Archive for the ‘City History Exhibitions’ Category

Porthania Balcony

A new exhibition opened this week in Helsinki City Museum’s main building on Sofianinkatu. Titled Mad about Helsinki, it focuses on favorite places in the city, some well-known and some off-the-beaten-path, as determined through a recent survey of city residents. According to Helsinki City Museum’s website, “The exhibition presents these favorite places in the context of Helsinki’s past, making these beloved locations even more fascinating by giving them historical depth.” An accompanying website organizes the favorite places by categorygreen spaces, cafes and restaurants, entertainment, landmarks, harbor spotsand invites users not only to comment on the featured places but also post their own favorites. I lost myself in the website, thinking about my own special Helsinki places; then I had to stop because I miss Helsinki too much. I’m indulging myself by recognizing only one personal favorite, pictured above: the amazing view I had from my Porthania balcony, looking out across Fabianinkatu at the yellow dome of the National Library of Finland and beyond to the taller white dome of Helsinki Cathedral, which for four months served as my own personal clock. This view was simultaneously immensely commontwo major landmarks known to every city residentand also intensely rarefew people get to experience these buildings from this perspective.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking a lot with museum colleagues about the need for city museums to be hyper aware of current residents’ experience of their city–what they care about, what they worry about, and what prior knowledge and memories they bring to any interaction with the city museum. These personal connections to the city need to be the starting point for every project that a city museum undertakes. That’s why I’m thrilled to see my colleagues in Helsinki creating an exhibition that puts current Helsinki residents’ sense of place front and center. More of this, please.

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A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours at the Museum of the City of New York seeing the temporary exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which runs through April 15. I’m really glad I got down to New York for this show, because it reinforces a lot of the concepts I’ve been exploring on this blog, and in my research on city museums in general.

I got there around 1:00 pm, and the museum was a lot busier than it had been the last time I visited in July 2011, when the main temporary exhibition was about colonial revival architecture. I had to wait in a line 20 people deep at the admission desk, and it was a good thing I arrived when I did. By the time I left at 3:00 not only had the admission line gotten longer but there was also a separate line for The Greatest Grid; the exhibition was so popular that the gallery housing it reached fire code capacity. I talked to a security guard who said it had been that crowded every weekend since the exhibition opened. At one point the exhibition curator, Hilary Ballon, showed up to do a gallery talk and had to use a microphone to be heard amidst a sea of attentive visitors.

Blockbuster exhibitions happen all the time at art museums, and at a lot of science museums too, but they are rare at city history museums. Why is The Greatest Grid so popular? From what I observed during my visit, I would say that MCNY struck a chord with New Yorkers. The museum could’ve presented a fairly standard urban planning exhibition, filled with historic maps, and gotten a reasonable turnout. But instead a decision was made to structure the exhibition around the concept of the Manhattan street grid—why and how it was developed, and what effect it has had on the city over time. That’s a concept that New Yorkers can really sink their teeth into.

Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan contends with the grid on a daily basis (click here to see an excerpt from 12×155, a video installation by artist Neil Goldberg, included in the exhibition, that illustrates this point quite effectively). Not only (says the gal from Boston) is it a particularly easy system to navigate—because of the grid you always know which way is north, and how long it will take to get from one place to another—but it also has a lot to do with what makes New York, New York. For example, the 19th-century real estate boom set in motion by the introduction of the grid is one of the big reasons NYC became such a financial powerhouse. And because the grid doesn’t really allow for inner courtyards, it constantly pushes Manhattanites out on the streets, ratcheting up the energy to that frenetic level we all associate with NYC.

Consequently, what I observed at the exhibition was a gallery packed full of locals in small social groups, spending a very long time pointing and talking about this grid and what it means to them. Often they were trying to find themselves—their home—on the historic maps, but just as often they were pointing out all the interesting things they noticed about how other parts of the city had changed. Here’s my slide show of all the pointers:

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Anyone who follows Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog knows that museums have a new imperative to craft social experiences that compel visitors to engage with one another while learning. The Greatest Grid is very effective on this level.

Another thing the exhibition team did really well was to develop a small companion exhibition, The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan, installed upstairs from the main gallery. It features the eight winners of a call for ideas sponsored by MCNY and the Architectural League of New York that asked architects and urban planners to envision ways of improving the grid for the 21st-century. These proposals are quite creative, and pull in visitors even further by asking them to consider whether the grid actually works in its current form. They also reinforce a theme introduced by the main exhibition, that the grid was not inevitable but exists because of—and will continue to be shaped by—a series of urban planning decisions. I’ve written before about the need for city museums to address not just the past but also the present and future of their cities. Therefore I was glad to see The Unfinished Grid help visitors extend the historical timeline to include both contemporary urban life as well as hopes and dreams for a New York still to come.

But the exhibition team missed an opportunity to address another new imperative that Nina Simon regularly writes about: creating experiences where visitors actively participate in making meaning, alongside the curators. If I were a New Yorker visiting this exhibition, filled with excitement and new knowledge about something that feels very personal and real in my daily life, I would want to express it beyond my own social group. I would want to stick comments on a giant map of Manhattan, or photograph myself sharing the most interesting thing I learned, or vote on my favorite avenue. And doing so would help me see beyond my own experience, to the collective life on the street that all New Yorkers share.

New Yorkers, get thee to MCNY to see this exhibition, and then tell me what you think. Do you find it compelling? Did it make you want to share your own experience of the grid? What did you point at?

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Photo by Geff Rossi via flickr

Last week one of my students, Madeline Karp, told me about her family’s visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. She was particularly struck by the Hall of Birds, which she described as a long hallway lined with glass cases displaying the bird collection, some stuffed in poses and some displayed more as specimens, flat on their backs. One case was filled with comparisons: birds from popular culture (Tweety, Opus from Bloom County) next to their counterparts from the natural world. Here’s the photo she took of Toucan Sam:

Photo by Madeline Karp

According to Madeline, there was a lot of intense birdness in the Hall of Birds. It was maybe even a little disturbing if you weren’t used to seeing bird specimens flat on their backs like that. The experience led her mother to comment that it looked like the exhibition had been made either for or by cats.

I was thinking about Madeline’s story the next morning while I was walking my friends’ German wirehaired pointer. I was imagining cats roaming the Hall of Birds, noses pressed to the cases, and a team of cat curators making decisions about the most tantalizing specimens to display (maybe throw in some fish for variety, and open the window shades to make plenty of sunny spots on the floor).

Meanwhile, here I am walking the dog, and she’s investigating every nook and cranny of the neighborhood streets with the kind of enthusiasm and detail that I wish every city resident would display. And it hit me: cats don’t get out in the city all that much, but dogs certainly do. Has any museum ever done an exhibition depicting their city from a four-legged point of view? The urban history of things dogs care about: hydrants, parks, smelly things, leash laws, dogcatchers. Historic photographs taken from two feet off the ground. I would give a nice tasty chew toy to see that, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

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Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson's Anxiety Map via Flickr/kthread

I’m a fan of the urban planner Charles Landry and his concept of the creative city. I just started his book The Art of City Making and came across this passage:

Our sensory landscape is shrinking precisely at the moment when it should be broadening. Sensory manipulation is distancing us from our cities and we are losing our visceral knowledge of them. We have forgotten how to understand the smells of the city, to listen to its noises, to grasp the messages its look sends out and to be aware of its materials.

I was reminded of Landry when I came across a link to a contemporary art exhibition currently showing at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in NYC. It’s called You Are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York City. (more…)

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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). (more…)

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Courtesy Andre Bandim/Flickr

We hit Barcelona last week. It was a culture shock after Helsinki–loud, huge, hot, a little disordered, and out all night. It smelled differently too: on the streets there was always a faint whiff of frying food, garbage, urine, hot dirt. A few months ago I posted that it took time for me to get adjusted to the smell of Helsinki when I arrived there in March–my nose was off-kilter for the first few weeks. In Barcelona I realized that, having grown up in a warm climate, it was the underlying smell of things baking in the heat–slightly off-putting but nonetheless familiar–that I was missing in Helsinki.

The Barcelona city museum is in the old city, in a complex of buildings that includes a medieval palace and church. The lower level has been excavated to reveal the remains of dyeing, fish processing, and wine-making businesses. You can walk around on platforms just above the excavations. I have seen this technique at two other museums: Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal and Aboa Vetus in Turku, Finland.


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I’ve seen two interesting open air history exhibitions this spring, a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) one in Alexanderplatz, Berlin about the fall of the Berlin Wall:

And a temporary (one month) one in the Kamppi plaza in Helsinki about Warsaw Pact countries and their efforts to shed Communism during the Soviet Union’s final years:

I watched a steady stream of people checking out both of these exhibitions. With the Kamppi exhibition, I think one of the reasons people stopped to investigate was that it presented an unexpected change to a public space that was otherwise very familiar. In other words, if you walk through Kamppi plaza every day on your commute and suddenly the landscape changes, you want to know why. I’m interested in the idea of inserting some public history into public spaces for just a month or two so that it becomes an event, as opposed to those permanent historic markers on buildings that start to blend into the background and almost become invisible over time. There’s also the concept of it being right in the middle of your path, instead of having to make an active choice to walk into a museum to see an exhibition. I’m wondering if this would be a good thing to try in Boston, perhaps at Quincy Market, or along the Esplanade?

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Museum of London via Londonist

The Museum of London just launched an IPhone app that allows users to pull up geo-tagged photos and paintings all over the city, similar to the Sydney Powerhouse Museum project I described a few weeks ago.

There are a few more images of StreetMuseum available at Londonist to give you a sense of how it might work. The launch of StreetMuseum is part of the fanfare for the Museum of London’s new Galleries of Modern London, a £20 million undertaking that opens May 28. Museum of London is considered to be one of the leaders in the city museum field, so I am very interested to check out this new project when I travel to London in July. In the meantime, here’s an early review from the Times.

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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)


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It will come as no surprise that I’ve visited a lot of city museums lately, both in the US and in Europe. Patterns are emerging. Today I want to discuss one in particular: the permanent city history exhibition. Almost every city museum has one, and they are remarkably similar. They are almost always chronological in nature, starting with prehistory and native communities, and winding up somewhere around 2000. The following topics are covered, more or less in the following order: (more…)

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