The Importance of Place

During last week’s class we had an interesting discussion about Hispanic and Latin American immigration and how to tell those stories in museums and historic sites. One of the things that struck me the most about our discussion was the importance of place.  On the one hand, I realized how important place was for shaping narratives.  Classmates who lived in the western or southern parts of the country had very different narratives of contemporary U.S. immigration than I did coming from the Midwest.  As museum professionals, I think we need to be acutely aware of this.  However, does that mean that narratives in museums need to change depending on where they are located? In some ways I think it does.  Museums need to address the needs and concerns of their visitors and community. However, I do not believe that at all means shying away from particular topics or narratives because they are difficult.  We need to somehow toe that difficult line to be effective.

Caitlin’s excellent presentation on the Freedom Tower in Miami also made me consider how important place is in telling these narratives.  That building is so symbolic to my Cuban friends and their families that I know any exhibition held there would carry immense power and weight.  Place can be such an intensely powerful tool for museums. When we were asked where in New York City would be the best place to tell the story of immigration, particularly the Puerto Rican and Dominican stories, I began to think about my own hometown: Chicago.  Although immigration is definitely an essential element of the city’s history considering its incredible diversity, I struggled to come up with a good place to situate the story of Hispanic and Latin American immigration.

The boundary of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood.
The boundary of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

There’s Pilsen, a thriving Mexican-American community and former Eastern European neighborhood on the city’s west side, home of the National Museum of Mexican Art and a vibrant art scene.  Or Humboldt Park, who’s entrance is exclaimed with a large sculpture of a Puerto Rican flag.  But, as we talked about in class, many of these places center on art and not necessarily history.

Place is essential to shaping and telling narratives.  Yet, humans also construct the boundaries and character of “place”.  How can museums use this to tell more compelling narratives?

One thought on “The Importance of Place

  1. Place definitely shapes what stories we tell in museums. But I don’t think an absence of an immediately identifiable place like that Freedom Tower means we can’t tell those stories. For example, there’s a large Hispanic population in Fairbanks, Alaska, yet I can’t think of a particular neighborhood or building to tell their story. Instead, I’d go directly to the people, and ask them what stories they want to tell. Bringing those narratives to other spaces can be a powerful experience.

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