I found myself drawn to Barrett’s earlier chapters, discussing the history of “the public,” and the role of the state within museums/institutions to craft these narratives of education, leisure, and discipline. It reminded me of tours I conducted in downtown Providence with the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS). With this collaborative urban education program, the students and I explored the resources of the city. RIHS made the decision to showcase these resources through publics spaces that emphasized art, history, and culture. Discussing the city as a system of parts, we used places like the Convention Center, Kennedy Plaza, RISD Library, and Burnside Park to celebrate the value of public spaces within the function of a city.
Like Barrett describes in these early chapters, architects and urban planners incorporated these elements of culture into public spaces to emphasize the cosmopolitan-ness of it all. Creating these public spaces that Habermas describes – places where discourse can take place, like the library – and places that intrinsically inspire discourse – the Howard Ben Tre Plaza – Providence’s branding as the “Creative Capital” made a lot of sense to me. As an outsider, I appreciated the tour as way to see how the influences of higher ed resources and these artistic communiteis had been shaped into the city.
But I also found it interesting as part of this tour, and as Barrett reminds me, these spaces weren’t the ones in which the students valued as “public.” The presence of the half-Gaspee in Burnside Park didn’t inspire conversations about the history of the American Revolution. Waterplace Park as a space for multisensory working art was cool to them, but more as something to look at than as a way of engaging with other people. RISD Library, with its security, gates, and overwhelming quietness (and arguably, not being a public space) came off less as a model for adaptive reuse and more of a liminal space.
The students didn’t feel comfortable in the public spaces we took them through, because the city as a public space (or at least in my interpretation of it) didn’t value their own experiences. Even though we had created this interesting tour to celebrate public space, the students came away feeling like strangers. As Barrett quotes of Zukin in Chapter 3, the relationship of art and culture within the economics of a city can often make publics or communities feel manipulated by this visuality. I think the students intrinsically saw RIHS as a frame through which they could view these spaces as public, and yet still felt as though the dominant culture kept them from experiencing the city in that way.
How do we as cultural workers, museum professionals, or new public intellectuals make sure to use the value of publics to the fullest extent? How do we respect the intrinsic value of a public and its knowledge as well as create our narratives in these spaces that acknowledge differing public missions? And can Providence be a creative capital without marketing on that point?