Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Book Club Part 5: Museums as Mixed-Used Spaces

This week, we consider Chapter 11 of Elaine Gurian's Civilizing the Museum, "Function Follows Form: How mixed-used spaces in museums build community," but first, a short and relevant note about my writing process. As some of you know, I recently moved to the Santa Cruz mountains and am living an extremely rural lifestyle. We haven't yet solved the internet quandary, so most days, I bike to town to work from the library or cafes. And so, I'm writing this post from my new favorite spot: the Wired Wash Cafe.

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...
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...
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.

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.

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Some responses on this rainy morning in New York:

1) "Museum visitors spend 1/3 of their time interacting with other people?!" Really!? Is that with Admissions staff ("that'll be $20") and security guards ("sir, please step back")? Does "interacting" also mean pushing through the nattering tourists gathered in front of the "famous art?" Am I the only one who prefers an empty museum when I'm there to see the exhibits? I strongly desire to see the Richard Serra show currently at the MOMA but refuse to go on a weekend -- WAY too crowded. In NYC museums, the patrons are just as fascinating as the exhibits, but that doesn't mean that I want to be overwhelmed by other people every time I go. Then again, I'd like to read or have lunch among the art once in a while too.

2) Speaking of mixed use: the Metropolitan's upstairs balcony bar is wonderful. An excellent place to meet up for a drink on a Friday night (open 'til 9ish). Good live classical and jazz piano or string music. *Great* people watching. Let's give alcohol its due here: when in LA, one of my favorite activities with my college roommate is to go up to the Getty, buy $9 bottles of wine at the cafe, and sit on the grass and get pleasantly drunk with the city spread out below like a living, stinking carpet. Passively enjoying art with drink in hand feels like more adult fun than merely strolling through a museum with guidebook and camera. (Obviously, I'm not a parent... yet.)

3) re: trust in visitors to use the space responsibly. I imagine this is the chief objection from museum admin -- "What if they mess up the lawn? Then we'll have to pay for landscaping and garbage pickup! Let's buy a big black fence instead!" Ouch. Aristotle wrote that "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it." Many would-be public spaces don't have large enough maintenance budgets and thus suffer from litter and neglect. For a commons to be used responsibly, SOME AUTHORITY must be exercised, and resources allocated... but by whom? The museum? The state? The users themselves? Who pays?

The Wikipedia is a great commons, but it's also free for 99% of its users. The Wikimedia Foundation must raise money to keep the lights on, expand the servers, keep up with the legal problems, etc. I imagine that the overhead to make bricks-and-mortar First Life institutions into common spaces can be prohibitively expensive, esp. if many of us expect these commons areas to be free.


Nina Simon said...


I assume that the 1/3 are interacting with other people in their party--the folks you share the $9 wine with--and or people-watching.

I understand what you're saying about maintenance costs. One of the great things about urban hangout centers (like street corners) is that the base design is more likely to be rundown and approachable than heavily designed (and protected). It's like furniture; when you have $20 couches, you let people jump on them. But museums are full of high price tag design, and so barriers to unexpected use are high. But when I lived next door to a heavily used community playground (used for everything from drinking to chess to kids to lots of yelling), the people who spent a lot of time there were invested in keeping it decent--not up to museum standards, perhaps, but usable and pleasant. This obviously requires the museum admin buy-in that skateboarders in the entrance plaza are a good thing despite scuff marks, etc. Is buzz and community-building worth a little mess? It certainly costs a lot less to keep an area clean and available than it does to design fancy exhibits or amenities.

Financially, parks and beaches are considered a reasonable civic investment. In her essay, Elaine argues that one of the reasons museums have moved to more mixed-use space is to adapt to shrinking government support. But the more explicitly civic functions museums can supply, the more likely constituents and policy-makers will fund them as civic recreational priorities like skate parks and libraries. The more museums become attractions, the less obvious their role as civic institutions (and they become appealing for tourist $ instead).