"A Sense of Place" Conference

The entire report, and a list of participants, can be found at http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister/senseofplace2.html. A follow-up is summarized at http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister/senseofplace3.html.


More than seventy leaders from Philadelphia's culture sector met at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for a Future Search conference entitled "A Sense of Place: Creating a Collective Vision for the Cultural Heritage Resources of the Philadelphia Region." The purpose of the event, convened by the William Penn Foundation in mid-November 1999, was to develop approaches to increase the appreciation, utilization, and care of the region's material culture. Leaders from museums, archives, special-collections libraries, historic sites and landscapes were invited to participate, as well as stakeholders from the region's broader community. During these two and a half days, they established common ground and collective goals for the future.


According to a recent survey of the region's collections, 102 institutions hold more than 61.2 million artifacts. The survey found that documentation is inadequate in more than one-half of the institutions, and storage is substandard in more than one-third. And as collections grow, the gap between what is held and what is accessible grows wider.

Yet this region is unique in its history, and is blessed with vast cultural resources. It has the opportunity to "deal with the soul of the nation," said museum experts in a meeting that inspired the convening of this conference. To do that, however, Philadelphians need to "be collaborative, to think grand, and to be willing to take the big leap to benefit others." Institutions could advance their missions and develop desirable roles in their communities by cooperating rather than competing. "It is not survival of the fittest," one expert noted, "but survival of those most able to cooperate."

Based on the survey and its analysis, a planning group drawn from the community recommended that the region's collections-based institutions be offered the opportunity to collectively develop a vision to address needs in the care, access, and interpretation of the region's cultural resources.

What is a Future Search Conference?

Future Search is a dynamic planning meeting used by groups around the world to transform and enhance an organization or community's capability for cooperative action. It is designed to convene stakeholder groups and visions and plans, and to establish commitment for action.

Common Ground Established

The stakeholder groups at this conference were representatives from: umbrella groups; government; education; business, travel, and tourism; philanthropy, community at large; historic and sites; museums; and special collections libraries. Issues for which common ground was established included:

Future Directions Chosen

Based on collective themes that emerged, the following activities and/or projects were identified as strategies to enhance the region's sense of place, increase its collective capacity, build its leadership, develop linkages, and create constituencies:

Regional Pride -- Create awareness and pride in regional arts and cultural assets. Based upon the belief that information increases pride, this group suggested 20 project ideas in four categories: marketing (themed advertising and partnerships), training (of public "frontliners," ambassadors, and board members), infrastructure (broad, web-based communications and information sharing), and product (signage, festivals, hotel packages, and other promotions).

Defining the Region and Telling its Story -- Define, understand, and communicate the sphere of Philadelphia -- its cultureshed. The parts make good sense only when the whole is grasped. Forces shaping the region's significance and identities (as they have evolved over time) including economics, politics, religion, education, and transportation need to be understood and interpreted. Related projects might include expanding the circle of collaboration, mapping the forces that defined the region, developing publications and exhibitions that tell its story, and tracking the emerging Mid-Atlantic Regional Humanities Center.

Maximizing Use of Regional Collections for Teaching and Research -- Create an umbrella organization -- an "institution without walls" -- to coordinate inter-institutional cooperation for research, scholarship, and teaching in the historical humanities. Institutionally, this organization would involve research libraries, museums, historic sites and colleges and universities. This new organization would promote knowledge about, access to, and use of the research collections across institutional boundaries. Through programs including fellowships, staff development, public events, technical assistance, and exhibitions, the Philadelphia region would better define itself as a destination for scholars, teachers, professionals and collectors.

Creating and Utilizing a Cultural Landscape Inventory --This will inform, provide context for, and enable planning and preservation of, and programming for, the region's landscape. A comprehensive, accessible database of the region's significant heritage resources (a Geographical Information System inventory) would serve as a widely used tool to support educational efforts, guide the expenditure of public and private funds, and optimize strategic planning. This inventory offers an objective, efficient solution for strategic management of numerous diverse cultural resources. It will facilitate collaboration among institutions, community-based organizations, and public agencies -- all contributors to, and users of, those resources.

Creating Partnerships for Lifelong Learning -- Expand cultural-arts resources and programs to support lifelong learning opportunities, and make education more broad based. Identify how arts and culture resources can have a significant and desirable impact in the region's schools. Expand programs that support intergenerational learning. Expose children to activities that introduce them to related career opportunities. Create sustainable arts and cultural programs.

Collections Storage and Conservation -- Collection-based institutions will determine the feasibility and create an action plan to develop a centrally located cooperative collections storage and research facility. This will also contain a conservation laboratory, space for staff training, meetings, preservation workshops, educational programs, exhibition development, and scholarly research.

Technology and Transportation -- Develop a planning process and a plan to guide information and audience sharing within the region's cultural institutions in three ways: among the institutions themselves; from the institutions to their targeted audiences; and bringing targeted audiences to the institutions.

Improving Relationships within the Political Culture of the Region -- Develop more effective relationships with elected and appointed governmental officials. The cultural community must have consensus as to its message. When communicated in the political environment, this message can be used to position the cultural community within political culture. This effort should include cultural institutions, their funders and other community organizations. Action steps would include: developing a common message; conducting a feasibility study on the impact of a regional cultural tax; developing coalitions with non-arts organizations; educating the mayor's advisors about cultural resources; inviting politicians to speak to or co-host cultural events; and determining how requests to politicians will affect that politician's constituency.

Tracking Results

Measuring the progress and impact of the conference was a desired additional outcome. A group will be convened again on February 25, 2000 to critique the full "A Sense of Place" conference report, after widespread dissemination. This group should meet two or three times a year, and include monitoring and perhaps reporting on the progress of various action plans. The distribution of the Future Search report should be monitored with a view to increase and broaden the involvement of regional business and political communities. Reactions to the report should be invited and obtained.

For a copy of the full report and a list of participants, see http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister/senseofplace2.html

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.