This is the first installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog will feature a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This is the only post written by me, Nina Simon. You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.
Like many museum and library professionals, I am enamored of the idea of cultural institutions as “third places” – public venues for informal, peaceable, social engagement outside of home or work. But now, after a careful read of Ray Oldenburg’s book in which he defines and describes third places, I am uncertain of whether it is possible for museums and libraries to be such venues.
The Great Good Place is a book that challenged many of my preconceptions about third places—what defines them, what makes them work, and how they function. Here are four surprising things Oldenburg describes about third places—characteristics I think would be quite difficult for cultural institutions to assume:
- The primary attraction of a third place is the patrons, not the décor, the hosts, or the activities provided by management. A good third place is one that you can walk into and be swept into lively conversation or unstructured revelry. The places themselves may be shabby; in fact; shabbiness encourages ease of participation. In contrast, museums are almost entirely focused encouraging visitors to observe and consume institutional presentations and performances. Most cultural institutions do little to promote direct engagement among visitors, except perhaps at late night parties, which are often seen as off-mission.
- The primary activity in third places is conversation among patrons. The talk is “more spirited, less inhibited, and more eagerly pursued” than in other settings. People make fun of each other and laugh loudly. While the talk may encompass serious topics, the attitude is light and the conversation is not structured or overly guided. In contrast, cultural institutions often implicitly discourage conversation, particularly loud and boisterous talk, and when conversation is encouraged it is often highly structured around a particular topic or program.
- The stewards of third places are regular patrons, not staff. Regulars play an essential function in managing the social life of third places. Unlike museum members, third place regulars are not focused solely on their own individual use of the institution, but rather see the venue as a starting point for social engagement with others. Regulars teach newcomers how to behave and reward other regulars with close friendship. Rather than the standard “bring your own friends” arrangement of most bars and clubs (and social museum experiences), third places invite individuals and strangers to engage. Strangers, not intact groups, form the tightest bonds in third places.
- Third places are defined by their accessibility. They are open long hours, and they are located within a short walk of home or the office (or preferably, both). Regulars may drop in multiple times a day. Visiting a third place does not require special dress, a particular goal, prearrangement with friends, or an extra outing. Third places rarely if ever present scheduled events. The ubiquitous “plan a visit” section of a museum website would be ridiculous and unnecessary for the sociable corner store or pub that patrons visit with little forethought.
I closed this book wondering: are cultural institutions really interested in being third places? I used to think museums and libraries should be third places, but this book opened my eyes to how far they are from being so. Museums are explicitly about something, and third places are about nothing in particular. Third places facilitate engagement among patrons, whereas museums and libraries deliver services to patrons.
The cultural service model is antithetical to the third place. Third places are more participatory and offer fewer basic amenities than most cultural institutions provide. By being humble, third places make people feel more comfortable as performers, jokesters, and coconspirators. There is no chance their play will be overshadowed by more attractive objects, more well-conceived speeches, or more literate docents.
On the other hand... it’s certainly possible for people to use museums or libraries as casually as they do taverns, playing around with the art or the exhibits or magazines instead of with pints. Making this happen requires some fundamental changes to cultural institutions. More informality. Longer hours. More seating. More acceptance and encouragement of noise. More cultivation of regulars not just as docents but as social directors. Less judgment of how people use their time. Less prettification of content. Less presentation of a point of view. Cultural institutions would both gain and lose by becoming true third places.
Are these tradeoffs desirable or worthwhile? What do you think?