Hard Time

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–more than usual, at least–about what to do with historic sites where the primary attraction has all but vanished. This all started a few weeks ago after I read John R. Maass‘s response to my Ferry Farm op-ed wherein he dismissed my concerns as “silly.” Inelegance notwithstanding, Maass’s criticism is worth thinking about. He argues that no mater what we academics think or say about it, constructing replicas of long lost buildings like the house that George Washington grew up in is really all about “luring people off I-95 and capturing tourism dollars. Most tourists want to see *something.*” He’s right, of course, and historic site managers are necessarily far too busy balancing visitor demands and shoestring budgets to worry much about the so-called “theoretical issues.”

But, then, where does that leave us? Maybe I am silly to think that Ferry Farm visitors will settle for anything less than a “replica” approximating what Washington’s house might have possibly looked like during roughly those years when George wasn’t chopping down cherry trees. Does that mean, however, that we can’t come up with an alternative to replica building that, while still earning a few bucks for the good folks at Ferry Farm, is less apt to perpetuate the kind of myths and misunderstandings that we in the academy have been working hard to destabilize for the last thirty years? What other kinds of *somethings* might we offer up?

Preservationists have been wrangling with this one for a long time and have come up with some creative responses over the years. Consider, for example, the representational strategy called “ghosting.” Ghosting involves creating a kind of three-dimensional life-sized sketch of a bygone building right on the spot where it once stood. The hope is to pique the onlooker’s imagination without eclipsing it. Ben Franklin’s house and print shop were famously ghosted right here in Philadelphia during the 1976 bicentennial celebration. Whether or not ghosting is any more or less effective than building replicas is a whole other question. Ghosting is, however, certainly a viable alternative.

So is arrested decay. In those fortunate cases where a historic structure remains in whole or in part, but is dilapidated beyond ready repair, simply stabilizing the thing in situ can have remarkable results. This is the strategy, for instance, at the Bodie State Historic Park in California. Bodie, like many western mining towns, boomed and busted during the second half of the nineteenth century leaving nothing today but an abandoned ghost town. Park operators keep Bodie in a state of perpetual decay while preventing it’s collapse so that visitors might be impressed by the the legacy of economic caprice.

Hilary and I recently witnessed a stunning example of arrested decay at what definitely ranks among the coolest historic sites I’ve experienced: Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern state looms like a castle (it was built to look like one) above the otherwise subdued row homes just northeast of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the original penitentiary. When it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the only prison in the world intentionally designed to induce penitence. The idea was to keep prisoners constantly occupied in silent solitary labor until Eastern State’s edificial magnitude cracked their criminal tendencies. Overcrowding trumped isolation in fairly short order, but Eastern State stayed in business for a long time and wasn’t completely shut down until 1970. During its long life, the prison hosted thousands of inmates–including, of course, Al Capone–and fundamentally influenced the architecture and theory of incarceration throughout the world. If you’ve ever seen an old prison movie (or 12 Monkeys which was filmed there in 1995), you’ve seen shades of Eastern State.

Today the place stands in a state of semi-ruin. Visitors stroll through tumbledown cell blocks pierced by persistent weeds and an occasional errant sunbeam. A self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (who is, by the way, inexplicably perfect for this) weaves together a host of clever exhibits and points of interest where additional recordings address topics ranging from preservation to sex and sexuality behind bars. But, even more compelling than the history of this place is its aesthetic onslaught. Perhaps it has to do with the weird juxtaposition of impenetrability and collapse, but there is something overwhelming about this place. It’s a real sensory tour de force that creates a unique opportunity to witness bygone objects in various states of meaning. Each crumbling cell is at once relic, art, and exhibit. We are forced here to recognize that historical meaning, like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder. Both join in stunning harmony at Eastern State.

Whatever it is that makes this place so interesting evidently speaks to a broad public. In fact, it’s worth noting that Eastern State is staffed by a throng of hip city kids who are as enthusiastic about their work as any costumed interpreter you might find strolling around Independence Hall or, for that matter, Colonial Williamsburg. Scenesters forging common ground with history buffs! That’s an impressive accomplishment for any historic site and I can’t help but think it owes in most part to the museum’s honesty. This is a place, after all, that can’t–and couldn’t even if it wanted to–claim many heroes or make patriotic appeals. It is, rather, a place that makes palpable the slow yet irresistible power of passing time. At Eastern State, we learn that history is change and change, by in large, is good. That is a vitally important lesson and one, incidentally, that is very difficult to convey against a backdrop of unchanging replicas.

Living History

The phrase “living history” usually invokes visions of chubby guys in funny costumes bent on making you taste their hardtack. There’s certainly a lot of that in and around the mid-Atlantic states, but a local news item has me thinking today about another kind of living history. George Economos of Millville, Delaware is fighting to save his century-old sycamore trees from the axe come fall 2010 when Route 26 (aka Atlantic Avenue) is slated for widening. Economos owns the trees, but it’s not their property value he’s worried about–it’s their relic value. He claims that the trees are “almost like a landmark identifying Millville as a town.” Project manager Tom Banez, who’s been charged with snaking the widened road through fifteen historic properties either listed on or eligible for the National Register, is empathetic but explains that the Delaware Department of Transportation just doesn’t recognize historic trees.

And why should they, right? After all, trees are trees and Economos is just another old grump lost in some sepia yesteryear. But look a little deeper and you’ll discover that trees hold a special place in the great pantheon of bygone objects. Take, for instance, the story of the Charter Oak. Way back in 1686, King James II sent Sir Edmond Andros across the Atlantic to firm up the crown’s authority in the colonies. In the process, Andros demanded that a handful of colonies, including Connecticut, hand over their royal charters as an act of obeisance. When Andros arrived in Hartford, the story goes, a couple of clever colonists duped him by hiding Connecticut’s charter deep inside a massive oak tree. Andros (also remembered for irritating a lot of Puritans and fleeing Boston disguised as a woman) is probobly most famous today for his involvement in this oft repeated story of proto-patriotic hijinks which, of course, is almost certainly fallacious.

But even more famous than Andros is the tree that tricked him, the so-called Charter Oak. In fact, the tree had grown so synonymous with American liberty that Connecticotians went bonkers for Charter Oak relics after a storm toppled the thing in 1856. Not only did they carve a fancy chair out of its trunk for their state house, but they also planted a miniature forest with its acorns. This is not an isolated phenomenon. All kinds of folks have been charmed by the reliquary powers of plants and trees for a long time. Here in my neck of the woods (ha…) you can visit the nation’s oldest botanical garden where John Bartram gathered together plants from throughout the colonies beginning in the 1720s. Stroll through the grounds and you’ll bump into the ancestors of flora fawned over by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. Bartram even named one of his discoveries after the good Dr. Franklin. Although Franklinia Alatamaha might pale in stature to the Charter Oak or even George Economos’ sycamore trees, they all convey to those who are looking for it, the presence of the past.

And, if you still doubt the power of historic trees to invoke strong emotion, consider the massive grassroots effort raised of late to save the diseased horse-chestnut tree described fondly by Anne Frank in her famous diary. Outraged onlookers the world wide intervened in 2007 when Amsterdam officials announced their intent to fell the tree. Consequently, a court injunction saved the tree and entrusted its protection to a foundation created just for that purpose. No, I don’t think Economos is going to deter DelDOT with threats of a global media campaign. Yet, in the mix of things and trees and memories, his sycamores keep pretty good company. Good luck, George.

"Does anyone here object to this marriage…"

I’ve seen a lot of reenacting in my time. From the summertime kepi brigades of my Pennsylvania home to the weird guys in tricorn hats that lurk nearly everywhere in Williamsburg, VA where I spent my grad school years, I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin for this kind of thing. But I must admit to have being caught off guard upon learning of Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross’s impending nuptials. What luck to arrive in Philly just in time to see Ben and Betsy tie the knot! This is no joke. The performers who interpret these two icons for passing heritage seekers evidently became smitten after discovering that they shared–brace yourself–a “mutual love of history and education.” One thing led to another until, just yesterday, in front of Independence Hall and accompanied by the Philly Pops, Mayor Michael Nutter presided over the wedding of Ralph Archbold (Ben) and Linda Wilde (Betsy). “The rest,” as they say, “is history.”

Or is it? Historical anachronism is so commonplace in this country that I can’t help but believe that amid all of the retro cars and renaissance fairs and battle reenactors that we’ve grown remarkably unaware of the power of historical meaning. I’m certainly not the first to voice this concern. With Jean Baudrillard’s ghost lurking from my previous post, it is perhaps wise to recall his characterization of postmodernity as the result of a procession of simulacra wherein copies come to be accepted as acceptable substitutions for the various realities they replicate. In other words, what happens when we begin to accept PT Cruisers as really being like 1950s hot rods? Is there any problem with buying a ye olde Coke at the renaissance fair? Civil War battle reenactments are just good fun, right? Sure. I, like lots of other folks, enjoy all of these things more or less. I especially enjoy them because, unlike their “real” counterparts, the PT Cruiser doesn’t pester me with the burgeoning socioeconomic conflicts of Cold War America; I mustn’t contend with the bubonic plague at most renaissance fairs; and as for Civil War reenactments, well, you get the picture.

Perhaps we should congratulate ourselves for having become so adept at finding the good in history. Returning to Ben and Betsy’s wedding, consider how powerfully the image speaks to our willingness to forge common ground in public celebrations of the past. Here we see Ben Franklin, that notorious cad, putting aside his old ways and embracing Betsy as an equal partner (not property) in marriage before the authority of a respected man of color and power. The bygone object shines brightly here. It is in the redeployment of old things with new meanings that we find ways to repair the lesions of history while preserving a common narrative. But that old question still lurks–does it matter that this particular narrative is a complete fiction? Does it matter that, in the (re)writing of this story, there is no voice to remind us that white and black faces neither would nor could have mingled in this way? Does it matter that, had Ben and Betsy actually married (their chronologies did overlap even if briefly), their reasons would have likely had nothing to do with shared passions?

I think so. As fun and as comfortable as reenactment may be, it is imperative that we recreate with caution. At a time in our own history when the manipulation of official memories–from restrictive legal controls of federal communications to willful misremembering by our elected officials–has become all too common, never has the responsible maintenance of the link between representation and reality been of greater importance. Ben and Betsy, I wish the best to both of you but, please, next time leave the histrionics at home.