Archive for June, 2012

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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