COVID Insights, Perspectives July 13, 2020

Back to Museums, Back to Our Roots

Zena Howard - Managing Director of our North Carolina practice, Cultural Practice Leader, and award-winning architect - considers a return to these cherished institutions
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of African American History and Culture

In May, we celebrated International Museum Day, and we imagined how we might return to these beloved institutions in the midst of a global pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. Several days later, our entire country experienced the aftershock of a horrific tragedy, and we began to imagine how these same institutions might play a larger role in healing a centuries-old, systemic racial divide.

This all occurred while many of us were sheltered in place in living environments suddenly transformed into offices, studios, daycares, gyms, churches, and schools. It seems that our physical space instantly folded as these aspects of our lives converged. For many, a single room continues to accommodate multiple activities. Similarly, it feels as if time has doubled over as important aspects of our history have converged on this current pivotal social moment. I recently heard someone say that our current state feels like the “1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the 1960s civil rights movement occurring all at the same time.” I believe that this statement rings true for most.

National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Shanghai Natural History Museum

So in this moment when people are experiencing the weightiness of space and time, how can museums respond in meaningful ways? Can they have an increased role in helping communities? Can they engender the security, trust, and hope desperately needed at this time?

To begin, there is much data indicating that many people say they will feel safe returning to museums. There’s also data to show that simply seeing other visitors at a cultural venue will make them feel that much safer. This could be dismissed as herd mentality, but it also could be the wisdom of crowds.

People trust museums. They love museums. Museums are fifth on the list of cultural venues people feel safe returning to. Here’s another data point, noted by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM): Americans rate the trustworthiness of the information in museums higher than that of local newspapers, the U.S. government, and nonprofit and academic researchers. Simply put, people want to learn, and they like learning at museums. Good news for architects and creatives like me, who focus on designing both the physical space and immersive environments for cultural experiences.

Image Courtesy of Colleen Dilenschneider, Know Your Own Bone

In a recent COVID Insights post, my colleague Derek Jones talks about libraries as similarly trusted spaces, relied upon today less as archives of specialized knowledge than as reservoirs of shared knowledge and collaboration. During the pandemic response, libraries are expressing this adaptive value to its fullest by serving as, Derek observes, “first restorers.”

That people trust museums for education, on the other hand, is a powerful insight, and museums have already been using it to flex the way they exhibit the knowledge they have and how they build community around their authority and their community’s trust.

Community is a keyword here. Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music during its emergence as a cultural force in the early 2000s, spent her recent Mellon Foundation residency exploring and clarifying the cultural and civic role of BAM and places like it. In “The Anchor Project,” she concludes that their value lies in being “anchor institutions.” No longer “stand-alone individual organizations,” they are now “multi-disciplinary arts centers and cultural districts,” which are “most impactful when they strive for deep and multifaceted connections with their communities.”

As pandemic life and social upheavals accelerate the trends already underway across many sectors of the economy, I’ve watched museums flex their range even further to engage audiences. They are doing invaluable work right now, connecting people through culture into networks of curiosity, creativity, and learning. During social distancing and shelter in place, these community-building efforts have necessarily relied on digital communications and virtual experiences. It is likely that these experiments will spill over into hybrid environments now that people are starting to inch their way back to the shared spaces they trust; however, time will tell.

Image Courtesy of Hastings Contemporary

I, for one, am exploring the possibilities for evolving in step with the places we design. As the architects and designers who partner with museums in their experiments with space, we have been drawing on our firm’s multidisciplinary strength to expand the traditional suite of services we provide. This work actually began years ago with some of our cultural landscape projects—like Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles and Sycamore Hill Town Common in Greenville, North Carolina—where we ventured into curation and site mapping of public art, immersive storytelling experiences, JEDI engagement strategies, and critical fundraising. I expect these trends in our business model to continue to accelerate beyond this moment’s current events.

Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles California
Sycamore Hill Town Common in Greenville, North Carolina

More and more I see the need to be an effective advocate for the centrality of a museum or cultural space in its community. And by “advocacy,” I mean a skillful brokering of partnerships that enable the location of public art and powerful storytelling, that broaden and deepen the engagement and financial backing that will root museums and cultural entities more firmly in the communities they serve.

Trusted, resource rich, accessible: In combination these three assets can be the cornerstone of urban resilience as well, which is why I want to dwell on access and roots for a bit longer. They are really two sides of the same coin.

Museums have been able to form strong audience networks because they have invested in diversifying access to their educational experiences. These lines of access form the roots museums can trace back into their communities, extending their reach and strengthening the network. This reciprocity is how museums become anchor institutions, and it isn’t just an abstraction. It isn’t just a function of the internet and technology. It is happening by virtue of the built environment and expressed in the built environment.