That’s the $34 million question behind the National Museum of Suburbia and Suburban Policy Forum, a proposed project to be built inside of an abandoned six-acre bowling alley/skating rink complex in the Kansas City, Mo., suburb of Overland Park, Kansas. Envisioned attractions at the museum would be housed in five different galleries and potentially include an exhibit on lawn furniture, a model ranch house, a replicated drive-in movie theater, an exhibit titled “A Field Guide to Sprawl,” and an experiential installation called "But What Would the Neighbors Think?" that, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, features a “backyard fence with peepholes that let museum visitors spy on fake suburban neighbors played by actors in period suburban clothing." There’d also be bowling and miniature golf. And who knows ... maybe the Arcade Fire — or Malvina Reynolds — playing on a loop?
It’s an ambitious-sounding vision — one that got its footing after the Johnson County Museum in nearby Shawnee, Kan., suffered flood damage and began looking for a new place to display its treasure trove of "suburban artifacts" such as Tupperware and an all-electric house from the 1950s — that would probably send a certain aspiring homemaker named Audrey into overdrive. “The sweetest, greenest place — where everybody has the same little lawn out front and the same little flagstone patio out back. And all the houses are so neat and pretty... 'cause they all look just alike.”
Just remember: “Nothing fancy like Levittown.”
Dedicating an entire museum to suburban nostalgia is a rather bold concept in an era when the future Mrs. Seymour Krelborn's car-dependent, cookie-cutter tract housing daydreams have all but been squashed in favor of neo-rural New Urbanist communities, transit-oriented townhouse enclaves, urban shoe boxes, and audacious visions of a reimagined suburbia such as Nature-City. Is there a place for sprawl lovin' when half of the country, for better or for worse, experiences it every day?
Mindi Love, a backer of the project and executive director of the Johnson County Museum, thinks so and she says Overland Park is just the right place. “Suburbia is much more complicated than houses on a road. We want to tell the story of suburbia, the good and the bad.” She adds: “We want to be one of the local places that Kansas Citians tell visitors: 'This is a place you've got to see.’ "
Johnson County commissioners have already paid $2 million for the derelict bowling alley/skating rink and plan to spend another $1.6 million clearing out asbestos and making the 70,000-square-foot building human-safe. The former King Louie West Bowling Alley and Ice Chateau perfectly fits the bill, according to project backers, as "a living testament to the suburban vision of the 'American Dream.' It was built for post-World War II families looking for a place to bond together. It served as the venue for thousands of first-dates, family nights, and social functions during its operation."
Another $30 million is needed to make the relocated/rebranded Johnson County Museum a reality. A chunk of that would come from private donors while the rest would ideally come from the county itself. Proponents of the museum estimate that, if funding goes as planned, the National Museum of Suburbia and Suburban Policy Forum would open no sooner than 2018.
The museum's interpretive vision as according to the project master plan:
A new Johnson County Museum will capture, commemorate, and critique the ideas of American suburbia, including the story of how the suburbs took hold and played out in Johnson County, Kansas. By interpreting suburbia through the eyes of agencies, planners, developers, builders, neighbors, policy-makers, residents, and scholars, the museum will strive to chronicle how the suburbs came to be; reveal their many physical and cultural dimensions; and encourage people to think about suburbia’s real and imagined place in their hearts and minds, and its place in America’s future.
Although a 2010 feasibility study found that the museum could serve as a place for scholarly study while attracting an estimated 60,000 paying visitors per year, not everyone in the area is on board. After all, a museum about suburbia in suburbia has to have its share of NIMBY outrage.
Says Steve Rose, a local newspaper publisher: "I just don't think it's a big turn-on to see something you can see every day. It's not like you're visiting ancient Rome." Michael Ashcroft, the lone Johnson County commissioner who opposes the project, harbors a similar sentiment. He calls the it “the wrong museum at the wrong time for the wrong priorities.” Former state Sen. Dave Webb is on the same page: “I also don't see people of a young generation darkening the doors of a museum like this. You can just put it all online."
Or can you?
What do you think? Would you pay to visit suburbia in museum form? I have to say, the museum master plan — you can view it here in PDF form — is quite intriguing and not just exclusively focused on looking into the past with displays of vintage Tupperware and toaster ovens.
MNN tease photo of houses in a row: Shutterstock
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