Commercial and Interpretive

I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.
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When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation.
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As I said in 2011, the site was always commercial and it still is because there is a gift shop on the corner. The barns are currently empty due to code issues, and the site is a hub of inactivity. Commercial uses would not only be interpretively appropriate, they would raise awareness of the site and bring its historical understanding to many more people.

I spoke about my own experience with another National Trust site, the Gaylord Building in Lockport, Illinois. This was the National Trust’s first “adaptive re-use” site and its first industrial building. It was restored by the Donnelley family in the 1980s and half was made a restaurant and the other half a series of interpretive exhibits and museum-type uses.
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We did a strategic assessment there about seven or eight years ago and we learned that the building has a split identity – people either saw it as a museum or as a restaurant. And the two never met. The answer was too make the restaurant more interpretive and the interpretive side more commercial. Have more exhibits in the restaurant and a shop in the museum side. This would unite the building’s identity and as I said above, bring the historical message to a much larger audience.
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But the more I thought about it, the more this artificial distinction bothered me. I thought of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, which I visited about 15 years ago. When you visit, you learn that the tomb of Strongbow in the nave was in fact the site of the most important binding legal agreements in the land through the centuries. Not only was there no separation of commerce and sacred culture, but they were in fact legally bound together. You needed to go to the church to do business. Because that was THE public building.
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If we want to reach the public with historic sites that have a lot to relate about history and architecture and the roots of our shared places, we need to make those places the center of public life. But the preservationist impulse is often the opposite: Save it. Remove it from the world. Hide it. Protect it.
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Why leave your building outside where there is rain and weather and stuff?

This is wrong. As I have well learned running the Global Heritage Fund (join here!)the only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.
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Like this submarine. As Mies’s grandson Dirk Lohan noted, it would be ludicrous to have this design in a place that didn’t flood. If it doesn’t get wet, it has no message.

Going back to our friend Strongbow at Christ Church, there is perhaps a Biblical, New testament reference that makes preservation purists want to excise commercial from interpretive, even when you are interpreting a commercial site. Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, right?
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More Father than Son, but my all-time favorite Wyspianski window

Two thoughts there: One, the story proves that commercial transactions in sacred space go back WAY before Strongbow, again probably because it makes the most sense to transact business in the most public of places. Two, if you actually read the passage, it wasn’t just moneychangers – it was also dove (pigeon) sellers, which were used for sacrifice, and a major trope throughout Old and New Testaments is moving away from blood sacrifice.
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Here’s a picture of a Catholic church, so there
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and here is a synagogue
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and a mosque

But even if we go with the religulous approach to preserving something by keeping it free of the Taint of Mammon (good band name), aren’t we diluting its historical message by radically changing its use? The only time Cooper-Molera WASN’T a commercial site was when they made it a museum.
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And what is a museum? Why only the NEWEST use of all! We have had shops and offices and temples and houses for thousands of years. When is the first museum? A little over 200 years ago. Here’s me in that VERY FIRST museum 31 years ago, when the idea of a museum was closer to 170.
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The naked guy behind me is about 10 times older than the idea of a museum

One of the lessons I have struggled to learn my whole life is the virtue of the “both-and”. My dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann kept admonishing me to get away from dualities, from “either-ors”. So I understand where the fine citizens of Monterey are coming from. I came from there too. I also sought to see the world in dualities and I also sought to throw the dove sellers out of the temple.

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But that supposed “purity” is a false message that garbles and fundamentally alters – not in a good way – the meaning of historic sites. For too long we have conveyed that to be historical is to be unengaged in life. But history DID NOT happen like that – it happened right at the vibrant and completely messed-up center of life. Unless we put our historic sites right into that messy center they will have neither historic nor contemporary validity.

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It’s not Forbidden anymore

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One Response to “Commercial and Interpretive”

  1. marthafrish Says:

    Vince, I agree with you completely: I’ve been saying for 30 years that the only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. I don’t know why this has been such a difficult lesson to learn… but we have to keep trying.

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