Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 3: Pockets of Third Places

This is the third 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 guest post was written by Kimberlee Kiehl, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy & Operations Officer for the COSI science center in Columbus, OH. (note: I've written about innovation at COSI before here.) You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

When I was in Italy several years ago I was struck by the fact that every evening, outside of my small hotel window, what seemed like the entire town gathered in the square, the piazza, to just hang out. Conversation flowed, laughter floated up to my window, people strolled and ate or drank (or both), and when I went down to the square myself people included me in all of this without hesitation. As COSI began recreating ourselves a few years ago we consciously included the idea that we would become a sort of a piazza for our community, an effort that has proven to be challenging. I was excited to read The Great Good Place and see how we could do more of this.

At first I found myself thinking and agreeing with much of what Nina stated in her first post--that there are characteristics that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to be this kind of place. Then, as I read further, I realized that we might have some of this third place stuff already going on. I became confused. I left my office and went and walked around our building and saw that, in fact, we do have these behaviors happening in various places. And that made me start thinking all over again.

COSI has moved from being an isolated science center to being a partnership-based “center of science.” We now share our building with 6 other groups, each of them bringing science to the public in a different way. We want to be a place where the public feels like they can come together, not only to learn, but just to be… to relax, to communicate, to share. If you ask me if this effort to be a third place for people in Columbus has been successful I will tell you yes… and no. The bottom line is that PARTS of our building are very much third places. Other parts are absolutely not and our entire building is definitely not. Let me start by describing a couple of the spaces that are.

Our space for families with children under first grade, little kidspace, is the space in our building that seems to pretty consistently be a third place. Adults come with their children so regularly that we know many of them by name. Parents and caregivers spend time with people they know and strangers who they don’t know. Seating options were deliberately chosen so adults can pick them up and move them to small chat circles and converse comfortably. We don’t have any expectations that adults will interact with their children while they are in the space; instead we are perfectly comfortable with giving them a space where they know their child is safe while they interact with each other. True, some parents come, plop themselves down and read a book, but many more of them make a friend, meet the same people every week, and come to talk and drink coffee.

Some of our spaces are third places sometimes. The spot in our building that houses the studios of the local PBS station, WOSU, often is transformed into a third place. People from all walks of life come and hang out in the space, having conversations about whatever the topic for the evening or afternoon happens to be. The WOSU space is often open after the rest of the center closes and this space brings in a variety of citizens together to engage in a variety of conversations.

Some of our spaces become third places as part of certain occasions. The center of our building, the atrium, becomes one of these places every time we host a Camp-In event. Kids and adults gather in this space in the same way I saw them gather in the town squares of Italy. By the end of the evening everyone is there and we end the night with dancing in this communal space. This space definitely looked like a third place this past Wednesday night when we hosted an overnight teen event designed to help teens see how they can make a difference in the world. As I left the building I was met with over a hundred teens hanging out, laughing and talking in this space. But perhaps the best example of this is seen on Family Friday nights when people from all income levels, all walks of life, and all parts of town come together and hang out in this space with people they not only don’t know but that they would most likely never interact with in the their life outside this space.

So what’s my point here? My point is that maybe we are being too hard on ourselves as museums by trying to figure out how to convert our entire building into a third place. Maybe we should think carefully about which spaces best lend themselves because of population, event or opportunity and then spend our time and energy figuring out how to maximize these spaces and the attributes that make them third places. Maybe it is enough that parts of our building serve this purpose at certain times or for certain occasions. Maybe I should spend time and energy thinking about how to make little kidspace even more comfortable for families to be together. Maybe I need to think about how to draw people into the atrium during events so they can mingle and chat. Maybe I should more deliberately use the WOSU space. Maybe we should stop trying to make ourselves into a singular third place and think more clearly about the third places within our space.

What do you think?

5 comments, add yours!:

kare anderson said...

when there is a reason - "excuse" to visit a place regularity the Familiarity Effect kicks in and we are more likely to talk and share. This is such a helpful post to get others to look at where they work and/or drop by to see where people are most likely to gather.
As a public speaker I notice that people are most likely to gather while waiting - such as before they enter a ballroom session or where there's a buffet or other line or where open spaces have chairs and sofas in a circle or half circle. We storyboard meetings to help make more "third places" pop up ~ another fan of Museum 2.0

Mary Warner said...

I like the idea of having certain spaces within a museum developed into intentional third spaces, but I think this is only going to work well if the facility is big enough to have distinct spaces. I'm not sure creating distinct third spaces would work in a small museum because there isn't enough space to keep them separate.

Thomas Mackie said...

The COSI comments make this more realistic. Many smaller museums have no "open" space for gathering. I am in a University Museum and in this culture there is almost no "third space" and few seem to seek it. Most galleries are specialized spaces but some use them for social interaction. That use may just be in the nature of the region. COSI has wonderful spaces for an urban area, rural museums are isolated.
At my site, we are used by hikers and have expanded the gardens and outdoor exhibits to encourage visitation during closed hours.

Nina Simon said...

Good points, Mary and Thomas.

COSI is a huge institution--no getting around that. But I think what they've done is remarkable even in the context of big museums. There are so many large museums in which every space is either a dead space or a contemplative one (or in a science center, a dead space or a hyperactive one). I find it very interesting that it is the strategic partnerships and very specific niche audiences that turn parts of COSI into a third place.

And I think that's extensible to small institutions as well. If partnering with a particular group or opening up in the early morning to a specific niche audience can promote social, casual, use, a small museum can also be a part-time third place.

Maraya Cornell said...

I like Kimberlee's sensible take on providing social places within museums. It seems to me that a museum's primary reason for being is always as the custodian of some sort of content, and never as a place for people to socialize. But a nice place to hang out is something that everyone wants, and if museums can provide this to some extent, it's a way of opening the doors to a wider audience.