Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Place Matters

Place matters. It matters to children and families, to communities and regions, and so–too–to museums and what they offer.

An attractive but complex concept, place is more than physical setting, more than precise coordinates, or geography, weather, or historical markers. Place is something we experience directly, physically, and intensely through our senses. Place is also intangible, carrying the spirit of a physical setting that emanates from the shape and the feel of the land; from ground and vistas and how they meet; and from the quality of light and blue of the sky.

Describing, or defining, place can be difficult because we are surrounded so continuously by it. We might not notice until it changes or until we change our place.

Place Matters
Place is an important way in which we make meaning of the world. We mark our lives according to place. We live at an address, navigate using GPS, and share information with friends on Four-Square. Fundamentally, place is where we come from, where we feel alive, and where we find the past in the present moment. We want to know and be where we are. We share places with others, return to places that hold meaning, and remember and tell stories brimming with place.

Pipestone, MN
Many believe there is an instinctive connection between people and places referred to as a sense of place, place making, and the power of place. Place-people connections take many forms: experiencing smells, warmth, moisture, pungency particular to a place; identifying personally and deeply with it; feeling a bond or attachment to a place; and fiercely and proudly sharing a sense of place with others.

Some places have a greater degree of identity. A spectacular landform that has acquired meaning for many people over time distinguishes one place from others. A remarkable place often gains power from the intersection of the natural environment, culture, and technology–where people have invested labor, ingenuity, and perseverance in working land and resources. Power builds on power when a place of significance resonates with people, pulls and draws them to it because of what happened there over many years.

Place Matters to Museums
Place matters. It matters to children discovering who they are, exploring their world, and finding their place in it. Place matters to families growing and deepening connections to their communities. It matters to communities staying vibrant and being resilient. And place matters to visitors and newcomers who want to know and feel a place and what makes it distinctive.

The mill traces that powered the flour mills
Museums want and need to matter, to be meaningful and valued by the people and communities they serve. Their presence at powerful or distinctive intersections of the natural environment and human environments often establishes their relevance. At the water’s edge, in a park, or on a promontory; in an historic house, mill, or lighthouse; at a landmark, site of an engineering feat, or where a plesiosaur was discovered, museums, zoos and nature centers capitalize on local assets and pride. They are in a strong position to engage people in exploring, understanding, and connecting to the unique character of their surroundings.

Museums often view themselves as a commons, town square, or crossroads. Being grounded in place serves them in this role. It strengthens their connection with audience and community. Place counters a growing separation from the land that has been occurring. The emotional bonds to and knowledge of a place that visitors often bring offer a starting point for engagement, alternative perspectives, and new relationships. For those already familiar with the noteworthy and distinct qualities of a place, a museum’s rootedness can build on existing ties and heighten a sense of belonging. The appeal of something that only happens right here or with resources found exclusively here can attract experience samplers and collectors of novel experiences. Interpretation of engineering feats like the greatest direct driven power the world has seen in the mills at St Anthony Falls in Minneapolis now builds on local pride and interests in alternative energy. Place is always in process, evolving naturally, in memory, and meaning over time; inviting residents, neighbors, and tourists to return, reflect, and reconnect.

A place-based and local approach can also welcome in new and different audiences. Meaningful settings and engaging scenes may serve as an easy entry point for novice museumgoers. Shared heritage, contributions of historically underrepresented groups, or exploration of a local environmental issue can extend relationships with the museum. Reweaving the fabric of dispersed communities and sharing forgotten stories on place as the The Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York city do reach out to new audiences.

The Wing Luke Asian Museum (Photo: AIArchitect)
Being place-based is being local. As daily life becomes more global, being local becomes increasingly valued. We are not likely to be flooded with emotion or memories when we step into a chain grocery store, restaurant, or hotel that could be in any city or along any highway. But we do experience time and human capabilities intensely when we look onto the ruins of old mill buildings or step onto a stone landing where hundreds of thousands of new immigrants first arrived in their new land. Obscure, local details about place are intriguing. Local terms for landforms fascinate: knob, gap, holler, cove, bald, coulee, glen. Often–but not only–food carries the mantle of being local. Landscape, music, architecture can feel intensely local and certainly weather does. Morning fog and evening mist give a sense of local time to space.

Place Matters to Museums In Creating Experiences
Some museums draw strength and identity from their place and fully inhabit it–historic houses, maritime
St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum: views of history
museums, natural history museums, forts, and lighthouses. Several varied examples are described in the Museums Now blog by Janet Petitpas to which I would add a few of my favorites such as Shelburne Farms, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, St. Augustine Lighthouse (FL), and Aldo Leopold’s Shack on a worn-out farm along the Wisconsin River outside of Baraboo. 

While some museums may be less obviously grounded in place, any museum can dig in and find place-based connections to what its audience finds distinct, and meaningful. How do museums not blessed with an intrinsically powerful place create and convey a sense of place for visitors? Museum planning is a major avenue for deliberately exploring place in the context of a stretch of river, waterfront, or watershed, of views of bluffs or a nearby quarry, or in relation to an art colony or regional hub. At every organizational level, planning is a tool: for exploring and framing vision and mission, understanding the valued aspect of place, and engaging learners and placemakers across the lifespan.  A museum can consider how to use its resources, expertise, and creativity to influence and be influenced by its neighborhood in thinking about the following.
  • Distinct and meaningful qualities related to location, area history, natural environment, cultural, and industrial past
  • How to bring a broader perspective to specific features and their interaction in shaping lives and community
  • How children and adults can experience a sense of place within and around the museum to connect with their interests and lives
  • The varied and engaging experiences can strengthen place-based connections

Becoming Place-based and Place-filled
Tacoma waterfront meets the Museum of Glass
Museums can bring meaning to a place by making connections and relationships between people and place visible and active. Buildings, bridges, boats, shacks, gardens, and, even ruins carry the ambience of a place along with materials, plants, light, and stories. Windows may frame a view that says, “I’m home,” feature a local phenomenon, or capture changes in season, weather, and time of day. Materials that are local and locally sourced ground a museum in its own place. For example, the Baraboo-based Leopold Foundation used trees that Leopold himself had planted to construct its new building; Madison Children’s Museum used virtually all re-purposed materials in its exhibits that came from within 100 miles of Madison. Stone quarried locally and brickwork and the work of stonecutters and masons highlight a museum’s geology. Design references may be local as well, with elements reflecting vernacular or outstanding examples of architecture like the Flynn-Batagglia building for the Naval and Military Park at Buffalo’s Canalside.

Community engagement in planning, curating and interpreting place weaves understanding with meaning over time and from distinct and valued perspectives. Deep knowledge, varied experiences, and a sense of ownership of both natural and cultural environments can contribute understanding, memories, stories, and artifacts. Community voices speaking from direct experience, knowledge, and attachment narrate how a museum grew out of a particular place, keep memories of Borrum’s Woods vivid, and renew the museum’s relevance.

Creating Place-based Experiences
Window view and graphic at MOHAI, Seattle
The rich, tangible, and intangible qualities of place played out across three-dimensions are critical in creating meaningful place-based experiences in and around museums that explore, "you are here." These experiences build on the attractive and compelling qualities inspired by landforms and natural resources, views and stories, and the ingenuity and persistence pioneers and passersby invested in a place.

Museums bring their own creativity and ingenuity to connect visitors with place. Adjacencies and attention to scale; artifacts, real materials, and traces of past activity; tools to use and objects to touch; navigation with media; and opportunities for play carry the fullness of place. Even without re-enactors and replicas, visitors can become immersed in a place and its meanings as explorers, builders, placemakers, and creators themselves. At build platforms they build and rebuild cities, bridges, and houses; they finger topographic maps and models of the canal or mill traces. They dig for fossils or bones or play at a river exhibit located overlooking the real dig site or river, making comparisons, tracing perimeters, and pointing to identifying features. They stand between a current trolley and an image of its 20th century counterpart. 

Playing with place
Standing within a picture frame of a view or joining statues posing at a scenic overlook, visitors play with place, smile and imagine. Using new technology in unusual places, visitors experience New York’s Central Park through QR codes, listening to a concert played in this band shell or viewing a clearing as it was 100 years ago.

 Place-based Learning
Whether or not a museum is located on a noteworthy site, it can relate to the forces that shaped the past, are relevant to the present, and are affecting the future. Place-based learning is sometimes implemented museum-wide but is also familiar in museum programs, nature and environmental centers, and in school settings. This multi-disciplinary approach emphasizes learning through participation. Learners at every age are viewed as active agents and creators of knowledge.

Islandwood, Bainbridge Island
Place-based learning engages students and community members in exploring local cultures, landscape, or  environments. Projects are concrete, specific, and current, connecting local issues with participants’ daily lives and personal experiences. Some projects are of significant scale in participation and scope like the Sperm Whale Project­, an ocean conservation initiative carried out by the entire Homer (AL) community through the Pratt Museum. This and other projects presented in the Fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Museum Education highlight the variety of place-based learning in museums. 

Grounded in place themselves, museums actively harness the power of place to strengthen their relevance and value to their visitors and communities. Looking to the sweep and roll of the land, where water and land meet, and to the blue of the sky, museums create place-based experiences and environments for children and families, residents and tourists. With collections, interpretation, media, design, immersive environments, interactive experiences, docents and guides, and responsive customer service, museums engage, animate, interpret, and reveal connections and perspectives about its location and the experience of being there–whether there is the Immigrant Steps at the Erie Canal, on Main Street in Winona, MN, or on the waterfront in Tacoma.

Knowledge of a place–where you are and where you come from–is intertwined with knowledge of who you are. Landscape, in other words, shapes mindscape. - David Orr, Center for Eco-Literacy 

Milwaukee Art Center lifts off on the Lake Michigan lakefront

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