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?