The City As Museum

Is there a gap in our urban life—a need for a central agent and advocate to connect citizens with their cities in a meaningful and democratic way? If so, who or what is positioned to fill that role?

In a recent address at the International Council of Museums at the Museum of Vancouver, urban planner Larry Beasley spoke to the topic of “The City as Museum and the Museum as City,” asking how museums, as repositories of the history and culture of a city, can reorient outwards and join civic life.

While brick and mortar museums play an integral role in facilitating the interpretation of the city and its history, the “city as museum and the museum as city,” he argues, would see the museum break through the barriers of its physical walls. It would become a participant that actually transforms the city, helping citizens understand “urban DNA” by fostering an understanding of and sensitivity to their city’s urban fabric and facilitating ways to envision and affect change.

Urban interventions happening all over the world provide a roadmap for how the museum can expand to the streets, parks, alleys, institutions, and enclaves of the city. How the urban experience can be curated, and how that, in turn, can act as an agent of change. Beasley describes Team Better Block, a group of activists who descend upon a section of the city and transform it into something that reveals its potential, as an example.

“One day a street will be in a dull malaise, rundown, with high vacancy rates, a real mess. The next day it will have trees and landscape, often arriving in pots, it will have temporary little shops and cafes, with lots of sidewalk presence, there will be art and lighting, there will be all kinds of pedestrian activity—there will be a buzz… Landlords are offered new faith. Consumers make a new commitment to come back to the place. City officials are charged to make the public realm improvements real and lasting. A happening becomes a force, which becomes a change on the ground, which becomes an inspiration and lesson for that place and other places.”

The city as museum could similarly take to the streets, mounting heritage installations in the actual fabric of the city where they could be more experiential and accessible to a larger audience. Installations and artistry could also be used to help people envision and interpret the future by offering a window into the new forms of urbanism brought by redevelopment.

“Every city has new development areas and they are both interesting and difficult for people. If the city museum zoomed in with the right kind of dispassionate and helpful facility, it could do a great service for a community… What might be even more interesting is that the installation could stay through the development and occupancy process for the new area to become an outpost for exhibitions and presentations by the museum on an ongoing basis.”

The companion of Beasley’s concept of the city as museum is the museum as city. As a hub devoted to ethics and democracy, dialogue and research, the museum could become the physical epicentre of debate in the urban landscape—“the agora of the city.” Operating independently of government and bureaucracy, it could be the place where people go to understand the issues facing their urban reality, search for resolutions, and work together to affect change.

“We live in a world where there is widespread debate but the convenor of that debate is often not what I would call disinterested. It is often not led by the needs of the people but rather by the needs of those hosting the debate. We have seen what can happen when people en masse rebel against that arrangement and use social media to convene their own debate and expose their own information. In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East this provoked its own forums and facilitated a people power like we have not seen for decades. That was a very good thing, but we all know that that same power can be manipulated for other than altruistic motives.”

The museum as city “can be as much about urban creation as it is about urban curation.” It could provide a platform to engage citizens in the evolution and transformation of the city, ultimately acting as an “agent for change and an advocate for the fairness and equity of that change.”

Read the entire transcript of Beasley’s “The City as Museum and the Museum as City” here.


December 8, 2012 | No Comments (yet!)

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