Category : Blog
The third space is central to community vitality
Silver Lake Nature Center unites community members in a positive, shared experience through purposeful exhibit content and design. Most of us are busy beavers when it comes to activities of daily living. We rise and shine at home, trudge off to work, shuttle back, and repeat the cycle.
When we do stop to take a breath, it’s often not at home or work but a public gathering place like a park, restaurant, hair salon, or library. The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg studied these so-called third spaces (or third places), and, in his books The Great Good Place and Celebrating the Third Place, argued they are central to community vitality: “The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. …They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”
We think about Oldenburg’s work a lot at Content Design Collaborative. How can we design community-driven nature centers and museums that promote feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging? How do we ground visitors in a sense of place?
Silver Lake Nature Center
A useful case study is the Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Local residents have treasured Silver Lake’s 235 acres and 4.5 miles of trails since the property was converted from a farm to a nature center in 1987. The County of Bucks Parks and Recreation Department asked us to design a new visitor center for Silver Lake that inspires connections with nature for people of all ages. Our collaborative process—including workshops with community members and back-and-forth with the County—allowed us to develop a beautiful, more vibrant third space. Here are three ways we did it.
1. Bring the outdoors inside.
The original visitor center (seen in this walkthrough) was a dark, confined space with tired exhibits and unwelcoming partitions. Without expanding the footprint, we designed an open floor plan with walls of glass, clear sightlines, and free-flowing, accessible pathways through the exhibit areas. This “room with a view” now serves as a bright, beautiful reception area that encourages visitors to interact with staff and get ready to go outside. Visitors gather at a 12’x8’ site map to plan their hikes. This area serves as an attractive new meeting room that motivates residents to preserve the living treasure of Silver Lake for generations to come.
2. Appeal to all ages.
A welcoming third space is family-friendly and offers something for all generations. Silver Lake’s original visitor center featured a replica tree that young people could sit inside. The exhibit was popular but well past its shelf life. When brainstorming replacement ideas, we got down on the floor to see the world through the eyes of preschoolers. Our answer was nifty with bubble-shaped terrariums housing indigenous turtles. Small children can safely observe the animals up close and delight in the “just-for-me” scale. This exhibit shows respects for Silver Lake’s youngest learners and inspires their appreciation for nature.
3. Tap the brainpower of local residents.
One secret to developing unique content is to collaborate with the community who have a personal interest in the project’s success. They often can help us unearth photographs and stories you can’t find anywhere else. For this project, we turned to professional photographer and historian Clarence King, whose family once owned the Silver Lake farm. Only someone with a firsthand knowledge of the land and history could capture a gorgeous shot like the one above!
Today, visitors to Silver Lake Nature Center kick off their outdoor adventure with a positive, informative experience that bolsters community pride and togetherness. We hope they will want to come again and again. Contact us about your next project. We have lots of good ideas.
Exhibit photographs by Justin DeRosa
Design for the most important factor—access
The Florida Department of Parks and Recreation needed to transform their crown jewel visitor center, Paynes Prairie Preserve; we zeroed in on the most important factor in our design brief—visitor accessibility.
While could not change the incredible landscape with a 500-foot long winding path through the hammock that connects the parking lot to the visitor center. Design decisions can remedy the slanted theater floor and the four-foot high reception counter that receives visitors. Before immersive theater concepts or ecosystem dioramas, the building had to make welcoming and accessible to all!
Our program reduces the institutional wall between the staff and visitors and makes it easier for the enthusiastic staff to do their job preparing visitors to experience the hundreds of miles of trails available to hike. Instead of a front desk counter we designed a reception island. A ranger can easily step from behind the island to point out destinations on a visitors map. An under-utilized doorway area we turned into a retail area that did not exist.
The lecture-style auditorium with its tapered floor and single access are now a walk-through theater that shares the same floor level as everywhere else. These important changes, along with the proposed expansion, affected more than half the area of the visitor center.
Interpreting root causes for significant historical events
During the Plymouth 400 forum last month Michaël Roumen, director of Cultuurfonds Leiden, gave a sweeping overview of the places where the emigrants lived, worked and prayed. The streets, garden, and estate they lived in, and most importantly, Pieterskerk, remain unchanged since 1620 when the voyage took place. While here in Plymouth we can point to Leyden Street as being the location of the first “main street” in continuous use in the original 13 colonies, it does not in any way resemble the fabled street trod upon by the settlers in 1621.
In our exhibit Plymouth 1620-2020 visitors will see how the Leiden experience informed the Pilgrim’s decision to establish a new colony where all the inhabitants shared a zealousness for their faith. Their decision took place in Leiden, which allowed open discussion of religious debates, such as the one their pastor Robinson participated in around 1616.
A flythrough animation of this exhibit presented at the forum by Edward Malouf of Content•Design demonstrated the variety of experiences that keep the visitor engaged, beginning with the Wampanoag and ending with Plymouth the 21st-century city. The Leiden experience is yet another layer in the incredible saga that makes the story of Plymouth Colony one for all ages.
The English separatists left the peace and relative security of one of Europe’s most enlightened cities, Leiden, to forge a new settlement of their making in a foreign land inhabited by people very different from themselves. While life in Holland hardly resembled what they left behind in Scrooby in the East Midlands of England, the congregation of John Robinson was free of persecution. Several members had positions of distinction, William Brewster taught English at Leiden University while John Robinson enrolled there to pursue his doctorate. However, most of the emigrants toiled in the handicrafts. They lived together a small estate near the famous Pieterskerk, a cathedral built in the 15th century.
In his great history “Of Plymouth Plantation” William Bradford describes in detail their reasons for departing; the hard work required to maintain their standard of living (as modest it was); loss of the younger generation to becoming soldiers or seafarers in the Dutch service; or worse—
“…tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and dishonor of God.”
He ends with a grand vision of setting up elsewhere
“…advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
This video illustrates the conceptual design of the “Mills of Woonsocket.”
This multi-touch and multi-user digital experience. Using the latest in gestural interface technology, this new exhibit will allow Museum of Work Culture visitors to explore how the explosive growth of mill production transformed the landscape of Woonsocket.
In the process of creating this exhibit, the Museum will compile extensive data on Woonsocket’s mills, which they will offer as a visitor-accessible database about the mills’ workforces, products, and relation to the city.
Please help us realize this new vision for interpreting our state’s history by making a donation to the Museum’s “Help Wanted” initiative:
Museum of Work and Culture
42 South Main Street
Woonsocket, RI 02895
Please indicate on your check and the envelope, “The Mill Project.”
For further information, please contact Museum Director Anne Conway to 401.769.9675 x1.
Our English Visitors Explore Their History in America.
In breeches, doublet, and a wide-brimmed felt hat, Issac Allerton complained to his fellow countryman 388 years into the future, Leo Devine, Head of BBC South West, about his disappointment in the weather. After all, he stated in a thick 17th-century accent, “Eng-land is an’ a high-yar la-attitude, so why aren’t way warmer? We ah’ on the same la-attitude as Madrid”. Our man from the BBC was treated to this and other concerns, such as planting corn. Sure, they have corn in England, but you do not need a dead fish to fertilize it.
It was a delightful encounter, the English visiting the “English”. Our present-day English visitors were from Mayflower 400, a United Kingdom organization commemorating the crossing of the Mayflower. Along with Mr. Devine were Nicola Moyle, Arts and Heritage director and Nick Stimson, Playwright and Theatre Director; both from the City of Plymouth, UK. They were part of a larger contingent working with our client Plymouth 400, Inc. to build transatlantic excitement for the upcoming anniversary of the arrival of 102 English colonists, later known as the Pilgrims, aboard the Mayflower. Content•Design has developed a 3,500 square foot (or 325 square meters) museum-quality traveling exhibit Plymouth 1620-2020 telling this story, and the colonists encounter with the existing inhabitants, the Wampanoag.
The historic role players at Plimoth Plantation are highly regarded the world over for the authenticity of their presentation. But this was a test, relating geographical and historic facts of the country they study for a living, England, with residents who just disembarked from that island the day before. Both Isaac Allerton and another role-player, his wife Fear Allerton, easily related to the places our visitors hailed from, whether it be Northampton or Plymouth.
Fear Allerton (née Brewster) demonstrated the grit of the early colonists through her description of her “travails” from England to Leiden, and back again, only to put to sea on a ship, the Paragon, that almost sank during a storm many days out at sea. It returned to England where she embarked again on the Patience, arriving in Plymouth in 1623.
Our visitors had different sort of experience at the Wampanoag village. There are no role players. Instead, the Wampanoag are simply practicing the life ways that have not changed in millennium. A lively conversation ensued with the interpreters providing insights into the world of the Wampanoag, This included a discussion of the Wampanoag wampum currently in the collection of the British Museum and the possibility of its return to the Wampanoag people. When creating a new wampum belt or necklace Wampanoag craftspeople only have Iroquois wampum for reference.
Next, we entered a wetu, a sapling pole, and birch bark summer residence. Our interpreter, Shirley, described the matriarchal structure of the Wampanoag society, and how both the men and women worked equally hard, contrary to the English colonists belief that the women did all the work. They learned how the wetu they were standing has an oval volume with the heat source located in the center. This created an excellent heat circulation system, even on the coldest days the interior of a wetu will measure 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 21 degrees Celsius). The Wampanoag did not understand why the English placed their houses on the top of the hill in winter, where they felt the full force os a northeaster, rather than locate them in a valley where they will be projected.
Our friends from England learned how the contrasts between the two cultures created friction, and how it eventually led to war after 50 years. When departing Nick Stimson stated how much he enjoyed the visit and noted that they all were the “good English.” At this Shirley readily agreed, since they were all leaving the country.
Our exhibit Plymouth 1620-2020 parses these issues through a multi-modal visitor experience. Hands-on and digital interactives, film, and immersive environments are used to illuminate the origins of both Wampanoag and English culture, how they formed an alliance that lasted 50 years, and how these two cultures exist today in present-day Plymouth USA.