There’s a new collection of essays about city museums that just came out in paperback: City Museums and City Development, ed. by Ian Jones, Robert R. Macdonald, and Darryl McIntyre (AltaMira Press, 2010). In the coming weeks I intend to blog about several of these essays. Let’s start today with a statement made by Chet Orloff in “Museums of Cities and the Future of Cities.” Orloff is a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in Oregon, and from 1991-2001 was the director of the Oregon Historical Society. In his essay he writes:
The nineteenth century was, broadly speaking, the century of the history and the natural history museum, an era of exploration and a fitting time for the growth and popularity of ‘cabinets of curiosities.’ The twentieth century was very much the century of the art museum, a time of building deep collections and great buildings, with far-ranging advances in the visual arts. The twenty-first century—when cities will be, even more, the places where people live and where so much will happen—ought to be the moment of the city museum. (p.27)
In 2007 it was widely reported that the world was on the verge of a population shift, where for the first time half the global population would be living in cities. Indeed, by 2030 it is predicted that nearly two thirds of the global population will be urban. Several essays in City Museums and City Development refer to this shift, and it seems to be on the minds of many city museum professionals as they envision the future of their work. Orloff, in the above quote, is calling for city museums to take the opportunity presented by 21st-century global urbanization to position themselves at the very center of their communities: “not merely to collect and share historical knowledge, but to help change and shape the lives of our cities and their citizens.” (p.29) He thinks city museums can transform themselves by creating global collaborations with their sister museums in other cities, by participating more fully in the urban planning process in their cities, and by bringing history out onto the streets.
My first reaction when I read this essay was to think yeah, whatever. I’ve heard this kind of talk before, and yet city museums still continue to suffer from poor visitation relative to their sister art museums, persistent funding problems, the public perception of history as bitter-tasting medicine, and the lack of a concrete, achievable plan as to how they can get from where they are now to that place at the center of their communities. But I’m trying to give Orloff the benefit of the doubt and think a little harder about it. And so I’m wondering if what might save us, what could possibly make city museums the darlings of the 21st century, is Orloff’s call for us to take to the streets, coupled with an emerging technological tool: GPS.
History can be so place-based. Over the years I’ve watched thousands of museum visitors become enthralled with the prospect of “standing in the spot” where some significant historical event happened, or where some significant historical figure lived and worked. But for years, city museums have been in the business of gathering up artifacts and stories from all over the city and consolidating them in one building, in most cases severed from their original historical places. Which leads me to a great quote from another essay in this book, Jack Lohman’s “The Prospect of a City Museum:” “Why is it that city museums often seem as if the city had departed?” (p.61) In other words, in the process of rounding everything up and organizing it in glass cases in ritualized galleries, city museums often lose a lot of the energy, complexity, and constant change that makes us love cities so much in the first place; they lose the city itself.
The recent pervasiveness of GPS technology may present a new opportunity for us to send history back out into the city, out into the energy of the streets, creating moments of “standing in the spot” on every corner. People have been talking about “museums without walls” for years, but this would be slightly different, and possibly more powerful. It would mean reconnecting all those severed links between history and place, and helping the public see the layers of history hidden underneath the present-day city. For example, as I envisioned in my Friendville post , we could program mobile devices to call up historical views of the city—photos or paintings—as you walk past their vantage points in the modern city. And in Boston over the past few years I’ve been working on a project for the Bostonian Society that involves mapping all the people, places, and events from Revolutionary Boston, both online and in an IPhone application, so that we can expand past the traditional notion of the Freedom Trail to interpret 18th-century Boston with much more complexity, all over downtown. In addition, while I was in Berlin in March, I noticed that an open-air exhibition at Alexanderplatz about political protest and the fall of the Wall included artifacts, in special outdoor cases:
While the collections manager in me wants to be very careful not to damage precious artifacts by subjecting them to bright sunlight, security risks, and extreme changes in climate, maybe our exhibition case technology has advanced far enough that putting large numbers of objects out on the streets is not such a far-fetched idea. At the very least, we could add a GPS coordinate field to our new online collections databases.
All of this GPS work takes a lot of time and money. But maybe it’s a compelling enough idea to fuel Orloff’s vision of the 21st-century city museum. We’ve got 90 years left to prove him right or wrong. Let’s get to work.