more to learn. I am imagining how this flash mob has changed the hyperlocal history of Carnissestraat—not just for Loes Veenstra but for all her neighbors who participated in and witnessed it. And I am imagining what it would be like if museums’ treatment of objects were always this powerful. Imagine me and you, so happy together.

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Porthania Balcony

A new exhibition opened this week in Helsinki City Museum’s main building on Sofianinkatu. Titled Mad about Helsinki, it focuses on favorite places in the city, some well-known and some off-the-beaten-path, as determined through a recent survey of city residents. According to Helsinki City Museum’s website, “The exhibition presents these favorite places in the context of Helsinki’s past, making these beloved locations even more fascinating by giving them historical depth.” An accompanying website organizes the favorite places by categorygreen spaces, cafes and restaurants, entertainment, landmarks, harbor spotsand invites users not only to comment on the featured places but also post their own favorites. I lost myself in the website, thinking about my own special Helsinki places; then I had to stop because I miss Helsinki too much. I’m indulging myself by recognizing only one personal favorite, pictured above: the amazing view I had from my Porthania balcony, looking out across Fabianinkatu at the yellow dome of the National Library of Finland and beyond to the taller white dome of Helsinki Cathedral, which for four months served as my own personal clock. This view was simultaneously immensely commontwo major landmarks known to every city residentand also intensely rarefew people get to experience these buildings from this perspective.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking a lot with museum colleagues about the need for city museums to be hyper aware of current residents’ experience of their city–what they care about, what they worry about, and what prior knowledge and memories they bring to any interaction with the city museum. These personal connections to the city need to be the starting point for every project that a city museum undertakes. That’s why I’m thrilled to see my colleagues in Helsinki creating an exhibition that puts current Helsinki residents’ sense of place front and center. More of this, please.

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Comment Board Memorial Location 3

A lot has happened since I wrote my post about the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s time for an update.

The bombing site reopened to the public on Wednesday, April 22 24, a week ago today. I’ve walked the Back Bay twice since then and found it so very comforting to see people out on the streets. People are the lifeblood of any city, and their absence in and around Copley Square the week of the bombings was even more jarring to me than the sight of soldiers and armored jeeps in front of the Boston Public Library. On both Thursday the 25th and Tuesday the 30th Copley was bursting with people of all stripes—office workers, buskers, skate punks, dandies, tourists, runners, campaign volunteers, dog walkers, moms with strollers. Bostonians are trying hard to get back to normal, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. On both walks I let myself get lost in the crowd; that’s what normal means to me.

I have paid four visits to the makeshift bombing memorial: April 20, 22, 25, and 30. Each time I have taken photos to document both the objects left there and the ways people are interacting with the memorial. Each time it has changed significantly since my last visit. It keeps getting bigger, of course. Twice it has changed location. Location 1 was in the middle of the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley, up against the police barricade that blocked Boylston to all traffic:

MarathonMemorial

In anticipation of reopening the crime scene, it moved about 50 feet to Location 2, against the side of a building at that same intersection:

Memorial Location 2

Then, perhaps when it became clear this public ritual needed a space befitting its importance to the city, Location 3 was organized at the north side of Copley Square itself:

Memorial Location 3

Locations 1 and 2 felt cold and hard—nothing but concrete and police barriers against a backdrop devoid of people. By contrast Location 3 feels much more human. It’s a large, U-shaped enclosure on the edge of the Copley lawn, an outdoor room of sorts. Ten of the Copley trees are inside the enclosure, and many of the signs and mementos people have left are propped against their trunks or hanging from their branches, with pathways in between. People are out and about again, and they circulate through the memorial, moving from tree to tree, like visitors at an exhibition. Memorial 3 feels like the right place, a place at the heart of the city.

At Location 1 people left their objects themselves, with no particular logic other than where they could find available space. But when volunteers moved everything to Location 2, they organized the memorial. Three white crosses, one each for Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, and Krystle Campbell, became more clearly the centerpiece of the memorial. Around them, flowers were placed with flowers, stuffed animals with stuffed animals, and shoes with shoes. When the memorial moved a second time, this order was maintained and expanded. As someone who studies cities, I find the most striking addition at Location 3 to be the symbols of Boston’s membership in the global sisterhood of cities—”Istanbul Stands with Boston,” “Stay Strong –Miami,” “Nashville Believes in Boston”—but there is much more. There are several large comment boards people can sign. There are many, many shoes. There is a hat section and a flag section.

Which leads me to one of the most important parts of the memorial: its unofficial caretaker, Kevin Brown. He is not the only or the first person to tend the memorial but he has been its most enduring volunteer.

Kevin Brown Memorial Location 1

A carpenter from Brockton, he has been there during three of my four visits. At Location 1, he and another volunteer were handing out single roses for the children in the crowd to add to the memorial, to give them a way of actively participating in the ritual. At Location 2, which blocked public access to the memorial much more formally than Location 1, mourners had to pass their mementos across the police barrier for Brown to place, and he obliged repeatedly and good-naturedly, honoring requests for him to pose for photographs, answering questions, and following instructions like “please place this around the neck of the black stuffed dog.” He told me volunteers were organizing that night, in advance of the storms predicted for Tuesday the 23rd, to bag anything that would get damaged by water. He told me some of the marathon medals had been stolen so they had started setting all the medals aside for safekeeping. He told me he watched a female runner walk up to the memorial, take off her shoes, add them to the pile, and walk away barefoot. He told me he was going to make a fourth cross for Sean Collier. Not only was he the citizen curator of Location 2, he was also its docent; guiding people through the mourning ritual. Kevin Brown’s role at Location 3 on Copley Square is different. Because the memorial has grown so big that you can walk around in it, you could miss Brown if you didn’t know to look for him. He has a chair now. I watched him make a round to water all the potted plants, and then another round to light all the candles (it was 6 pm). I was glad to see him.

Kevin Brown Lights Candles Memorial Location 3

I want to pay particular attention to Kevin Brown because in so many ways he is my counterpart and colleague, even if we don’t really know each other. He quickly and spontaneously took up a role at this memorial that I have trained for and practiced for more than 15 years. While he has been out there in the sun and rain every day, those of us in Boston’s museum and archive community—the professionals—have been moving more slowly. Granted, there are reasons we are moving slowly. The stakes are high when you’re talking about caring for things in perpetuity and we want to do this right (or as close to right as we can). We have indeed made some progress. We have been systematically checking in with each institution in the area, and our list of whether and what each one plans to collect is nearly complete (most notably, at Mayor Menino’s direction, the Boston City Archives will preserve items from the memorial). Historic New England has offered its fumigation bubble to ensure that bombing-related artifacts are pest-free before they are introduced into existing collections. We have made contact with folks at the 9/11 Memorial who have offered valuable advice and ongoing support. We are trying to organize pro bono legal counsel to advise on all manner of issues, from how Massachusetts abandoned property laws will affect collecting to release forms for oral histories.

I remain concerned that we still have not identified homes for all of the material that should be collected from this event. Boston deserves a thoughtful, compelling, and flawlessly executed exhibition of this material on the one-year anniversary of the bombings—to help Bostonians process their emotions and memories and transform them into some sort of positive civic engagement for the city. But there is so much work to be done in order to tell this story—and tell it well—I remain concerned about that too. One thing I am not concerned about is Kevin Brown. This week Kevin Brown is my curatorial hero. This week Kevin Brown is the heart at the heart of Boston.

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Alphabetical Family Meeting Area Marathon Signs

All week I have been trying to look at the events unfolding here in Boston through the lens of city museums. Boston doesn’t have a proper city museum. If Boston did have a proper city museum, I would’ve wanted it this week to open wide its doors to the city for solace and reflection (many existing museums in Boston did in fact do so) and to serve as a place for civic dialogue while Bostonians struggled to understand and respond to the bombings, individually and collectively. I would’ve wanted it to collect and document the material culture of this event, and I would’ve wanted it to actively participate in city-wide efforts to interpret and memorialize the bombings.

Museum workers are not first responders—let’s be clear about that. But they are part of the second and third and fourth waves. They are public servants, and in times of crisis their job is to collect and document, tell the story, keep the memory, and help the public make meaning of it all. Boston doesn’t have a city museum to do that work right now. I am writing this post to call attention to what we are missing without one, and also to do my part as an urban public historian to capture and frame the details of what Bostonians experienced this week. Right now I’m not so concerned about the facts and timeline—plenty of people are recording and analyzing the chain of events. Rather I care about ordinary Bostonians: what they felt and expressed, and how they are integrating the bombings into their own personal narratives of the city.

As most of you know by now (if you didn’t know already), Marathon Monday always takes place on Patriots’ Day, which is a state holiday that commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution. It also launches April school vacation week and serves as Boston’s unofficial first day of spring. Every year on Marathon Monday thousands of Bostonians turn out to support and cheer on the runners along the course. And if they aren’t at the marathon, they’re at the Red Sox game or at gatherings of family and friends all over the city. For all these reasons Boston’s collective emotional barometer was particularly high on April 15 just before it sunk so precipitously.

As Bostonians tried to make sense of the bombings this week they turned to history for signs of past resilience: the city that withstood the Siege of Boston and “invented America,” the city that survived the Molasses Flood and the Big Dig. They turned to the brand Boston projects to the world to reassure themselves about the city’s essential character: John Winthrop’s city upon a hill, with one of the best medical communities in the country; a city that welcomes thousands of people from all over the world each year to its universities. They turned to Boston’s popular culture—Dirty Water, Cheers, Good Will Hunting—to express their love and fidelity. And they turned to Boston’s sports teams—the closest thing we have to urban warriors in 2013—for signs of continuity and strength. As they did so, Bostonians were not all on the same page about what constitutes an appropriate level of tolerance, empathy, or law and order; they were not all on the same page about how to mourn and when to get back to business as usual.

Every urban resident carries a mental map of their city inside their head. It’s how they navigate on a daily basis, and it’s layered with personal memories and landmarks. Most Bostonians had to look up Norfolk Street in Cambridge and Franklin Street in Watertown on Friday during the manhunt for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No one had to look up the finish line stretch of Boylston Street where the bombings took place; it’s on every Bostonian’s mental map. They could instantly reel off the landmarks on those two blocks: the Copley Green Line station, Boston Public Library, Old South Church, the Lenox Hotel, Lord & Taylor, Marathon Sports. They could instantly recall years of personal memories—some mundane, some poignant—that were created there.

What a city museum would understand better than anyone else is that the bombings tore a hole in our mental maps. On Saturday afternoon I went down to the bombing site to try to get a handle on the exact nature of that hole. I took the Orange Line to Back Bay Station, walked up to the south side of Copley Square, and then skirted the southern and eastern edge of the secured crime scene perimeter. On one hand what I observed was comfortingly the same as always. The flower stall outside Back Bay Station was selling spring tulips in every color imaginable. The doormen at the Copley Plaza were at their post, greeting guests in tuxedos and evening gowns arriving for a wedding. Runners were running; college students were turning up for a Saturday night out on the town. The landmarks themselves—the library, the churches, the Hancock Tower, were all still there. On the other hand it was disturbingly, radically different. Even after the barricades are gone and the city returns to some version of normal, we need to remember that radical difference.

CopleyBarricade

Every flag I saw was at half mast. Wolf Blitzer and a half-dozen TV journalists were broadcasting cheek-by-jowl on the corner outside the Copley Place Westin, lights blazing and TV trucks humming. Across the street from the news teams, roughly eight men in camouflage and bullet-proof vests, along with several armored jeeps, guarded the barricade at the southwest corner of Copley Square. By that point, with the threat to the city subsiding, they were spending most of their time making small talk with passersby, posing for pictures, and giving directions. Lots and lots of directions—many pedestrians were having trouble figuring out how to get where they were going without crossing Copley Square. A Boston traffic cop was also there directing cars that were having similar difficulty navigating around the hole in the city.

MarathonMemorial

I walked east toward the corner of Clarendon and St James, where the lawn of Trinity Church was still strewn with plastic cups and marathon debris. No one had gotten around to removing the Family Meeting Area signs attached to the lampposts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that on Marathon Day give runners a way of finding their loved ones in the finish line crowd. At Boylston and Berkeley I stopped at the makeshift memorial and watched people pay their respects. Many of the items that had been placed there were still wet from that morning’s rain. Two older men were tending the memorial; one of them gave single yellow roses to kids in the crowd so they could lay them near the three crosses at the center of the memorial. Five or six therapy dogs were on hand and getting lots of attention.

I caught the Green Line at Arlington Station, heading outbound to a friend’s birthday party in Newton Centre. As the digital announcement system in my subway car flashed Entering Copley, we rode through but did not stop at Copley Station. The station was empty and dark except for a few dim security lights, still closed as part of the crime scene.

On Thursday night I talked with the students in my material culture course about the bombings and I asked them what they thought should be collected and preserved in order to capture the experience of Boston this week. With a few additional objects added in by me, their ideas included:

  • Marathon medals, bib numbers, space blankets, and yellow runner bags
  • The international flags from the finish line
  • Yellow Boston Police and BAA Physician vests, marathon volunteer jackets, hospital equipment
  • Bill Iffrig‘s orange singlet
  • Carlos Arredondo’s bloodied American flag
  • Martin Richard’s “No more hurting people. Peace” poster
  • Signs and t-shirts of support—local, national, and international
  • Slain MIT police officer Sean Collier’s uniform
  • The makeshift memorial at Boylston and Berkeley
  • Red Sox and Bruins memorial jerseys
  • Mayor Tom Menino’s hospital bracelet
  • The technology of the police investigation
  • The recovered lid from the pressure cooker bomb
  • The covered boat on Franklin Street in Watertown where suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid on Friday
  • Photographs, video, news and social media feeds, oral histories, statements by public officials, luminaries, and celebrities
  • The soundscape of the week: the typical happy sounds of the marathon (the starting gun, cheering spectators, cowbells) giving way to the explosion and confusion at the finish line; ambulances and helicopters, gunshots and house-to-house searches; and finally cheers of relief and gratitude as the second suspect was taken into custody

And this has been my growing concern throughout the week: that in the absence of a proper city museum, Boston is not prepared to document and collect this story. There is no museum in the city that has a mandate to collect contemporary Boston history. There are several institutions that will likely preserve paper records and photographs, but objects—particularly a collection of this scale—are another matter. I am reaching out to local colleagues to find out if efforts are underway that I just don’t know about yet, and if not, to see if something might be done.

I want to end by urging you to read a piece from today’s Boston Globe Ideas section by Stephen Heuser titled Vulnerability in an Open City. If I were planning an exhibition about the marathon bombings for a Boston city museum, this essay would be my compass. Heuser sets out to make larger points about social capital, openness, and risk that apply to any city, but he does it against the backdrop of Boston. In the process he captures in vivid detail the experience of everyday Bostonians this week. In his telling, we see the moral of this story and a value every city museum should hold: “cities bring us together in spite of ourselves.”

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The Arts section of this past Sunday’s Boston Globe brought me an article by Jeremy Eichler about composer Tod Machover and his newest commission, A Toronto Symphony. If you’re not familiar with Machover’s work, he has spent his career developing technology that pushes the boundaries of both music making and music composition, and he currently directs the Opera of the Future group at MIT.

For A Toronto Symphony Machover asked Torontonians to collaborate with him in creating a piece that would truly capture their experience of the city. As Eichler writes, “He wanted to write a symphony not for the city of Toronto by with the city of Toronto, a piece of music that would ultimately be about Toronto in a way that was granular, participatory, and reflective of an urban landscape in all of its component parts.” There’s an excellent 22-minute video at the ideacity website of Machover explaining the Toronto project when it launched. The symphony has eight parts:

  1. OVERTURE: the city wakes
  2. CITY SOUNDS: based on crowd-sourced, recorded sounds of Toronto (listen to some of these sounds via Soundcloud here and here)
  3. CITY STORIES: people’s stories of the city, made into music and woven together
  4. IMAGINING THE CITY: “a memory of Toronto when one is far far away”
  5. IN THE CITY: a collage of on-the-ground moments throughout the city’s neighborhoods
  6. CITY SOARING: the birds-eye view of Toronto
  7. TORONTO DANCES: “a big dance party, a kind of ‘Song to Toronto’”
  8. THE CITY SLEEPS: rocking the city to sleep

Machover posted a series of calls for various forms of participation on the project website, took part in local festivals, and worked with school children, musicians, and individuals from all over the city, not only to identify what Toronto sounds like but also to shape the actual musical composition. His team from MIT developed a group of new applications (best accessed via Google Chrome), including Media Scores, Constellation, and City Soaring, that allow people to play around with and modify Machover’s core Toronto composition using graphic tools–colors, shapes, lines–such that no musical training is necessary to participate. I spent a little time with these tools today and particularly liked Constellation. It felt like a glorious experiment in synesthesia.

In the Globe article Machover makes this point about the collaborative nature of A Toronto Symphony: “If it feels in the end like basically my piece no matter what, or like a mash-up of other people’s stuff that I facilitated, I think that would be less satisfying. But if it’s something that couldn’t have been made without each other, it will feel really good.” This project, and this quote, speak volumes to me about the current work of city museums. I want them to be like Tod Machover: using their expertise to bring out the best in each of us and illuminate our collective experience of the city; doing it through participation, interdisciplinary learning, and new tools that help us see the city in a different light.

The piece debuts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on March 9 in Roy Thomson Hall as part of the New Creations Festival. Put it on your calendar. Meanwhile, apparently two other cities have already approached Machover about further city symphony collaborations. Maybe one of them is yours?

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I am traveling in Italy at the moment, and earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit the new Museum of the History of Bologna, which opened in January of this year. It’s housed in the former palace of the Pepoli family, and it’s part of a larger project, Genus Bononiae, initiated by the Carisbo Foundation to restore and link together eight cultural sites in Bologna. The Museum of the History of Bologna is a particularly interesting city museum for several reasons, one of which is that it’s a distinct departure from the “museo civico” model found in so many Italian cities. At some point I need to write a proper blog post about my experience there. But as is often the case when I visit for the first time a museum I really like, the seed of a new idea is planted in my head and I feel compelled to spend my post sharing that instead.

The idea I had in Bologna was sparked by a gallery at the city museum called “Your Museum” (pictured above). Its goal is to involve Bologna residents by inviting them to bring their own objects to be exhibited in the museum. Massimo Negri, the museum’s scientific director (i.e. chief content developer), told me he had originally hoped this gallery would be much bigger, with a system where people could bring in their objects and on the spot have them added to the display. Unfortunately, due to space and logistical constraints, he had to settle for the iteration I saw.

Many museums are now interested in public participation, and they have been experimenting with the best ways to do it; Your Museum in Bologna is one example. At the same time, we also acknowledge that the museum collections we have inherited, formed in previous centuries, were assembled haphazardly, with major gaps in the stories they can tell. They leave out large groups of people and do not adequately represent the breadth of our history and culture. In short, the objects that have made their way into our museum collections represent only a tiny fraction of our entire material heritage. I’ve been thinking about these challenges a lot recently, as have many of you, I’m sure. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my recent visit to the Museu da Maré, a community museum in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Museu da Maré has a much more flexible collections policy than museums are normally used to: a member of the community can donate an object to the museum and then, if later he or she wants it back, the museum gives it back. Community members might also technically give the museum an object but still keep it in their home. I have heard that the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa has a similar policy. Mix all of these concepts together and you end up with my Idea du Jour:

Can a city museum catalog the material life of its city without actually acquiring and owning it? Imagine a zoo that collects animals from the wild and puts them together in cages. Currently, our museums are like zoos. Now imagine a biologist who tracks and studies animals, but never takes them out of the wild. We have sophisticated RFID tags and we have extensive object database software. Why not conduct a material culture census, or inventory, of a city, but not actually collect anything?

This may seem like a lot of work for nothing. I would have said that too five years ago, but the museum landscape has changed enough that I think we could start to see the potential. There are so many opportunities here for public participation. Residents can catalog their own objects, with or without the help of a curator. People can “like” the objects they are particularly drawn to, or contribute additional information about objects posted by other people. Curators can put out a call for certain gaps in the “collection” that need to be filled. But perhaps also a resident can recommend that her neighbor’s object be added to the collection because it has a great story. And perhaps if an object gets many, many likes, it is then recommended for physical acquisition by the museum (subject to the owner’s approval, of course), a kind of crowdsourced method of determining which artifacts are most important to preserve, combined with some gentle community pressure for public ownership of them. Individuals could also recommend a neighbor’s object for exhibition at the museum, and so on. The role of the museum curator, then, is to highlight really interesting objects, monitor and improve accuracy, draw connections, and start conversations.

Because, as you know, I am obsessed with geotagging objects, I think it would be great to have a mapping component where you can see all these objects existing out in real space, out in “the wild,” across the city. Although that may present a security risk that could serve as a deterrent to community members. If people know you have special things in your home then maybe they want to steal them. (And who knows what other practical considerations this idea raises since I’m really just thinking it off the top of my head.) On the other hand, many objects no longer live in the place where they had the most geographic meaning, so the tags on the map don’t necessarily have to represent current location, just location of meaning. Also, it would be easy enough to hide the identity of object owners so that only the museum has personal contact information.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens when the material culture of a place is collectively exposed in this way, regardless of whether it is owned privately or publicly? Would it make us rethink what cultural heritage means, and perhaps assume a different kind of shared responsibility? I wonder if anyone out there has already experimented with this concept–if so chime in and let me know. Otherwise, let’s make it happen somewhere as a pilot project.

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#CitizenCurators

As the London Olympics draw to a close, I want to call attention to a lovely project by Museum of London (partnering with the University of Westminster). It’s called #CitizenCurators and it aims to document the life of everyday London residents during the Olympic Games. The museum appointed 18 official citizen curators, chosen to be representative of the makeup of the city. But also, anyone who tweeted with the hashtag #CitizenCurator will have their tweets archived by the museum. An edited version of each day’s tweets are posted on Storify.

I browsed the tweets and found a mixture of interesting scenes captured on the street (like the lovely Jamaica fan above), Olympic material culture (like these Union Jack hijabs; the coordinators specifically asked citizen curators to document objects), reports on Londoners’ experiences watching events or trying to get tickets, and snarky comments or complaints from a local point of view (“Wenlock pens people. Pens. How? Why? What have we done to deserve this?”).

It’s so important that the Museum of London, as collector and preserver of the city’s history, chose to turn its Olympic attention to everyday residents. So often the city archives of such major events contain a whitewashed, top-down version of history. But this project represents a turn to a much more participatory and granulated historical record.

I’m reminded of the coda to the last chapter of Carol Kammen’s On Doing Local History. She writes about the importance of documenting your place in the present, while it is still fresh. Kammen suggests a more analog methodology, mind you, but the spirit is the same as #citizencurators. She includes a three-page list of phenomena one might want to document, and enlist other locals in documenting, about their city or town. Here are a few of my favorites: local signs of the change of seasons; routines of place: rush hours, quiet times; those out of sight: who is not seen; and what sits at the curb for the garbage collector. Expect to see more like this in the years to come.

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This week while visiting friends in Maine I had an opportunity to explore this lovely little library on Hancock Point, a peninsula that juts out from the mainland, just across Frenchman Bay from Mt Desert Island and Bar Harbor. It’s the kind of place where you wave at every car that passes you on the road, and you borrow from your neighbor when you’re out of sugar because getting to the grocery store feels like a production. The library is only open in the summer when the population of Hancock Point swells significantly, mostly with folks whose families have been vacationing there for generations.

The summer season isn’t in full swing yet; I observed some of the library’s particulars myself and then my friends filled in other details. The building has the scale and feel of a house. In fact, a summer librarian lives on the 2nd floor and cooks her meals in a kitchen just off the main reading room, which has a fireplace. The library offers wi-fi (still relatively hard to come by on the Point) so it’s not unusual on a sunny day to see folks sprawled out along the porch, checking their email. There’s a bulletin board by the front door, which serves as a convenient place for community messages. There’s a story hour for kids. There’s an awesome climbing tree in the front yard. There are historic photographs of the Point on the walls. And, of course, there are the books, with emphasis on the kinds of stuff you want to read in the summer; from what I could tell, the two wings, which supplement the main reading room, are dedicated to mystery novels and children’s books, respectively.

The Hancock Point Library struck me as the kind of place that works for its community: appropriate in scale, an authentic place, a 3rd place. I was telling my colleague Linda Norris about it in our weekly Skype meeting, and she made an interesting comment: why is it that so many libraries seem to have found ways to meet larger community needs (besides just the books), and so many museums have not? Libraries offer internet access, meeting space, a copy machine, a free cozy place to hang out, extended hours (the Hancock Historical Society is open 4 hours a week in the summer, compared with the library’s 20+), and so much more. There are multiple reasons to visit a library, not just one.

I’m a big fan of the Project for Public Spaces’ simple but compelling Power of 10 rule. I’ve written about the Power of 10 before on CityStories, and I also refer to it regularly when I give talks about city museums. To quote my previous blog post:

The idea is that to make a really great public place that is used regularly and cherished by many people, it needs to have at least 10 different amenities working in concert, not just one or two. And then a neighborhood needs 10 different great public places–not just one or two–to be a great neighborhood. And a city needs 10 different great neighborhoods, and so on.

In the past when I have applied the Power of 10 to museums, it has been in the context of providing at least 10 amazing objects in each exhibition or at least 10 great programs on the calendar—in other words, in relation to the core work of interpreting the collection and educating the public. But when Linda and I were talking today it occurred to both of us that the Power of 10 might also apply to the kind of amenities that museums, as public spaces, could provide for their communities, above and beyond the core collection and programming. And that in general, maybe part of our problem in trying to carve out the role of museums in 21st-century society is that we aren’t meeting a Power of 10.

Linda and I spent a little time talking about cheap and easy ways to increase the number of services and amenities museums provide. Installing a wi-fi router with a guest login, if you haven’t already done so, is a no-brainer—it’s incredibly cheap and easy. A lot of us have cafes, definitely a plus one. Most museums have meeting rooms; only some of us make it available for everyone to use. Do you have enough outdoor space to host a farmer’s market one day a week? A great place for people to walk their dogs? And what else could we come up with if we got creative? For example, the library at the Massachusetts College of Art has a hedgehog in residence this summer, and he’s bringing in lots of extra MassArt community members (it turns out adorable furry creatures are an amenity).

This concept seems particularly applicable to rural communities like Hancock Point, where the museum or historic house may be one of a small group of public places, along with perhaps a town hall, post office, library, or general store. But I think you can make just as strong a case for city museums serving the public to the power of 10. City museums ignore the contemporary city and the daily life and needs of city residents at their peril. So host the community forums, the political debates, the clubs and support groups, the blood drive, and the polling place. Ask local food trucks to park outside your door on nice days. Tap into the skillshare movement. Put some comfy couches in your lobby. Come up with more than one reason to let the city in so you stand at its heart, not on its periphery.

There has certainly been plenty of ruminating on how museums can better serve their communities, and on museums as 3rd places. But the Power of 10 has gotten a lot less attention in our field. So I throw it out there once more in this new light, in case it helps us see the way forward more clearly.

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There’s a neighborhood community center four blocks from my house in Boston, and a few times a week I go there to use the exercise machines. There’s only one of each type of machine and there are no TVs or other gym amenities, but that’s fine with me—the community center has what I need, and I like the range of people I run into there, from the four-year-old daycare class looking for a warm indoor spot to run around, to the weekly seniors basketball game.

The exercise machines sit along the edge of the indoor track, which looks down on the basketball court. The walls on this level are awash in motivational signs—everything from Ellen Degeneres quotes to cartoons of cats hanging from trees. Here are a few examples:

When I first started making regular trips to the community center I found the signs well-intentioned but overwhelming. Although the messages create a “we’re all in this together” atmosphere, the arrangement and sheer volume meant my eyes would cast about continuously with nowhere to land. Now that I have settled into the place I just look at my kindle and screen them out.

Recently I noticed there’s a new kind of sign. There are structural poles ringing the track, and someone divided a long-form joke into 12 parts and hung each part on one of the poles. That means as you’re jogging around the track you can read a little of the joke at a time, finally reaching the punch line when you’ve finished a lap. What’s more, the joke changes on a regular basis. So now when I show up for my exercise I make a habit of checking for a new joke:

My experience at the community center has me thinking about museum pop-up projects. Pop-up projects are a relatively new thing for museums; in fact it’s one of the seven trends featured in the Center for the Future of Museums’ recently released TrendsWatch 2012. Sometimes an exhibition “pops up” at a temporary location inside an empty storefront or otherwise available space. The San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design has been getting some press recently for creating such exhibitions. But pop-up projects don’t have to be indoors, and they don’t have to look like traditional exhibitions either. For the Westminster Stories project, the Museum on Site put interpretive labels on street furniture, urban trees, sidewalks, buildings, and even people as a weekend-long pop-up event along a two-block stretch of Westminster Street in downtown Providence. The If This House Could Talk project enlists the help of local residents to pop up temporary historical markers in the front yards of homes and businesses in Cambridge, MA, for a few weeks each October. In Hamburg, Germany, the Fussnote Project spraypainted historical markers related to the city’s Nazi-era history on sidewalks.

I’m particularly interested in the outdoor version of pop-ups as a tool for city museums. Outdoor pop-up projects were made for cities, where the population density means they are sure to draw a crowd. And what better subject matter for pop-ups than urban history, because out on the streets and in neighborhoods it can help people form deeper personal connections to the places where they live and work. Moreover, bringing urban history to people in outdoor public spaces with such a flexible, changing format gives city museums the opportunity to actively and creatively contribute to the vibrancy of city life instead of merely documenting it after the fact.

What does all of this have to do with the signs at the community center? Those signs help me understand that:

1. Pop-ups work because they aren’t permanent. The joke signs on the poles are so much more interesting to me because they change regularly. I want to make sure I catch each new joke before it goes away. Those bronze historical markers we’ve been putting up all over our cities for years? They certainly serve a purpose, but when we know they will always be there they are easy to ignore. Consider the case of Robot Supply & Repair in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. It sells—you guessed it, robots and robot stuff—to benefit 826 Michigan, a non-profit writing and tutoring center for kids. Roughly once a month a different robot tableau debuts in the Robot Supply front window. Here’s one of a robot family at home:

Via letssavemichigan.com

Other tableaus have included a robot marriage proposal, a robot travel agency, and a robot birthday party. When I lived in Ann Arbor and walked several times a week between my co-working space on Main Street and the bus depot on 4th Avenue, I planned my route to pass Robot Supply & Repair and check if there was a new window display. For regulars, who know a neighborhood well, a change like this can be the difference between a boring commute (or trip to the grocery store, or exercise session) where we are disengaged with the world around us, and an interesting one where space becomes place.

2. Pop-ups work because they are somewhere unexpected, or they involve an unexpected format. In a space overflowing with messaging, the poles lining the community center track were new territory. I had screened out all the motivational signs taped to the walls, much the way we screen out the advertising in places like Times Square or in the borders of our Google searches. But the jokes caught my eye because I wasn’t used to seeing content on the poles. Similarly, I think part of the reason Cambridge’s If This House Could Talk and Hamburg’s Fussnote Project drew attention is because the format—hand-written signs in front yards or stenciled and spraypainted text—was unexpected.

Here’s another example. Last year I was walking along the sidewalk in Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood next door to mine, and I noticed a blue line on the sidewalk:

At first I thought someone had come along with a leaky can of paint, but it became clear that this was no accidental line. It stretched on Centre/South Street all the way from Green Street to St. Mark in one smooth, continuous line. I saw two different families with young kids who were just as captivated by the mysterious line as I was: what did it mean? Why was it there? Should we follow it? I’ve never been able to find out who made the line and what his/her intent was, but I’ve thought a lot about its potential as a delivery format.

3. Pop-ups work because they are in people’s everyday path. I don’t have to go out of my way to read the jokes, or see the Robot Supply window, or find the blue line; they appear right in front of me in the course of my normal routine. Don’t get me wrong—visits to the museum are important too, especially if the experience is visitor-centered and memorable. Such visits are generally planned, which can make them feel like anticipated, special events. But if the point is to enrich the lives of as many people as possible, why not also bring the content directly to those people, in high-trafficked outdoor spaces? A serendipitous encounter inserted into the everyday can be just as memorable—and meaningful—as the special event.

4. Some of the best pop-up projects are cheap and low-tech. All of the work I have referenced in this post has been inexpensive and relatively quick and easy to execute. When the content is intentionally so temporary, it can be made on the office laser printer. By contrast, exhibitions inside the museum can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and months or years of planning; consequently in many institutions the content doesn’t change very often. Museums need to be doing a lot more experimenting if they are ever going to figure out how to increase their public value. Pop-up projects enable experimentation by minimizing cost—who cares that it wasn’t 100% perfect the first time if it only costs $100 and can be improved when you try it again in a different neighborhood?

5. Pop-ups work when they happen on people’s own terms. Yesterday I watched a fellow community center exerciser take a close-up photo of one of the motivational signs. Clearly it meant something to her and she wanted to remember it. There’s room for her to take the signs to heart and for me to screen out all but the jokes, and probably even for any of us to actively participate by suggesting new signs to hang up, because no one is standing there telling us there’s a specific way to behave.

Another thing that pops up in outdoor public spaces is the charity solicitor—Save the Children or Greenpeace or Oxfam. Regardless of whether or not I support these organizations, I find it intrusive to be stopped on the street and put on the spot about donating. I like it when pop-up projects leave room for people to make their own choices about whether and how much to engage with the content.

6. A little narrative never hurts. Those long-form jokes are stories, meted out a little at a time around the track. So are the robot tableaus. Meanwhile, the blue line on the sidewalk challenged people to imagine their own story. These narratives keep us engaged because we want to know what happens at the end.

The Center for the Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch 2012 suggests that pop-ups may be “a reaction against a world becoming too global and too plugged-in. Face-to-face and participatory experiences, especially in unexpected places, can serve as a counterweight to digital, virtual experiences” (p. 12). Whether this is true or not, I think they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. I’d love to hear about any pop-up projects you’ve encountered (or created) in your own city. What worked and didn’t work for you?

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