Museum-ification – Pt 1

Someone sent me an interesting paper on Museumification of urban nature, by Paul Gobster, published in “Nature and Culture” journal in Autumn 2007. He talks of how “parks as postcards” interfere with peoples’ natural interaction with parks, and its particular impact on children, especially in the context of ecological “restoration.” He suggests compromises. For anyone interested in reading it, the 6000-word article is reproduced with permission, below and in Museum-ification Pt 2.

I was reminded of a recent visit to Tank Hill. A crocodile of school children, maybe 8-10 years old, arrived from the Belgrave side, clambering up the steps behind the young man, presumably their teacher. As he guided them around to the eastern side to look at the view, he directed them to stay out the area demarcated by dead wood, the “native plant” areas. If it wasn’t for the dead wood, no one would have known anything – inside was brown and dry; outside was brown and dry. It was touching to see the care with which they all went around.

There was nothing, really, but the view – which is admittedly spectacular, 270 degrees over Bay and ocean. Tank Hill itself was as dead as if it was paved with concrete, except for the few eucalyptus tree that survived the great Battle of Tank Hill, Neighbors vs NAP.

I don’t know what the children thought. They didn’t look particularly impressed or excited. After a bit, they all went down again.

Mt Sutro is not museumified. Hikers and dog-walkers wander its paths, mountain-bikers ride its trails, and if someone wants to pick berries or flowers, I don’t suppose anyone will mind. Be careful of poison oak, though.


Paul H. Gobster is Research Social Scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Chicago. His research merges quantitative and qualitative approaches
to understand how people perceive, use, and experience landscapes for aesthetic and other values. His current work examines stakeholder perceptions and values in natural areas restoration and management, access and equity issues in urban parks, and the environmental characteristics of urban outdoor settings that encourage active everyday lifestyles. E-mail:


Urban Park Restoration and the “Museumification” of Nature
by Paul H. Gobster

Ecological restoration is becoming an increasingly popular means of managing urban natural areas for human and environmental values. But although urban ecological restorations can foster unique, positive relationships between people and nature, the scope of these interactions is often restricted to particular activities and experiences, especially in city park settings. Drawing on personal experiences and research on urban park restorations in Chicago and San Francisco, I explore the phenomenon of this “museumification” in terms of its revision of landscape and land use history, how it presents nature through restoration design and implementation, and its potential impacts on the nature experiences of park users, particularly children. I conclude that although museum-type restorations might be necessary in some cases, alternative models for the management of urban natural areas may provide a better balance between goals of achieving authenticity in ecological restorations and authenticity of nature experiences.

urban parks, ecological restoration, nature experience, authenticity, children, landscape criticism

Urban Nature: Between Paradise and a Parking Lot

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

— Joni Mitchell, from “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970)

To some people, the phrase “urban nature” may sound like an oxymoron. Nature is the opposite of the city, something that we escape to rather than a part of the culture that is city life, and if nature and culture do come together their union is more a cerebral one than a physical one. Yet as far back as the mid 19th century, landscape architects, medical doctors, and others began to advocate for nature in the city, and naturalistic public parks such as Birkenhead in Liverpool (1845) and Central Park in New York (1858) were created to present nature as a source of aesthetic appreciation and passive re-creation to city dwellers (Conway 1996; Rybczynski 1999). Ideas of urban nature have continued to evolve, and in recent decades we have come to see the creation of “ecological parks” within cities (Cranz and Boland 2004b). Here, in addition to providing pleasure and repose to humans, urban nature is managed for its own intrinsic value—to provide habitat for animals, conserve rare and endangered plant species, and restore entire ecological communities as they once existed before the city “paved paradise.”

Although this century-and-a-half evolution of park design has gone far to bring nature back into the city, it is my contention that little headway has been made in exploiting the key role urban parks might have in strengthening the ties between nature and culture. To the contrary, some current attempts at ecological restoration in urban parks may distance people from the experience of nature even further than did earlier naturalistic designs, leading to a form of detached observation not unlike what one might experience in a museum. Instead of providing a bridge between nature and the city, between Joni Mitchell’s paradise and parking lot, park restoration can lock nature inside the gates of paradise and leave people on the outside looking in.

In this article I explore this “museumification” of nature as it applies to urban park restoration. As a social scientist with a background in landscape architecture, my concern is that if ecological park design is to be successful within cities it must pay as much attention to human values related to the experience of nature as it does to ecological values such as ecosystem health and biodiversity.

I begin with a brief review of the development of an appreciation for nature experiences and how it came to be manifested in urban park design. I then look more closely at ecological restoration within an urban park context and examine its effects on nature experience, drawing from my work on the phenomenology of landscape experience (Gobster 1999; Gobster forthcoming), research on stakeholder perceptions of urban natural areas programs in Chicago and San Francisco (Gobster 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006), and an attempt at landscape criticism (Carlson 1977; Gobster 1999).

I pay particular attention to children as park users, as their interactions and experiences with nature may be disproportionately affected by museumification. I close with some suggestions for how alternative models of restoration might help to maximize the diversity of nature experiences while minimizing ecological impacts to urban natural areas.

Readers should take caution that this is an exploratory essay and is based on my personal experience and a limited number of cases in my research that focus on small, highly urban city park natural areas in two U.S. cities. Thus my observations and conclusions may not generalize to larger urban restorations, wildland settings, or situations in other countries. My aim here is to highlight what may be an uncommon but significant phenomenon in the hope that it might generate further discussion and criticism.

The Evolution of Nature Experience in Urban Parks
Romantic Nature and the Social Norms of Urban Park Use

Naturalism as a design theory for urban parks is rooted in the Romantic Movement that began in eighteenth-century Europe. Before this time people held considerable apprehension toward wild nature, but as the landscape became more humanized and urban living more common, nature became a subject of aesthetic appreciation among the upper class. Landscape painting and scenic touring of the countryside led to aesthetic ideas of scenic, pastoral, sublime, and picturesque nature. These were given form in garden and estate design, and naturalistic landscapes carefully composed with harmonic proportions of trees, grass, and water features quickly replaced earlier formalistic designs (e.g., Crandell 1993).

As an interpretation of nature, naturalism focused largely on the passive appreciation of visual scenery, and when the public parks movement started in Europe and the United States a century later naturalism came to define not only how parks should look but how people should act in them. For example, Frederick Law Olmsted conceived his design for New York’s Central Park as a “series of naturalistic pictures” and from its earliest stages of construction warned his park commissioners that substantial measures would be needed to prevent children and adults from “completely ravishing” the scenery: “A large part of the people of New York are ignorant of a park, properly so-called. They will need to be trained to the proper use of it, to be restrained in the abuse of it, and this can be best done gradually, even while the Park is yet in process of construction” (Olmsted and Kimball [1922] 1970: 58).

Olmsted’s worst fears about park use were quickly confirmed, not only in Central Park but in cities across the United States and elsewhere. In many places these reincarnations of nature in the city were instantly popular, and as use grew so did degradation of the turf, ornamental plantings, and park furnishings. Unlike the private estates that first launched naturalistic landscape design, public parks were a great experiment in democratic open space equity (Young 2004) and many urban park users were common people unaccustomed to relating to nature as a picture. Adults with recent agrarian and subsistence roots saw nature in a much more interactive and functional way, and to them collecting flowers, walking off paths, and using park space for more active uses seemed perfectly appropriate nature-related behavior. Children seemed especially out of place in this postcard view of nature, and climbing, digging, and other unstructured explorations of nature through play activity were instead construed as vandalism.

Mass use and limited space of urban parks necessitated different ways of relating to this naturalistic view of nature, and Olmsted and other urban park supervisors soon developed extensive rules of behavior for park goers, often enforcing them with deputized park keepers who patrolled the landscape, keeping a watchful eye on those who might willfully or ignorantly engage in improper park behavior. A neighborhood parks and playground movement also grew to accommodate more active kinds of recreation for adults and children, and over time successive waves of development
tested new models for how urban parks might accommodate user needs and control behavior. But unlike naturalistic parks, for the most part these models—with their ball fields, paved courts, play structures, and indoor facilities—were less about providing a bridge between nature and culture than they were about social issues such as physical health, assimilation, and class equity (e.g., Cranz 1982). In contrast, while naturalistic parks helped to increase the equity of people’s access to nature, the social controls put on use likely led to an inequitable distribution of desired nature experiences.

Ecological Nature and Urban Park Design

Although the primary goal of naturalistic park design was for aesthetic appreciation, in many cases the park landscape also provided wildlife habitat and other environmental services such as flood control, wind protection, and moderation of the urban heat island. Landscape architects practicing in the midwestern United States such as Jens Jensen and O. C. Simonds were enamored with the regional prairie and savanna landscape, and at the turn of the last century began creating symbolic renditions of them in urban areas using a primarily native plant palette (Grese 1992; Simonds 2000).

While concepts of biological diversity and ecological succession were not yet well understood, these designs could rightly be considered among the earliest attempts at urban ecological design. Ecological restoration incorporates land management activities aimed at returning the structure, composition, and function of a damaged or degraded ecosystem back to a key historic trajectory in order to achieve goals of ecosystem health, integrity, and sustainability (Society for Ecological Restoration 2004). Explicit attempts at ecological restoration were started by ecologists such as Edith Roberts at Vassar College’s arboretum and botanic garden in the 1920s, Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in the 1930s, and Ray Schulenberg at the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago in the 1960s (Egan 1997; Hall 2004; Jordan 2003). While the restoration movement started in earnest in the 1970s and ’80s and quickly spread to management of more extensive lands at and beyond the urban fringe, I find it a curious coincidence that these earliest efforts were all located within arboretums and botanic gardens, which are commonly referred to as “outdoor museums” of plants. With missions of conservation, research, and education, these institutions may have set the stage for how ecological nature should be presented to the public and how in turn people should respond and interact with it, particularly in more confined, urban settings.

The transfer of ecological restoration principles and practices to urban public parks was just a matter of time. Urban park researchers Galen Cranz and Michael Boland (2004a, 2004b) have recently documented the emergence of the “ecological park” as a new model of urban park design in the United States and Europe. In their analysis of 125 designs for urban parks published in landscape architectural journals between 1982 and 2002, the researchers found that ecological parks were the second most popular design for parks (24%) behind “open space” parks (42%). Ecological parks include parks where themes may embrace sustainable practices, the use of recyclable materials, and other “green technologies,” but elements common to ecological restoration figure prominently in many designs: use of native plants; restoration of ecological plant communities and systems such as rivers; community-based stewardship; and restoration of wildlife habitat. Significantly, most of the ecological parks they identified had been established since 1991, and based on past park development trends the researchers predicted that the development of urban ecological parks will continue to increase over the next decade.

Park Restoration and Museumification

Over the last decade I have been studying the social aspects of urban park restoration, first in Chicago and more recently in San Francisco (e.g., Gobster 2004). In both locations I have examined conflicts over natural areas restorations to understand the meanings and values that different stakeholder groups have toward urban nature, with the aim that using this knowledge can increase the success that restorations have in addressing human and ecological goals. In the course of my own experiences of sites and those of stakeholders I have studied, I have come across situations where the design and implementation of restoration projects seem to limit rather than increase the range of nature experiences provided by urban parks.

Although the word “museumification” sounds somewhat awkward and jargony, it seems to fit my and others’ impressions of these places and for lack of a better term I will use it to label the phenomenon I describe here.

Museumification is a process in which places or subjects of the everyday world are transformed in ways that can lead people to think and act toward them as if they had been placed in a museum. Museumification can be accidental or intentional and its aim might be to conserve or commodify, but the end result is a shift in the meanings, behaviors, and experiences people have in relation to a place or subject. While there has been at least one use of the term to refer to nature and landscape (Duane 1999), museumification is increasingly being applied to areas such as architecture and historic preservation (e.g., Ashworth 1998; Huxtable1997) and tourism and cultural preservation (e.g., Berdahl 1999; Wall and Xie 2005).
How does museumification happen in the context of urban park restorations? What does it look like? What are the effects of museumification on those who experience it? In the following sections I describe these three dimensions of museumification based on archival information about the landscape history and recent planning of sites (e.g., Chicago Park District and Lincoln Park Steering Committee 1995; San Francisco Recreation and Park Department 2006); personal observation of sites; and interviews and site visits with park professionals, restorationists, and restoration critics. These various types of cognitive, experiential, and evaluative information form a skill set needed by one adopting the role of what environmental aesthetics philosopher Allen Carlson (1977) proposed as the “environmental critic,” one whose task, like an art or architecture critic, is to assess the merits of a landscape.

While Carlson’s environmental critique was focused on assessing landscape beauty, my attempt at landscape criticism here aims more broadly at assessing how restoration projects are planned, designed, and used by people for nature experiences. This includes aesthetics but may also include recreational, educational, safety, and stewardship goals (e.g., San Francisco Recreation and Park Department 2006). Finally, it is not my purpose here to provide a detailed assessment of the merits of individual projects, but rather to describe the phenomenon of museumification and illustrate it with examples from different urban restoration sites in Chicago and San Francisco.

This article is continued in Part 2.

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