Monday, February 24, 2014

Living In A Museum

Maybe the only museums you're familiar with are the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and only because you saw the two movies in the "Night At The Museum" series. Or maybe you've been to others, on school field trips, with your family, on your own. I think we can all agree that a museum is a collection of related items that have value, and are considered worth saving so they can to be shared with the world and studied by future generations.

So picture the museum of your choice, and picture yourself living in it. In fact, you own the building. Maybe it's the Louvre and you pass the Mona Lisa each day on your commute. Maybe it's the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and you bed down next to the Phillie Phanatic. Imagine yourself living among a collection of things that, by their very uniqueness, seem to belong together. People come to visit your museum to see your collection, then buy things in your gift shop and cafeteria.

But what if all the things in your museum were privately owned by many individuals? You hold the deed to the building, but not the collection. And what if, one by one, over the years, certain owners came in and destroyed their objects, leaving ugly holes behind? Or perhaps, after destroying their property, they leave something else that has little value--a Beanie baby for the Phillie Phanatic, a selfie for the Mona Lisa--claiming it's a good trade for you.

What can you do? It's their property. Still, you would have liked the chance to make your case for keeping the collection intact. I mean, you pay for the electricity, security guards, building repair, etc. You should have a say, right? But your managers just let the destruction of the museum continue. No matter who you hire to manage, they don't seem to understand that you own the museum and pay their salaries. They seem to think they work solely for the owners of the pieces in the collection. The managers think they're doing a good job if they can just fill in the holes with SOMETHING, no matter how cheap-looking.

Word gets around about the ugly holes and the worthless objects, and visitors stop coming, even though you still have much of the original collection.

Do I have to point out that the museum I'm talking about is Norristown? We have one of the finest collections of architecture in the entire region--dozens of houses, businesses and public buildings that we could be promoting as a collection worth seeing. Put plaques on historical buildings with a little basic info and a code that links to a website. Imagine visitors coming into town, pointing their smart phones at the plaques so they can learn about each structure--then having lunch or dinner at our restaurants, maybe doing a little shopping, making a day of it by going to the zoo, or later, to the theater. Even if people don't come specifically to see our architecture, I'm willing to bet a lot of folks would still point their phones at those plaques out of sheer curiosity, just to see what comes up.

 We've been saying, since the Norris Theater came down, that we need to preserve our buildings, and that preservation can help revitalize the town. Yet we keep letting valuable parts of our collection be demolished. We end up with vacant lots or cheap-looking construction instead. At Montgomery Hospital, the current plan is to level a strong, beautiful piece of masonry, with an important history, to put up lackluster wooden structures completely inappropriate to the neighborhood. Even our 2009 Norristown Comprehensive Plan recognizes the hospital and other historic buildings around town as being too valuable to lose.

But what to do? The historical properties are privately owned. Sure, in our designated historic areas, we have a few safeguards in place to discourage demolition, but even there, owners seem to be insisting on the right to destroy their property. And outside those areas--downtown for instance--it feels like open season on our buildings.

My thought is that we need a coalition of building owners, concerned citizens, groups like the Preservation Society, and government officials--people who recognize the economic worth to the community of keeping the collection intact. Maybe they can come up with ways to educate anyone buying a historic building in Norristown that their purchase is part of a larger whole, that it's better for business to preserve than demolish.

I think education is the key. The more people who understand what we have, and how it's good for Norristown, the better. The Norristown Preservation Society has begun an inventory of our architectural collection on their "Norristown's Historical Architecture" album on their Facebook page. You can view it and read the descriptions without signing into Facebook (though you need to sign in to add a comment). Just click on the first photo, then on the arrow at the right of each image to page through. They add about 2-3 new entries a week. This is a good start.

Norristown IS a museum. We call ourselves an arts community, yet the one art we have in abundance--architecture--we take for granted. It could be our main selling point. We ought to be bragging about it on our town website and in promotional videos. The more we promote historic buildings, the less likely that their owners will destroy them.

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