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Museums and the Cultural Landscape: Space and Place

Victoria Dickenson argues that museums, more than many structures, are designed to grapple with issues around space and place. We talk about the museum space, and we acknowledge the significance of exhibitions created through the meaningful arrangement of objects in that space. We also see the museum as place, a destination for a certain kind of tourist, a wonderful place for a party, and a safe place for families and children.

Space and place together define the nature of geography. Cultural geographers like the American scholar Yi-Fu Tuan have pushed us to think more deeply about these commonplace terms and to explore what we mean when we perceive space and create place: “Space” is more abstract than “place.” What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. Architects talk about the spatial qualities of place; they can equally well speak of the locational (place) qualities of space. The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place.” (Tuan 2001, 6)

The museum is at its most fundamental an empty space, a container to be filled with objects. The empty exhibition space is replete with possibilities. The experience of space is physical, and defined by the human body moving through it. Space demands that we use our senses – visual, touch, auditory – to understand the volume and shape of what surrounds us.

The museum experience is wonderfully multi-sensory, based as it is on the movement of the human body through space. We can feel the differing textures of the floors, and hear how our footsteps sound on carpet, marble or wood. We are often surprised by the vista that opens down a long gallery, or the ‘aha’ moment when a masterwork unexpectedly appears before us. While there is a considerable amount of happy serendipity in the casual museum visit (Macdonald, 11), we design museum spaces to constrain and direct the visitors, guiding them to view works in order, to follow a line of thought, or to explore a thesis. In short, we create place.

Tuan has defined place as a pause, a transformation of location into ‘a special kind of object… a concretion of value’ (Tuan 2001, 12). He suggests that all enclosed and humanized spaces are places, providing shelter and order from the vastness and confusion of the undifferentiated world. When you pause within the gallery, and look and experience the objects on display, savour the colours and light, you are aware of place.

“In the 19th century, the public museum was overtly designed as a place that allowed visitors to experience beauty, repose, and order”

In the 19th century, the public museum was overtly designed as a place that allowed visitors to experience beauty, repose, and order. It was hoped by the founders that these qualities might be transferred to the visitors, to temper the unruly disorder of industrial urban life. Many contemporary museum designs also seek to create exceptional places, though tranquillity and repose may not necessarily be at the core of the mission. Museums are variously characterized and built as places for learning, anchors for urban redevelopment, or destinations for cultural tourism. Their success in these roles varies, and architectural masterworks do not necessarily translate into memorable places.

At the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, we have been working to understand why McMichael, founded 50 years ago, has developed such a strong ‘sense of place.’ Situated on 100 acres just north of Toronto, the McMichael elicits a strong emotional response in people who may not have visited since they were children. They speak fondly of meeting artists on the site, of the beauty of the landscape, of iconic paintings that engaged them. They particularly remember the sense of repose, of almost spiritual relief they found in visiting this art museum surrounded by tall pines and maples.

For many years, however, the space of the surrounding woods planted by the founders (and so a wilderness garden rather than a wilderness), has been perhaps less valued than the enclosed and humanized space of the galleries with their collections and exhibitions. Over the last generation, the McMichael, once a country destination, has become engulfed by a polyglot urban sprawl. It now epitomizes more clearly the dialectic of space and place, a graceful human enclosure amid the imagined vastness of forest and the undifferentiated streetscape of suburbia.

Reflecting on the history of the site, and observing its current use, we wanted to find a means to reinvigorate the McMichael, to make it relevant to the local communities, to re-engage with those whose experiences have defined it, and to continue to ensure that it is deeply valued. Since the 1990s, UNESCO has defined as ‘cultural landscape’ those areas where the cultural and the natural combine, where the landscape and built environment are imbued with human experiences. In collaboration with Willowbank Centre for Cultural Landscape, we are working within this framework to reshape and balance the relationship between the rich physical resources of the site, both human created and natural, and the rituals of awareness, appreciation and creativity that have always been part of the experience for visitors.

“The presence of the museum in its setting may perhaps have a more significant role to play in the well-being of our communities and our visitors than we might imagine”

This framework may not be appropriate for every institution, but it strikes us that a better understanding of space and place, and the role of human experience and rituals in creating memorable places might benefit museums who struggle to balance the demands of cultural tourism, destination marketing, and community engagement. Visitor experience has come to be the touchstone of much current museum work, and visitor-centred programs, crowd-sourced and participatory exhibitions, personalization and social media have made the museum experience more pleasurable and more accessible. But do we know enough about the significance of our graceful enclosures and their relationship to surrounding spaces, and about the rituals people have enacted and the memories they have created in these special places? The presence of the museum in its setting may perhaps have a more significant role to play in the well-being of our communities and our visitors than we might imagine.

Human beings require both space and place. Human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. In open space one can become intensely aware of place; and in the solitude of a sheltered place the vastness of space beyond acquires a haunting presence. A healthy being welcomes constraint and freedom, the boundedness of place and the exposure of space.

Victoria Dickenson
Executive Director, McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Notes | References | Bibliography

Richard Sandell, 2002, Museums, Society, Inequality, Published by Routledge

Macdonald, Sharon ‘Museums, national, postnational and transcultural identities,’ Museum and Society, 1 (1), 2003: 1-16

Smith, Julian ‘Report to McMichael’ February 2013

Tuan, Yi-Fu Passing Strange and Wonderful. Aesthetics, Nature and Culture (NYC, 1993)

Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, 1977/2001)

UNESCO ‘Cultural Landscape’ (

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