Over the past several years I posted final exam essays of students from my Museum Practices graduate seminars, written as responses to my challenge to justify their aspirations to work as museum professionals in today’s world. Another section of the final exam allows students to choose and respond to a set of questions from an IMLS publication. The question sets range the gamut of Museum Practices. One student, Samira Rahbe Chambers, chose the question set addressing Museums as Third Places. Her response is thought-provoking in considering street art performance as a Third Place practice for museums – a fresh and innovative approach. Below is her essay.
Museums as Third Places
by Samira Rahbe Chambers
The potential for museums to serve as Third Places has been an interest of mine over the last year as I tried to reconcile my admiration for street art and my involvement in the museum business. It became clear to me that the street served as a sort of Third Place for street artists where they could produce their art and viewers were able to consume art in a way that was very different from museums. Some of these differences include: the street is free, there is no entrance fee; you can be as loud as you wish, there is no museum staff hushing you; you can take photographs, even using your flash; you can touch the art, and even collaborate with it. Perhaps the starkest difference between viewing art on the street and viewing art in the museum is that there is no one influencing your reaction to the work; you happen upon the piece and are free to consider the work however you wish. There are no labels, there is no authoritarian stamp that “this is art,” and there is no pressure to pretend you understand or like the piece. It has been my hope in participating in the museum studies program at the University of Memphis that, as I enter the museum field, I may participate in the realization of museums as Third Places.
The Future of Museums and Libraries pose three questions to consider when imagining museums as Third Places: One, what are the social purposes of museums and libraries? Two, how will these [social purposes] be met in the future? Third, will communities continue to need physical gathering spaces or will virtual communities grow ever more important? For this discussion, I will refer to Robert Janes’s “Museum and Irrelevance,” Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Robert Connolly and Elizabeth Bollwerk’s Positioning your Museum as a Critical Community Asset, and Nina Simon’s “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums.” In order to address the last two questions, answering the first, what the museum’s purpose is, needs to be done.
Janes argues that museums “provide answers to a fundamental question, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’” (18) and he further states that, “At their very best, museums present the richness and diversity of life, and keep reflection and dialogue alive for their visitors…museums [have]..the obligation to probe our humanness and, in assuming this responsibility, museums are unique and valuable social institutions that have no suitable replacement,” (18). In other words, on a basic level, the function of museums it to help humans understand what it actually means to be human. Museums engage this conversation by looking into the past to understand where we’ve come from and how we have and haven’t changed. Also, museums help us understand our humanness by participating in contemporary dialogues of identity, gender, race, religion, class, and health. The topics museums address are controversial and must be handled delicately. It is for this reason that museum must realize themselves as Third Places and provide a safe environment to have these hard conversations.
To understand more of what a Third Place is and how museums can identify as one it is necessary to dig deeper into Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. I read Oldenburg’s book this past summer and cannot stress the significant implications his thoughts have for the future of museums. First, a Third Place can come in different forms. While Oldenburg lists some examples of Third Places in the title of his book, the primary identification of a Third Place is that it offers neutral ground where all feel comfortable. These places must be accessible and accommodating. Furthermore, these places do not “reduce a human being to a mere customer,” (18) but instead, approach people holistically engaging and appreciating all dimensionalities of their visitors. Lastly, Oldenburg proposes that in Third Places, “…joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation,” (37) and that, “…what distinguishes the third place is that decency and good cheer consistently prevail” (84). While I admire and agree with Oldenburg’s ideals of a Third Place, I do not know if all museums can be called one, for there are several museums that maintain an air of elitism, viewing visitors as dollar signs, and who engage in only one-sided dialogue or ignore difficult conversations all together. Ultimately, I argue that Janes and Oldenburg’s thoughts can be understood as the purpose of museums.
Yet, how can museums fulfill its social purpose to provide a safe space where humans can come to question and understand their own basic human condition. To answer this question, it is helpful to consider Connolly and Bollwerk’s textbook. Positioning your Museum as a Critical Community Asset opens with a quote from John Cotton Dana: “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs,” (1). It is in this basic statement that museums can understand how they can serve as Third Places. It is only through engaging with the community the museum serves that it will be able to find out what kinds of conversations visitors wish to engage in and how those conversations may be best handled and treated. Furthermore, the concept of co-creation is the basis of Connolly and Bollwerk’s work and can help museums see that their community is a co-participator in the mission of the museum which shifts visitors from dollar signs to essential meaning makers. Also, Bollwerk and Sarah Miller discuss two topics, open authority and advocacy, that can help museums to fulfill the role as Third Place. It is through “de-authortizing” the museum that visitors find that their own voices are important and that they can possess different opinions from the museum and still be accepted. Also, concerning advocacy, it is in spaces that people feel represented, spoken-up for, and enabled that they will feel safe. If the museum does not advocate for its own services or the safety of its community, no one will want to engage with it.
Lastly, in considering whether the museum as Third Place can exist virtually or needs a physical building, Nina Simon’s “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums” is helpful. Simon argues that museums can learn from participatory websites whose accuracy and scope grows the more people use and contribute to it. In this way, museums, to engage and learn from its community, should consider more participatory and co-creative methods. While Simon asks readers to consider “the Web as a history museum” (18), it is also helpful to consider the museum as a web presence. In class, we looked at Google’s Museum Views program, which may become a popular way people experience museums in the future. We do not need to be scared of this possibility, but rather, we should be excited about what this means for the growth of museums. Museums can be a Third Place both physically and virtually allowing visitors who come through their doors or log onto their website to be engaged in a way that aligns with Third Place politics. For example, by allowing people to participate in the museum’s life and dialogue both in person and on the web, the museum enhances their accessibly and allows for more people to benefit from their services. Just because conversations are being had on the web will not take away from or extinguish conversations that happen at the physical site of the museum.
In conclusion, museums can be a hub for human interaction, growth, and delight both virtually and in person. The museum can foster online and on-site relationships strengthening their community and fulfilling their mission statements. It can be scary for museum staff to rethink their purpose as many are worried that if they open up the authority of the museum that they will lose their own personal voice and power. It is best for museum staff to reorient their thoughts to understand that their purpose is not to elevate their own voice but rather elevate the voices of others; it should be the museums function to help others find and use their voices. This rethinking of purpose requires humility as we learn to view ourselves as people whose opinions and thoughts are still valid but not necessarily the most important or “right” ones. If there is humility present, museums will easily become Third Places where everyone feels important but never the most important, for if we view our own opinion or authority as the most important, then we rob others the chance to understand and vocalize what it means to them to be human.