Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 2: Small Rural Museums as Third Places

This is the second 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 Rebecca Lawrence, Museum Educator, Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsylvania. You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

As I was reading The Great Good Place I identified with Oldenburg’s description of Main Street USA, small town America, and rural life. The Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center (SLHC) is a small museum located in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Our museum is in small town America. Mom and pop stores, a few chain stores, one long main street, pizza shops, and local restaurants are surrounded by a picturesque farmscape.

The SLHC is a museum that tells the story of the Schwenkfelders, a small German protestant sect who emigrated from Europe in the 1700s and settled in Montgomery County. Our visitors range from local church families, Schwenkfelder descendants, homeschoolers, charter and private school students, local historians, special interest groups such as the Questers, lifelong learning groups, and more.

Reading The Great Good Place provides an opportunity as museum professionals to identify third places in our community, reflect upon our relationship to them, and consider the ways our museum could be a third place for members in the community.

How can a local history museum connect with third places in the community?

Identify the third places in your community, learn more about the lives of the people that go to them, and have a basic understanding of the history of third places in the area. Historically, for Schwenkfelders and other Pennsylvania German sects, social gatherings take place in churches rather than taverns, pubs, or beer gardens as one may assume would be a typical third place for German American communities. Certain attitudes towards public drinking amongst some local church members still remain today, as the SLHC, unlike some urban museums, does not serve alcohol at exhibit receptions and events. It’s always been a topic for debate.

Integrate into the third places in your community and talk with owners, employees, and patrons that go to them. Talk with museum patrons, staff, and volunteers to learn about their favorite spots in the community. In general, local women’s clubs, hunting lodges/clubs, diners, fire halls, churches, coffee shops, and large stores like Walmart in function as third places to our local residents. In our small town, I run into SLHC volunteers and regular visitors at the local Strawberry House restaurant, Powderbourne (the local gun club and restaurant), and even at the local Ladies Grundsow Lodge. In a small town, you’re always going to know someone at a third place. Integrating into the third places in your community demonstrates to your patrons, volunteers, and members of the community that you take an active interest in community events that are important to them and can assist you in developing ideas on how your institution can connect to those places. In a small rural town this is simple to do.

As museum professionals we want visitors to feel akin to our institution and want them to refer to the SLHC as “their place”. Lectures take place every second Wednesday of the month as part of our Brown Bag Lecture series. Our attendance hovers around 20-25 visitors, mostly retirees. We’re on a first name basis with each attendee. I say hi, shake their hand or give a hearty wave, and let them know we’re glad to have them here. Last month, a retiree greeted me by saying “Hi Kiddo!,” gave me a knuckle bump, and we shared a short conversation about technology, the SLHC, and his personal schedule for the week.

We want visitors to feel that our collections and ideas are accessible to them and we want visitors to see our institution as a place where they visit often. We encourage individual thought and self-expression so that visitors identify with us in their own way. One of my favorite examples comes from a sister and brother who attended four separate SLHC programs. These young students submitted illustrated storybooks to a student art exhibit at the SLHC last year. Their books were constructed during a family workshop on bookbinding, the images were hand colored illustrations supplemented by block prints made during a family workshop on printing, and their books were on display as part of our student art exhibit. One book was about farm life and the other about a knight and his dragon. Their family and extended family came to the exhibit opening to celebrate their work.

Our collection is made accessible to visitors through our exhibits and programming. During the last family workshop program on portraiture, students spent time in our gallery responding to a 16th century portrait in our gallery and to supplement the lesson our archivist pulled out a book of portraits printed from 1587 just for our small group of students. Our archivist, curator, and associate director of research will not hesitate to find supplemental material to correspond to a works in the gallery to use in education programs. We regularly feature artwork by local residents, whether they are students or professional artists/craftsman. Earlier in the year we had an exhibit featuring work by contemporary hooked rug artisans alongside Pennsylvania German folk art from our collection. Each hooked rug was designed and created by local artists who were inspired by Pennsylvania German motifs found in our collection.

We want visitors to see our place as a space where people can come together in different ways for many different reasons and we offer a wide variety of programs for various audiences. We have regular programs in a series to encourage regular visits and we’re on a first name basis and have a casual relationship with many patrons. These concepts are indifferent to the atmosphere and services third places provide.

What are some ways we can connect with a third place in the community?

Our local coffee shop shows artwork from local artists and there’s an open mic night and poetry readings. Employees at main street businesses go to the coffee shop over lunch and for an afternoon coffee. It’s a third place three blocks away from our museum. We can bring our collection to them. We can enlarge early 20th century photographs of the Main Street community and place them on the walls of the local coffee shop as part of their rotating art displays. It’s not indifferent to the culture that already exists there. It is a relaxing, informal opportunity to encourage members of the community to reminisce about the history of the community while sipping coffee, enjoying lunch and chatting with friends.

Inside our walls, we could be a third place for self-supporting learning groups. As knitting clubs and book clubs flock to coffee shops, bookstores, and cafes, we can open our spaces to them. As a local history museum we could offer an opportunities for self-supporting groups, such as rug hookers, weavers, genealogists, and PA German craftsman guilds or informal groups to meet regularly in our exhibition spaces or classroom spaces to continue to cultivate their interests or teach others their art­. Beginning this fall the SLHC is going to offer our facility as an opportunity for members of the PA German community to enjoy coffee, traditional PA German foods, and chat in the dialect about various subjects.

The Museums, Libraries, & Archives Council in the UK has an Opening Up Spaces campaign published in May 2010. It is based upon the government’s The Learning Revolution. Opening Up Spaces calls museums, libraries, and archives to offer their sites to special interest groups. Their research has shown that self-supporting learning groups are essential to the health and well being of the community. Their campaign provides resources, websites, and strategies for encouraging self-supporting learning groups to come to your institution. (www.mla.gov.uk) It may be a source of ideas.

Reading Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place is a starting point to begin to think about your community’s third places and their relationships to your museum. Identify third places in your community by speaking to community members and find out what is unique about the environment of their third places, and brainstorm ideas on how to connect your institution’s mission to them. Your site may be a perfect venue to host self supporting learning groups or you may consider developing outreach programs to reach out to third places.

Thanks to Rebecca for this post! Tune in next week for a reflection on the book from another perspective.

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