This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on the interpretation of historic sites. Tim Samuelson and Barbara Koenen of the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs are coming to class today to talk about the students researching Chicago Tribute Markers, which will then be installed at sites they help determine, interpreting important figures in Chicago history.
Sadly, some of the sites are vacant. In fact, the world is full of historical markers that point out things that just aren’t there anymore. When historical societies started putting up bronze markers decades ago, they were a kind of memorial or gravestone, commemorating something that would otherwise be forgotten, because nothing physical remained to remind us of it.
That is one of the reasons we preserve things – to have something physical to remind us of what was before, to maintain continuity and time in the landscape. But preserved sites and structures often need interpretation so that people understand that history, especially in a time like our own full of new buildings that seem to imitate old styles. Or restored buildings that look too new, too perfect.
This is a challenge. People want buildings – especially after a large investment – to look perfect. But that makes them a bit harder to interpret. There is something profoundly interactive about the discovered building, the romance of stumbling across Angkor in the jungle in 1862, or the tiger hunter who found the Ajanta caves in 1819, or Richard Nickel discovering a forgotten Louis Sullivan building on the south side only to find it was about to be demolished. Nickel couldn’t stay away, as we all know, and I can’t help but think it was the romance of discovery, of the unrestored old building, still layered with history debris, still resonating with the tintinnabulations of time.
More than 20 years ago I visited Sukhothai in Thailand, the earliest Thai capital (13th century I think?) before Ayuthaya, before Krung Thep. It was a complex of viharas (monasteries) and temples, all in a manicured garden with walkways and roads for the tour buses. It was great, but the next day I went to Si Satchanalai, a sister city from the same period maybe 10 clicks away. There were no walkways – you paid some guy a few baht to row you across the river in a little boat and then wandered through high grasses to discover overgrown temples and viharas in near solitude. This sense of discovery stuck with me, how powerful it was and it seems to me, you need to impart that sense of discovery in a successful interpretation. Don’t make it perfect – listen to the icon painters and leave that flaw, that void for the humans to crawl in.