So far I have mostly been writing about cities with a positive identity—the ones that plenty of people want to visit on vacation, the ones with bright futures. But what about declining cities, nothing-special cities, cities that get picked last at recess? How do history and museums fit into their cultural landscape?
I recently read an essay by Sally MacDonald, who worked on a team back in the 1990s to develop a new history museum for Croydon, a borough south of London (“Croydon: What History?” in Making City Histories in Museums, ed. Gaynor Kavanagh and Elizabeth Frostick, London: Leicester University Press, 1998, 58-79). MacDonald writes “Anyone reading this who has lived in London or south-east England will probably know what I mean when I say that Croydon has an identity problem. For some time now it has been the butt of jokes, regularly categorized in the press and media as the epitome of boring, faceless, soulless suburbia.” In surveys residents said they weren’t even sure it had any history. In fact, MacDonald’s team had such little faith in Croydon’s image that they actually planned to name the museum “Lifetimes” to prevent any negative associations with the Croydon name (since MacDonald’s essay was published it has become the Museum of Croydon). MacDonald saw the new museum as playing a role in changing Croydon’s identity. She goes on to say, “what people and politicians wanted amounted to the same thing. Almost everybody desired a proposal that would put Croydon on the cultural map, though many believed this would be impossible. In order to do this, Croydon’s museum had to be new, different, modern, daring, high profile, glossy, sponsorable, and popular. It would be a symbol to help market Croydon to a hostile outside world.” The museum opened in 1995 and was scheduled for a major retool in 1999. I’m hoping to visit in July and see how it turned out. (more…)