Written by Daniel Rossi-Keen, PhD, Executive Director, RiverWise
Last week, for the first time since COVID-19 shut down the world, my family went to the museum.
In a normal year, our family generally spends time at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History every few months or so. More often than not it’s my wife who takes the kids, partly because she’s a student of art and partly because I generally have a hard time slowing down long enough to schedule a visit.
If I am honest, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with museums. That may seem like an overly dramatic thing to say and, I suppose it probably is a bit over the top. But there’s some truth to it, so let me try to explain.
Here’s what I love about the museum. I love that when I visit a museum I feel small like there’s so much more to understand and that I am part of a vast history of ideas, inventions, and creative activity. I love seeing what the human mind has created, how we have overcome struggle, and how we have continued to evolve in our capacity to adapt and innovate. I enjoy encountering a catalog of what we’ve gotten wrong, where we’ve created conflict, and how we have moved beyond some of the darkest periods of human history. In short, I love a museum because it exposes me to the expansiveness of our human story.
With all that being said, you might be wondering about the hate side of my relationship with museums. I’ve actually thought quite a bit about the matter and can first remember encountering this feeling at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art nearly 20 years ago. At its core, my frustration with museums is that they often ask patrons to examine a very narrow piece of a wildly complicated story. Maybe it’s a painting that captures a brief moment in history, an invention displayed statically in a glass case, a stuffed Dodo bird that is artificially isolated from its environment, or the complicated story that led to its extinction.
None of the exhibits I have described above are inherently bad. But they do grate against my innate inclination to appreciate the interconnectedness and relationships between things. A Dodo bird needs a context, a painting has a complicated back story, and an invention represents a complex interplay between people, commerce, science, and so much more. When I visit a museum, I often feel like the interconnectedness between things gets lost, that complicated history gets boiled down to static artifacts in ways that seem somehow wrong, or at least incomplete, to me.
I could keep going on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I want to take just a moment and explain why my love/hate relationship with museums came to mind when thinking about Neighborhood North: Museum of Play. For the last couple of years, as the Executive Director of RiverWise, I have been privileged to advise the team of collaborators from Neighborhood North and the Beaver Falls CDC who are working to reclaim the former News Tribune Building. As readers of this newsletter will likely know, the TRIB Building will eventually become the home of Neighborhood North: Museum of Play.
As we have worked together to envision the future of the TRIB Building, the leadership team has deliberately committed itself to something called eco-district thinking, which is a community development process that deliberately prioritizes the inescapable connections between numerous areas of the human story. I don’t have time to get into the details in this piece, but if you’re interested you can find a quick introduction to this way of thinking here. Or, if you would like to see how this thinking is influencing the future of communities around Beaver County, you can take a look at this document.
What most excites me about the future of Neighborhood North: Museum of Play is that its leaders and supporters recognize the importance of viewing their project holistically. A children’s museum can be so much more than just a place that holds static artifacts. It can be a place of imagination, inquiry, trial and error, education, motivation, challenge, success, and so much more. More than adults, children have yet to compartmentalize their experience, and instead, often allow creativity to be the driving force for how they see the world. That the leadership of Neighborhood North: Museum of Play is committed to thinking about the inherent connections between all aspects of our lives is a joy and sense of inspiration for me.
I look forward with excitement and much hope, encouraged to see how Neighborhood North: Museum of Play is moving ever closer to creating a cultural site in Beaver County that can inspire and motivate generations of young people. We need more of this innovative and synthetic thinking, and I am beyond honored to be along for the ride.
Daniel Rossi-Keen is the Executive Director of RiverWise and the Advisor to the Tribune Group. He has been most helpful by asking unexpected questions that help to bring clarity and often challenge perspectives and assumptions, such as with the Dodo bird above. His work to align multiple Beaver County projects with eco-district priorities has been an important effort during the past several years, and Neighborhood North is grateful to be part of it.
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