Monday, July 21, 2008

Just a Place to Gather

I've been noticing lately conversations around the idea of museums as gathering places. In my thinking, I've often thought of this function as relating to the idea of museums as places to discuss hard issues, to talk about topics that may be hard to talk about anywhere else. But lately, it seems, that people just want a place to connect with other people. I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA over the weekend. The difference between two exhibits was striking. The permanent exhibit was about Rockwell's work: the work that's so familiar to all of us. The other exhibit was contemporary political cartoons by Steve Brodner. If I hadn't seen it, I might have guessed that the buzz of conversation would be greater in the political cartoons. But instead, those rooms, though filled with people, were very quiet, while the Rockwell rooms were alive with conversation. A simple sheet provided by the museum helped families search for people in the paintings, and I heard many other people reminiscing and connecting with the images.

In the same vein, my friend Wiske Beuker in the Netherlands sent me this note about the audience for the exhibit Passing on the Comfort that I worked on:

"Around the table many old friends meet unexpectedly and people do start to tell their own stories, remembering the war and the help they got themselves or gave themselves."

The table was a last minute addition to the exhibit, but a provided a comfortable place to sit in a way that encourages conversation, has allowed visitors to share those long-ago stories of World War II.

Nina Simon, whose blog continues to be my favorite museum reading, reported on attending an IMLS conference on museums and libraries in the 21st century. Much discussion about whether museums or libraries can become "a third place," a place for conversation and engagement.

My experiences this week have made me think that this will happen through small steps: a conversation around a Dutch table about the importance of helping others in need; a mother explaining what those old bathing caps are for (yes, in a painting at the Rockwell), and in a corner of the otherwise empty educational space at the Rockwell, a mother reading a book to her son.

On the one hand, it makes me wonder why those spaces are so needed in American life. Is it just too hard to find conversation places and topics amid shopping malls, television and the web? On the other hand, it makes me realize how easy those steps can be for museums. It's those small steps--places for conversation and staff that encourages it-- that we should be encouraging and finding places for in our museums.

Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. & N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa, 1943, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

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