I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept put forward by the Project for Public Spaces in New York. It’s called the Power of 10. 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.
I spent the better part of a sweltering summer afternoon in Parc de Bercy in Paris last week and I watched the Power of 10 in practice. There were the usual park amenities–benches to sit on, ample shade, flowers and trees to soothe the eyes. But there were also many other special treats that kept my small group–ranging in age from 3 to 50–occupied for hours. There was a water feature–a river cascading down a steep flight of steps–that drew children like a magnet (see above). There was a quintessential Parisian carousel, broadcasting Pachelbel’s Canon in D (and other classical greatest hits) as it spun:
There was a basketball court. There was a place to buy water, coffee, ice cream. There was a skate park:
Parc de Bercy was a really great place that afternoon, and it was full of people.
I have been considering how one might apply the Power of 10 to museums. Afterall, museums are public places too. It would mean that you can’t have just one or two powerful artifacts that fascinate visitors; you need 10. Not just one or two “aha” moments where everything is illuminated, but 10. Not just one or two visual delights but 10. And, increasingly, not just one or two interactive components that really work, but 10.
My FME (Favorite Museum Ever) is the Victoria & Albert in London. For a material culture person like me, they have achieved the Power of 10 several times over–the Great Bed of Ware, the enormous Cast Court, the Breathless sculpture suspended in the floor-ceiling, the rows and rows of medieval keys, the pull-out cabinets in the Textile Study Room that are like a treasure hunt, the modern furniture collection, the Dale Chihuly installation in the main lobby, and on and on. Unlike my recent experience of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which is a museum of a similar scale but one where everything blended together visually, at the V&A there is a new experience around every corner that looks completely different from the room you just came from.
On our way from Paris to Berlin, we decided almost at the last-minute to stop for a few hours in Luxembourg. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Luxembourg city museum seems to have achieved the Power of 10. Here’s a list of the things that captivated me there:
1. An introductory light and sound feature about the myth of the mermaid Melusina and Count Siegfried, Luxembourg’s founder. It may seem kind of cheesy at first glance, but it was well-executed and set the scene for the rest of the museum.
2. The Panorama Room: a 360 degree trompe l’oeil mural of the Marche-aux-Herbes (a square in Luxembourg) circa 1655
3. Exceptionally excellent interpretive text throughout the museum. It was articulate, educational, and even lyrical at some points. Plus, there wasn’t very much of it, which meant our “museum fatigue” took a lot longer than normal to set in.
4. The “Laws and Debates” room of the permanent exhibition. Normally I would breeze past such a topic (sorry, all you lawyer friends out there). But it turned out to be really interesting because of the particular Luxembourg laws the museum chose to highlight, laws that got to the heart of Luxembourg culture: the end of the monarchy, universal suffrage (both 1919), issues of social welfare, a voluntary army (1967), no corporate tax (1929). Fascinating. No, really.
5. A stereoview machine with a loop of 3D historical images of Luxembourg, some as “before and after” pairs. For me, this never gets old.
6. In the “City and Facilities” section of the permanent exhibition, there was an installation of contemporary photographs by Julia Schorlemmer and Andreas Tilch. It featured portrait photos of the people who clean various public buildings in Luxembourg, paired with images of the overhead lighting in each of these buildings. Most but not all of the cleaners were immigrants (the ID labels listed each home country). It was a beautiful piece that drew attention to aspects of public infrastructure that most people never notice.
7. Speaking of people we never notice, another installation of contemporary photographs called Objects, this time by Patrick Galbats, focused on the material possessions of Luxembourg’s homeless population. Originally the idea of Klaus Schneider of the European Anti-Poverty Network, the project involved approaching homeless people at the Luxembourg train station and asking each of them to arrange all of their possessions on the ground, on a big sheet of plastic. Galbats would then photograph everything from above. As I have mentioned before, city museums aren’t very good at documenting the bottom rungs of the urban experience so this…
8. …and another project by Galbats photographing the interiors of the living spaces occupied by Luxemburgers living on social security checks, really stood out.
9. A temporary exhibition on the 1960s included a period turntable that visitors were encouraged to use. There was a rack of about 20 records you could choose from. A few years ago this would’ve been no big deal, but in 2010 it became a striking experience. My husband chose “I Started a Joke” by the Bee Gees and we slow-danced in the gallery like total dorks.
10. Another temporary exhibition about teenage life in Luxembourg, Born to Be Wild, didn’t shy away from the topic of sex. On display was a notebook of anonymous questions asked by teenagers at sex education workshops run by the organization Planning Familial. There were also some graphic photographs, and a discussion of virginity. Wow. That would be difficult to pull off in an American city museum.
11. The architecture is pretty special. The suggested trajectory is to start out at the very bottom and then gradually make your way to the top floor of the museum. The lower levels are built into the old medieval walls of the city, and you can see the stone all around you. Four town houses were combined to create the upper floors, and even though the rooms look like modern galleries, there are small touches–a fireplace mantel here, a carved wooden staircase there–that serve as reminders of the former spaces. At the end of the permanent exhibition a roof deck, presumably part of one of the original townhouses, gives a spectacular view of the city. So you feel like you are in a completely modern museum, but with these understated traces of history all around you.
That’s 10 plus one for good measure.
I don’t think you necessarily have to be a huge museum to get to 10. It might take a little creativity, but the Power of 10 can be low-budget. So let’s all go out and follow Luxembourg’s example.