Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 6: Museum 2.5 by Elaine Heumann Gurian

This is a bonus installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog featured a guest post examining some aspect of the book. Then I received this commentary from Elaine Heumann Gurian, a museum hero of mine who has been following the book club--and I had to include it. Thanks to ALL the guests who have helped make this book discussion a success!

I have been using quotes from Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place in my own writings for quite a long time. I had became convinced (around 1996) that there was something important about museums as socializing spaces that should be further explored. I went off to read Jane Jacobs[i] and William Whyte[ii] who both understood and wrote about the importance of strangers interacting with each other in public outdoor spaces. Their seminal writing and research first took place in the 1960’s.

I also read books by various architects who were writing about museum buildings and their uses but they were mostly interested in the functioning of the building itself or how buildings made visitors feel. At the time I did not find any architectural writers who wanted to talk about the promulgation of stranger interaction within their spaces. Then I stumbled upon The Great Good Place while browsing in my local library. The book was a revelation and an affirmation that gave credence to the importance of strangers meeting each other inside establishments outside the home as a method of community building. I was excited.

The Great Good Place has since become treated as a mandatory museum studies touchstone. Many people use references to “third spaces” as short hand when discussing any sites that are neither home nor offices. Often they do so without reading the book. And saying the phrase “third space” has become synonymous for other phrases like “forum, meeting ground, scholar’s cafes, seating amenities, and entrance halls” none of which are synonyms at all. Because of the casual use of the “third-space” phrase I found myself believing that Oldenburg’s book was foundational. Having read it carefully the first time, I did not reread it again counting on my memory when referring to it.

Now, thanks to you, Nina, and the Book Club on your blog, I have reread The Great Good Place and am disappointed: it does not really apply to museums very much, and Oldenburg is more prescriptive and judgmental about what he thinks constitutes the third space (that he has been instrumental to getting the public to acknowledge and to value) than I would like. Oldenburg is writing about space that encourages repeated interaction between frequent customers who end up acknowledging each other so that former strangers become familiar acquaintances. Jane Jacobs would call them “regulars”.

The third space he is describing is to be found on a continuum of important civic spaces each of which accomplishes different important tasks. Let me describe one of these other spaces which I call “congregant space”. It encourages a lower threshold of human interaction and does not require overt human interaction to be effective. If well designed these inside and outside public spaces allow strangers to view the “other” as fellow humans who happen to the same location.

The importance of congregant spaces can be better understood in times of troubles when authorities intentionally or inadvertently permit their citizens access to fewer and fewer such places that are considered safe enough to freely traverse. I believe having accessible spaces seen by the public as belonging to all is essential for civic health.

In 2009, writing for a book titled One Meter Square[iv] conceived by and celebrating the art of my Argentinean friend Graciella Sacco, I wrote:

If you mark off one meter square on the ground you will see that it is a very small space. Only one person can comfortably occupy it at one time. It is clear that any human activity that takes place in a one meter space is highly dependent on where that meter is situated and what is adjacent to it. A meter set in a dense forest not only looks different from one in the airport but is peopled much less often. All this so far is obvious.

What is less apparent is that some places as small as a meter square can contribute to civic peace. Their presence makes the world a little bit better and together with other such meters help keep us collectively safer. Yet these places, which I call “congregant spaces,” are ordinary, seemingly unrelated to each other, and ubiquitous. In each, strangers can safely meet; participate in the same activity at the same time; see, and even brush past, one another; and yet need not talk to or even acknowledge each other. Most importantly, people feel safe enough to enter or walk through these spaces.

The absence of such safe places is symptomatic of a community plagued with civic disquiet, even violence and upheaval. We sense the importance of these places when they’re absent. It is easy to understand why terrorists target them to promote widespread fear. ….

When people have easy opportunities to view each other, they get accustomed to one another. And when everyone can use the same spaces and services, we signal a silent welcome to each of the strangers we meet along the way.

Even better, safe public spaces which encourage learning and debate (lecture halls, museums, libraries, etc.) can move us further -- from mere passive acceptance and civility to understanding and even empathy.

So when a meter square is situated in the midst of a safe congregant space -- where all of society can walk unimpeded -- that meter is contributing to peaceful assembly. And if that meter can be attached to another beside it, followed by another and another…

Museum congregant space might be renamed “Museum Space 2.5” in honor of Nina’s blog. 2.5 might place it midway between the second space of work and the third space described in this book. Perhaps we in museums could learn to intentionally value museums as safe 2.5 spaces where strangers can see each other without needing to interact. Space 2.5 is a precursor to Oldenburg’s third space. This lower threshold requirement for stranger interaction in space 2.5 does not lower the importance of the third space as Oldenburg conceives of it but I would contend space 2.5 is more germane to public civility than is the third space which is useful in local community building. And with a continuum of space use, I suggest that museums that create space 2.5 will be surprised to see opportunities presenting themselves for also becoming the 3rd space of their neighborhood.

However creating functioning space 2.5 is not as simple as creating empty open space. Jane Jacobs and others would demand that the space include a set of ingredients that promote welcome, safety, usefulness and interactivity. In a paper called "Function Follows Form"[iv] I suggested that the proponents would insist that informal public spaces have:

…a sense of place, are ecologically sensitive, put reliance on foot rather than auto traffic, are utilized over many hours each day and offer a mix of activities which appeal to many. They maintain that the juxtaposition of spaces that forms mixed-use environments must be present if community building is to succeed.

Jacobs adds the acceptance of “unplanned and ad hoc use” as another necessary component.

The translation of these ingredients into museum design must be intentional. The admission’s barrier remains the single largest impediment to welcome. But assuming that the museum has free admission, the designer must consider the location, quantity and design of amenities like seating, hours of availability, encouragement of perambulation, views that encourage people watching, a multiplicity of programs and activities so that the user enters for multiple reasons not just gallery viewing.

Think train station and airport. These spaces consider the placement and variety of seating and services, the ease of using the toilets, the hours that they are open, the security they impose and the unexpected but allowable activities that can take place like card playing and sleeping. In trying to make the waiting period welcoming, safe and lucrative to the service providers they create civic space. To the extent the space feels unattractive, confusing or dangerous, or the service providers are unhelpful or discourteous, the use of their services decreases.

These and other examples of indoor spaces (malls and libraries for example) might help museum staff understand the difference between the construction of large open spaces (used for rental revenue and not much else) and space 2.5 that add to civic wellbeing.

For me, Jane Jacobs and William Whyte are heroes we should all be reading. While we thank Oldenburg for his input, we need to urge designers and administrators of museums to create more 2.5 spaces that intentionally welcome all in physical and programmatic ways. Space 2.5 is essential and the third space while nice to have can evolve down the road.

[i] Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York, Random House.

[ii] Whtye, William, (1979) “A Guide to Peoplewatching,” in Urban Open Spaces, Lisa Taylor (Ed.), New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

[iii] “One Meter Square” in Sacco, Graciella, M2, Museo Castagnino + MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2009.

[iv] Gurian, E. H. (2001). "Function Follows Form: How Mixed-Used Spaces in Museums Build Community." Curator 44(1): 87-113.

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