Balancing Space and Placelessness

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Minnesota Local History Blog.

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Balancing Space and Placelessness

By: grabitsdm | April 18, 2011
In Relevant Warehousesthe blog looked at the experience of libraries having to address the concern of virtual collections, instant downloads, and worry over relevance of place-based warehouses. Comments addressed the digital divide between tech-haves and tech-have-nots, as well as reminders that tangible evidence is important. Things have to reside somewhere, and sometimes people want to go where the stuff is.

Adding to the story of increasing placelessness, Richfield MN-based Best Buy announced on Thursday April 14, 2011 that it would be shrinking its overall footprint by closing some stores, subletting and reconfiguring space in others, concentrating more on web sales, and placing smaller-more-nimble stores in malls. Critics of Best Buy over the few years have thought that the company's drive to continue building big box stores indicated it was out of touch with the modern, mobile-connected society.

Thus with libraries struggling to stay connected to a public that expects to interface with collections from just about anywhere and not necessarily in a library, and with big box retailers like Best Buy shrinking its footprint in order to align its product with intended users, it seems as though both could be lessons for local history museums to consider.

And yet, place still matters. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's This Place Matters campaign shows people connecting with physical places. The key seems to be that the people connecting to these places have a personal connection that matters to them. The disconnect often comes between a place that matters to someone who doesn't live there, and the choices that person made about where they have to live.

Another sign that place matters is the number of construction projects underway to add space to cultural institutions. Investments in new museums or additions have been significant.

In Museums Cost How Much?, the American Association of Museums reported on the addition of 5.9 million square feet from 2003-2010. Numerous additions not reported abound in Minnesota with the aggregate not known, from recently completed additions to the Winona County Historical Society's 12,000-square-foot addition to the historic Winona Armory, to projects nearing completion like the Pine Island Area Historical Society's 1,000-square-foot addition to the Collins-Glam House, to projects just underway such as the Steele County Historical Society's new 16,000-square-foot building in Owatonna, to the Washington County Historical Society's proposed reuse of a 27,000 square foot former furniture store. Just these alone represent 69,000 square feet of additional capacity.

However, based on the reduction in space for Best Buy or the new expectations in the age of spacelessness, one would have to ask if museums in general might run into some of the same issues as the race for more space continues seemingly with no end in sight.

Is there a balance between necessity of place and increasing placelessness that local history museums might strike? Presuming a certain amount of expansion over time will be necessary (for server room alone?), how might that need be evaluated? What pace of space consumption might be sustainable?