This is the ultimate mixed-use space. It's a laundromat. With high-speed internet. And a cafe. And a poetry venue. And an art gallery. And a barbecue out front if you want to grill up some lunch. And couches. It has its own myspace page. The guy behind the counter just offered me a piece of gum.
And it's hardly unique. As Elaine points out in her essay, there are butchers who sell phone cards, barbershops with de facto day care centers, and bookstores that resemble cafes more than libraries. These mixed-use spaces arise organically--out of financial opportunity, spontaneous community use, and high-density interaction--and they contribute to community development. Specifically, Elaine advocates that museums stimulate and support "informal public life" through concious construction for diverse applications. As she puts it,
Public spaces have been regarded as necessary armature but not as catalysts themselves. ... Redressing this oversight, this paper concentrates on three elements largely overlooked by our field - space, space mix, and unexpected use - and attempts to show that if museum planners were to pay overt attention to these, they could enhance the community-building role our institutions increasingly play.Elaine cites the work of Jane Jacobs, an urban planner who focused on supporting communities in the face of sterile suburban-focused growth trends. Some of Jacob's prescriptions for vibrant streets include:
use of services as many hours as possible, especially at night...Museums are naturally tuned to some of these but not all. Inside the museum, there are many opportunities to wander and watch in a safe space (no cars, communal monitoring of activities). Elaine points out that children's museums and children's areas in particular are often designed to encourage seemingly unsupervised play opportunities for kids while also providing seating for adults to engage socially while watching the action. And museums have also greatly expanded their mixed-use services--both to daytime visitors through cafes and stores, and to corporations, organizations, and individuals for meeting space, fee-based programs, and special events. There are events where you can bring your dog. There are concerts, pow wows, and holiday bazaars, all kinds of things that stretch the popular ideas of what happens at the museum.
opportunities for loitering and the encouragement of people-watching...
short streets and frequent opportunities to turn corners...
sufficiently dense concentrations of people, including those who live there...
a disparate mix of useful services...
But museums are not as good at encouraging "unexpected use" of the museum, nor are they entirely comfortable with use that appears to be disruptive or disrespectful, even if it is highly enjoyable and attractive to users. More and more, museums are designed to give visitors scripted experiences, and each space conveys its use (and, therefore, its misuse) clearly. Elaine suggests that museums might want to focus on cultivating the concept that the museum is a gathering place by offering more space, seating, and services in the free entry galleries, by providing chess tables and lunchtime seating, by hosting voter registration and blood drives. After all, I could be writing this from a museum right now--if there was one nearby with flexible hours that encouraged my participation as a worker, people-watcher, and occasional facility-user.
Supporting unexpected use can serve the community by providing useful social services that are within the broad strokes of most museum missions. For example, Elaine discusses the ways some museums have dealt with latchkey kids who show up in the afternoon unsupervised. While some museums would perceive such visitors as a disturbance or would not grant admittance without an adult, others have developed services like the Brooklyn Children's Museum's Kids Crew to promote hanging out at the museum as a cool (and safe) activity. In a less structured way, Brooklyn Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman realized that people from the neighborhood were making use of the lit outdoor space in front of the museum entrance at night as a gathering space. The Museum entrance has recently been redesigned to promote this kind of use in a large and attractive outdoor public plaza.
The Getty Center in Los Angeles (shown in the image at a birthday party) stands out as a museum created to truly be a public place. It's free and relatively easy to get to by public transportation (or you can pay to park). There's a mix of indoor and outdoor space, and it's debatable whether the gardens or collection are more valuable. The exhibits are mixed in separate buildings to encourage wandering among them via outdoor plazas. There are places to picnic, watch the scenery, and socialize. There's no pressure to see the galleries; many people treat it as a beautiful public space and use it in diverse ways.
But it doesn't take a huge endowment to encourage mixed-use; it can be profitable as well. The Halal butcher didn't add video rental to his business out of social service; "the motivation was to follow the money." Similarly, museums can capitalize on the mixed-use desires of their clientele by exploring the boundaries of institutional comfort. Is it okay to allow visitors to sleep in the galleries for overnights? Is it okay to serve drinks among artifacts? Is it okay to let breakdancers use your beautifully waxed floors to practice? Is it okay for people to express themselves artistically or musically in the galleries? Is it okay to hold singles nights? Is it okay to host a flea market? Is it okay to allow political organizing in meeting spaces?
The answer need not be yes to all of these. The Halal butcher might blanch at offering videos featuring scantily clad actors, and the museum might say no to some kinds of use that they feel might alienate other visitors, distort the mission, or harm artifacts. But saying yes to many of these can encourage new people to come through the door who might otherwise never come near the museum. Also, providing for and supporting informal interaction loosens up the impression of what can and can't happen at the museum. People might start coming for a greater variety of functions--to get a great cup of coffee, to drop their kids off for school, to hear a DJ or watch the street art and sand castle building. And, hopefully, people will start to feel like the museum is their place and will invent new uses and experiences to have there.
The interactions that happen at farmer's markets, thrift stores, and the Wired Wash Cafe are not uniformly peaceful nor enlightening. They are lively, active, and social. You could put a 2.0 wash on it and say that creating more mixed-use space requires trust in visitors--that their self-designated activities will be acceptable to each other and to the museum. These spaces are more like open platforms than prescribed, designed interactions. Or, you can think of it as an opportunity for museums to increase their value proposition as civic spaces in the face of competition from the Wired Wash Cafes of the world. Or, you can think of it as a way to honestly implement the "town square" model to which so many museums give lip service.
Elaine points out, per John Falk's research, that "[museum] visitors spend fully half their time doing something other than attending to the exhibitions and about one-third of their time interacting with other people." Rather than fighting these findings by trying to force people to spend more time with the museum content, museums might embrace them, supporting and acknowledging that there are lots of valuable ways to engage in museum spaces. Heck, I don't just want a museum that offers me the internet function I'm receiving right now. I want a museum that offers all these functions--couches, coffee, poetry, friendly folks who are also sitting around--maybe even a washing machine. It's no longer crazy to see a laundromat with art on the walls. Why should it be crazy to see a museum with seemingly unrelated services?
Next week, Chapter 12: Threshold Fear.