City museums tell us much that we need to know

January 12, 2000|By Anne Emerson, Nancy Moses and Barbara Franco

IT IS no coincidence that three major East Coast cities are primed to create new city museums. As we travel in our individual worlds in urban America, separated by ethnicity, experience, and social status, we are looking for common ground, for some reminder of who we are and what we share. In our cities, just as in our families, telling our narratives truly is vital to our psychological health and to our civil society.

In Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, three venerable historical societies and their partner institutions have pledged to move forward to undertake the tough work of creating new institutions for the 21st century that connect the people who live in our cities today to each other and to the past of the physical places we share.

In Boston, a consortium of three institutions, the Bostonian Society, the Boston History Collaborative and the Freedom Trail Foundation, have formed a new entity to be the gateway to Boston's history in the coming century. Philadelphia and Washington are traveling parallel roads.

The timing could not be better to accomplish this goal. Our downtowns are revitalizing with extraordinary physical development. Our cultural institutions are earning new recognition for their central role in the economy and in anchoring our civic society.

Our economies are as strong as they have ever been, political leadership is energized, and perhaps most important the turn of the century is generating a broad public interest in history and local heritage.

As we enter a new century of globalism, we seem to be looking at our home base with newly appreciative eyes. It is a natural human instinct to look back before moving forward, and there is much to learn from the history of these three cities. Beyond the well-known icons of national identity, their local stories of neighborhoods, race and ethnicity, successes and failures reveal the rich complexity of these communities and what their urban personalities tell us about ourselves.

The new museums being developed are challenged to become vital centers of community life. They must be more than buildings filled with objects; they must embody the essence of our comunities and our physical place and inspire visitors to explore the city outside our doors.

The high visibility of these museums will encourage an expanded network of tours, visitor services and orientation, bringing tourists out into historic neighborhoods and sites and parks, and promoting local businesses. Increased tourism means economic development and new jobs.

Strong local identity creates the sense of place, ownership and pride needed to build strong community and a successful city. Most important, these new museums planned for Boston, Philadelphia and Washington will become places where residents come to look forward as well as back.

The most important lesson history can teach is that today's cities did not occur by happenstance. They were created by individual efforts of those who went before. The new city museums will teach us and our youth that they possess the power and the responsibility to create the city they want for tomorrow.

Anne Emerson is director of The Bostonian Society. Nancy Moses is director of the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. Barbara Franco is director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. They wrote this for the Boston Globe.

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