Third Space – another empty buzzword?

I attended the British Columbia Museums Association (BCMA) Conference in Penticton a few weeks ago. The theme of the conference was “Third Space.” I have to admit that I got swept up in this buzzword and left the conference thinking a certain way. I have been turning this concept over in my mind since and found certain things weren’t quite sitting right. Let me explain…

Penticton, the location of the conference, has art and wine - a good combination.

Penticton, the location of the conference, has art and wine – a good combination.

First a definition

A quick and dirty definition of third space: a first space is home, second is work, and third is a community space.

The idea came from Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place in the early 90s, where he argues that a third space (aka third place) is an anchor of the community life that facilitates broader more creative interaction. Third spaces must be free or inexpensive, food & drink are ideal (though not necessary), accessible (i.e. easy to get to), involve regulars, be welcoming, and allow for old and new friends to be found and made.

Robert Putnam talks about the decline in these spaces in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.

According to the BCMA conference museums can provide these third spaces and fill this hole in our community thus making ourselves relevant.

Next a well presented example

How do we do this? By sharing authority. Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM), said it well “we need to stop doing things for people and start doing them with them.”

Totem pole in the RBCM. Photo by Flickr user Jerry Bowley. The RBCM has 14,000 objects in this collection.

Totem pole in the RBCM. Photo by Flickr user Jerry Bowley. The RBCM has 14,000 objects in this collection.

Jack used the example of the recently opened Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC exhibition at the RBCM. This exhibition was created with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. The RBCM didn’t give the Council a room and say do what you want with it. They also didn’t ask for input from an advisory committee and then implement it themselves. Instead they worked hand in hand with the source communities throughout the entire process.

When I heard this example I thought yes! This is a third space! But the more I thought about it I realized that this is very resource heavy and it means focusing on one community, usually an ethnic or cultural group.

By trying to be inclusive we are being exclusive.

I also wondered how does this make the museum into a third space? Are the communities that helped create the exhibition spending time in it? Are they meeting with other people they may not be exposed to otherwise? Or is this collaboration over as soon as the exhibition opening party is done? I don’t know the answers.

I should be clear though that I still think this is an excellent example of working with source communities, it just might not be an example of a third space.

And now a different understanding

So if third space isn’t co-curation with communities then what is it? It’s a coffee shop, a hockey game, a maritime kitchen party (impromptu music jamming session). It is about inclusion, not exclusion; about shared interests and openness, individuality – not about one ethnicity. Third space, in its true sense, is about sharing authority, sharing our space but also being a gathering place for people with shared interests no matter what their background. It’s bringing people together who may not normally come together.

But how do we do it?

A selection of Beaty Biodiversity Museum instagram images.

A selection of Beaty Biodiversity Museum instagram images.

Digitally we do it already to a certain extent. I run the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s instagram account and I have all sorts of people who follow me – from American entomological curators to Russian designers, to local Vancouver mommy bloggers. The one thing they have in common is that they have a love and/or interest in natural history. We’ve created an online community, a third space. Although to be a true third space I need to figure out a way to encourage my followers to interact with each other not just with me.

It’s about more than two way communication. We need all-ways communication. We used to broadcast information one way – from the museum to the public. Then with Museum 2.0 thanks to technology the public can respond to the information we send out allowing for conversations to occur. The next step is Museum 3.0, where the public can talk to us and to each other. We need to facilitate conversations between our community members. That is third space.

We also do it onsite in the museum with informal programs. These programs use interests that unite people from different walks of life. A good example is the Prince George TwoRivers Gallery makerlab where people interested in experimenting with technology can come. You don’t need to be an expert – it is open to everyone and it is informal. The community teaches each other and works together. The museum provides the space for this to happen.

Do you know a museum that you would consider a third space? Or if not an entire museum, a particular program/activity/online space that accomplishes this?

The danger of mission drift

At the conference I heard some questions about mission drift. If museums are focusing on accommodating the public are we losing sight of our mission? I wanted to say “uh please this old question again?” Why does it have to be either we are visitor centered or we accomplish our mission? We can do both. I have proof.

The V&A Museum does a Games Jam where they invite game designers (experts and novices) to come into the museum for two intense days to develop a game prototype. Participants are sent a package of object images and information before the jam and must incorporate some of these objects into their game world. So the game designers learn about and are inspired by the art and their games teach others about it.

In conclusion

So yes, I’ll be looking into implementing and enhancing some ideas of third space into the museum I work at. Will you?


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