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.
Back in February before I left the US I had an opportunity to hear Sheila Watson from the University of Leicester speak about her work developing museums for Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, UK. A seaside town whose fishing industry collapsed in the 1960s, Great Yarmouth was experiencing high levels of unemployment and accompanying socio-economic problems by the 1990s. After extensive focus groups with residents, Watson worked with the local community on a series of local history initiatives, most notably a new museum about Great Yarmouth’s maritime heritage, Time and Tide, which opened in 2004 and was a finalist for European Museum of the Year in 2006. From the focus groups Watson learned that local residents saw Time and Tide as a vehicle for restoring some pride to Great Yarmouth. In fact, they told Watson’s team the goal should be a museum that would show up the more affluent nearby towns that had better reputations.
I don’t believe that a museum can serve as a panacea, magically transforming places like Croydon and Great Yarmouth into somewhere that people want to live or visit. I subscribe to the Project for Public Spaces’ Power of 10 theory that you need 10 great places in a neighborhood, and 10 great neighborhoods in a city, before there’s a there, there. But I do think that a good museum is seen as a symbol of what’s going right in a community while a small-potatoes museum (or no museum at all) is a symbol of all the things that have fallen apart. I also believe that every place has history that matters, and that valuing a place’s history makes a statement that you value its people. Which has me wondering what role Detroit Historical Society is playing in that city’s much-publicized decline. Maybe DHS is just trying to keep its own head above water, but can it find a way to actively contribute to Detroit’s regeneration efforts, or must it settle for merely documenting the loss for posterity?