|Cloud Arbor, Buhl Community Park, Pittsburgh (Photo: Ned Kahn)|
Place is everywhere. In large and small ways, it is significant in how we make meaning of the world and within our lives. Place is where we come from, where we feel alive, where we connect with others and where we feel we belong. Connections to place are personal, anywhere and everyday. We are in relationship with the places we live, work, play, love, and remember.
Many museums, historic sites, zoos, and nature centers work at the intersection of history, environment, and culture: rich in local history, punctuated by majestic landforms, or on the site of nationally significant events. Here, a museum can explore, interpret, and connect visitors with the power of place. In these cases, drawing from what is well known, beautiful or captured headlines in the past is relatively apparent.
Although museums are often seen as landmarks and place-based, many are less obviously grounded in place. There are no ruins, no poet’s cabin, no geological formations. No rare species live only here; there are no caves and no traces of remarkable human persistence over time on this site. Yet, even without a plaque or a pedigree, museums can create a sense of place as placemakers engaging the community and deepening connections with place and community.
We Are Always Some Place
We want to know where we are. At some level, we want to find out something about ourselves from a place, perhaps a preference or an interest, a feeling or a sense of what’s enduring. Through use, sharing, belonging, remembering, and time, places fill with meaning. We may walk the same way to the bus everyday and find a certain spot that feels restful. We return every fall to see that spectacular red maple in the park. We find the space between two buildings intriguing and pleasing. We remember the shortcut we took to school and the sense of mystery it held returns.
Placemaking brings to life places like these and others that we tend overlook. It capitalizes on the distinctiveness of a spot. Drawing on symbols with local significance, connecting with activities like fishing or quarrying associated with an area’s past, or interpreting local stories, placemaking opens up a site in new ways. The result may be rediscovering or cultivating an identity, adding vitality, making a site's story visible to friends, passers-by, and members of the community, or strengthening civic cohesion.
Linked to urban design, placemaking may be as iconic as the Highline, as incidental as trees forming an arch along a street, as intentional as site-specific art, or as inspired as a mural incorporating a vine climbing a wall.
One way museums bring value to the communities they serve is in their role as placemakers. Whether planned around the museum itself or in community spaces, museum placemaking projects engage visitors, partners, and neighbors, building on existing knowledge of and relationships with a place, working towards a shared vision. Varied perspectives and imaginations help in reimagining ignored spaces, animating an incidental space, and making a place welcoming, meaningful, and shared. In reimagining a place, it is as if we are noticing it for the first time or in a completely new way. When a space that was once a pass-through becomes a place for people, we want to gather, linger, return, and share with others. In the process we are taking ownership, building caring and connection with others and with places, revitalizing an area, and strengthening community.
Making Place Visible
Varying in form and scale, placemaking is a process that takes shape through extended community engagement with place at the center. Placemaking projects engage museums, arts organizations, libraries, businesses, citizens, and community groups. They reveal the potential of a space, bring assets to the forefront, and introduce new possibilities and meaning.
Placemaking uncovers and reveals the unrecognized potential of a space. Placemaking may use a building, views, natural light, surprise, humor, the region, or the past to highlight and make visible a place's identity.
• One of Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s multiple creative placemaking projects is Cloud Arbor, a public art piece by artist Ned Kahn. Located in front of the Museum, this year-round interactive experience along with seating and plantings has helped transform a neglected space and former crossroads into Pittsburgh’s newest park.
• In the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, pedestrians enjoy an encounter with an unexpected giant Troll crouched under the Aurora bridge (originally holding a crushed VW bug). Playing with place, the sculpture uses the Three Billy Goats Gruff story to animate a typically ignored space and transform it into a local landmark.
• The Oil Museum in Stavanger Norway transformed an adjacent abandoned space into a playground, reinterpreting place around the oil fields in the area. In creating play spaces for children and youth, Geopark uses geologic forms and recycled materials related to the technology and materials of oil production.
Placemaking uncovers and brings assets to the forefront. Sometimes the resources of a place and what it holds are disconnected or hidden by change and growth. Placemaking may involve peeling back layers to discover new ways to signify place.
• From 2010 -2014 Open Field at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis invited individuals and groups to propose and share activities that converted The Walker’s big, green yard into a cultural commons. In this summer-long festival of community-sourced events, the line between casual spectator and active participant shifted. Activities ranged from card making for nursing homes to yoga, to poetry readings, to a Fluxus Running Club.
• Significant features of place can assert themselves into placemaking. When the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach planned a 42,000 square foot addition, preservation of an 80-year old Banyan tree prompted the redesign of the museum’s entry by the project’s architect, Sir Norman Foster.
• Streams that once ran through our towns and cities have since been covered over or diverted to culverts, tunnels, and sewers. Daylighting streams that ran through an area restores them to their more natural state and makes the past visible. Arts projects like Ghost Arroyo sonically and visually highlight an underground creek in an area of San Francisco tracing the pathways of waters long hidden.
• A pedagogy of place, studying and solving problems based in an area, shares a strong relationship with placemaking. The Grand Rapids Public Museum School uses the the Grand Rapids area as a textbook to involve students locally through real world problem solving that can apply to other places or situations.
Placemaking reshapes a place to introduce new possibilities and meaning. Reimagining a place around a new purpose, finding a collective vision, or opening it to other experiences can transform, revitalize, or invent it as something completely new.
|MAH's Abbott Square: Photo Credit: MAH|
• When Paley Park opened in 1967, it created a quiet respite on a busy Manhattan street. It also became a model for transforming smalls spaces into parks and parklets for people by creating gathering places in public areas. The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco hosts a parklet with benches and views into the museum as a way to engage the public in its mission.
• In 2013 the Museum of Art and History activated a community engagement process to transform Abbott Square into the creative heart of Santa Cruz and the front porch of downtown. MAH has engaged hundreds of community members to envision Abbott Square, shaping a cluster of projects, defining spaces and their connections, and framing plans for programming that will animate the space.
• Burning Man offers perhaps a curious and somewhat twist on introducing new meaning through placemaking. Burning Man has created a place with great meaning and a strong identity out of the “empty” space Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Moreover this place is also distinguished by its intentional impermanence every year; it disappears. Yet, it has cultivated a powerful sense of place.
Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more.
-Aldo van Eyck
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