Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

Reuse and the Cultural Landscape

January 19, 2013

It has been almost three weeks since I blogged and since I officially became Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), which is NOT an excuse not to blog. But I have been busy. We are developing our slate of projects for the year.
GHF truck copy

The mission of the Global Heritage Fund is to help protect heritage sites in the developing world through community development. This was the vision of Founder Jeff Morgan, who also crafted our Preservation by Design® strategy: equal parts Conservation, Planning, Community Development and Partnerships. He understood “preservation” as a community development strategy, and that attracted me to GHF.

Bas Relief crane work be copy

This strategy is what guides the decisions we are making now about projects. Morgan realized early on that archaeology sites were often not adequately conserved, since archaeologists were focused on excavation and research. Moreover, it was politically risky proposition to be involved in excavation as a foreign NGO: one misstep and you never work again. To this Morgan added architectural conservation, in sites like Banteay Chhmar, a 14th century Khmer temple in Cambodia and Pingyao, a traditional walled Chinese city with some 500 original courtyard houses.

jumble of stones copy

PY walls 53s copy

In addition to archaeology and architecture, this year we proposed two new projects that represent the cutting edge of our field: cultural landscapes. Having started my professional career 29.9 years ago on the U.S.’ first heritage area, this is a development I find very exciting. In both Transylvania (Romania) and Guizhou (China) were are working on World Heritage sites that are collections of minority villages.


The architectural challenges are similar to Pingyao: how do we modernize and conserve traditional architectural forms? This is no small challenge, but the bigger challenge is how do we preserve the larger cultural landscape? Not simply the buildings, but the public spaces, the agricultural fields, and the traditional folkways, customs and processes that tie it all together?

The Chairman of our Board Dan Thorne recently described the sustainability of traditional agricultural practices as one of the greatest challenges for the heritage conservation field. If we want to visit places that are not simply static, lifeless museums, we need to preserve the life patterns – the social economy – of those places. Thorne opened my eyes to the fact that Transylvania and Guizhou, despite being a world apart, were dealing with the same issues.

PY Nan st vwS copy

This is the challenge I have been grappling with in Weishan, China for a decade: how do you preserve the inhabitation of a landscape: the patterns of farming, cultural expression, urbanism and architectural form that make a particular place unique? I have spoken twice at ICOMOS Conferences about Weishan as a “contingent success” that as avoided both “catastrophic tourist development” and the sort of formulaic modernization that is careless and reckless with a community’s heritage and identity.

Menghua bi detailS

In 2008 I participated in (and blogged about) a Sustainability Conference in Yunnan. I recently me with one of my colleagues from that trip, Christina Heyniger, an adventure travel professional and pioneer who posed the same question in a new way: sustainable stasis.

Do we have a model for a community that is not based on absolute growth, which therefore threatens either physical resources or folkways and traditional economies? Do we have a model for sustainable stasis?” Heyniger asked me. I could not think of one. Heyniger here enunciated a key question for our field, and one that has dogged me for years.

heshui calligrapy copy

Our CFO Bob Stanton told me about heritage villages in Japan that do preserve the traditional crafts and other patterns of life. These become to some extent high-end tourist destinations, but in a larger sense, even that most hopeless of re-use strategies – the museum – needs something to sell in its gift shop to make ends meet. That is why they sell porcelain in Portmerion, neckties at Fallingwater, and whiskey at Mount Vernon. Perhaps there is a balance: tourism is always a piece of place economics. It is only dangerous when it is the only piece or it goes too far.

woodlawn gift shopS

In a real sense, the challenge is to fine-tune our approaches so that we can find new markets, new functions, new value in both elements of a cultural landscape: the tangible and the intangible. In both of the project proposals we are working with a series of other partners who will help design what could be a pathbreaking strategy not just for Europe and China, but for any place that wants to hang onto elements of its past that seem economically obsolete.


Are they really economically obsolete? That is the first question. GHF is in Silicon Valley, where products are invented not out of need or even desire but from the realms of possibility, question and failure. I have only had a iPhone for two months but I could never have lived without it. We need to bring the Valley’s penchant for innovation to the world heritage cultural landscapes of the developing world. We need to find adaptive re-uses not only for buildings but also for ways of life.

heshui geese 3 copy

Maybe our challenge is to make obsolescence itself obsolete.

Authenticity in Heritage Conservation

December 16, 2012

Calif St Ital TudorS
California Street, San Francisco

In this blog I have often celebrated a definition of heritage conservation (historic preservation) as a process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The virtues of this definition are many. It allows for both tangible and intangible heritage: buildings, sites, structures and landscapes as well as music, costume, craft, festivals and a host of other folkways, without privileging one or the other. It allows for the passage of time: how we define what is important in the past cannot remain static. Even the definition of authenticity changes over time, a point made by Yan Zhang at our Asia Forum in May and quoted by me in a Huffington Post blog recently.
LG Main StreetS
Downtown Los Gatos, California

The definition also has the virtue of addressing some of the failings of preservation, failings not in its design but in its history. Preservation arose as a field of practice and knowledge in the 1960s, in reaction to a coordinated public and private policy that favored demolition of the historic built environment. There was also a social ethic that new was superior to old, reinforced by the conscious adoption of planned obsolescence throughout the consumer economy.
skyview vinyardS
Near our home in The Villa, Santa Cruz mountains

Preservation also arose during the Great Society and thus became quite quickly a regulatory and bureaucratic endeavor. While the contemporaneous environmental movement also became regulatory, by the 1970s it had adopted a consumerist approach (recycling, etc.) that allowed broad social participation. Moreover, its regulatory targets were and are large corporations, whereas in the world of preservation, regulation more often impinged on the perceived rights of individuals.
2nd Empr nr missS
Historic home, Santa Cruz, California

The legal framework, embodied in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and its local analogs, also bore the marks of preservation history. It enshrined the values of the Venice Charter of 1964, which insisted on authenticity, although interestingly Americans were never comfortable with that term, preferring “integrity.” This fact, combined with the then-30-year old Historic American Building Survey, a partnership between the National Park Service and American Institute of Architects, gave preservation an architectural and visual bias that very nearly excluded intangible heritage and exacerbated the sense among the public that preservationists were “design police.”
office PAS
My office, downtown Palo Alto

The definition recasts preservation as a site of negotiation: between the members of a community; between the past and the present, between the demands of consumption and production; between the patterns and forms left behind by historic endeavor and the processes that created or inhabited those forms.
Carmell shoppesS
Shop in Carmel, California

Authenticity also resides in this site of negotiation. In my recent blog about Disneyland I wondered whether I had turned my back on the authenticity enshrined in the Venice Charter and its 1990s successors that incorporated the diversity of intangible heritage. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with, it is not simply design nor is it simply practice. It is a calculus of form, content, interpretation and ultimately, the will of a community. Disneyland is an environment controlled by a corporation, but most of our communities are, to some extent, controlled by the community itself, and even a corporate environment will respond to its clientele.
oswalds gas
Gift shop that looks like a gas station, Disney’s California Adventure

History is dynamic and its preservation must also be dynamic. A process of conserving heritage insures that dynamism, whereas a rulebook can only stifle it. Heritage conservation is not the act of freezing buildings or artifacts in history. Rather, it is the art of activating historic resources for a contemporary society and its economy.
san carlos hobby shopS
Hobby shop, San Carlos, California

Disneyland and the uses of architecture

December 2, 2012

Vince at DisneylandNow that Disneyland is well over 50 years old and worthy of being a landmark, and the same can be said of me, I finally saw it recently. “The happiest place on earth” was indeed a fantastic piece of experience engineering, and architecture was a significant element of that engineering, or one should say “Imagineering.”


I always began my Interpretation classes with a 1996 quote from the then-new Jersey boardwalk attraction at Disney World, wherein a couple visited the attraction and reported that they loved it: “It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.” I was always shocked and appalled by that sentiment because it smacked of implanted memories, but I was also impressed by it because the ability to engender a nostalgic reaction to something essentially new and different is a pretty amazing skill.

thunder mountain

Mostly what you do at Disneyland is wait in lines, and they are very skilled at making that experience as pleasant as possible. We even waited in line half an hour at a Starbucks that was covered with posters and press clippings and other memorabilia about a 1940s style singing trio like the Andrews Sisters that was of course not from the 1940s but created for the park.

fairy castle

We all “read” our environments and we are used to seeing antiques or news clippings or other historical objects as ornaments in restaurants, so we play along with the “reading” of the faux singing trios history and memorabilia and we enjoy it because by reading it and “getting” it we are role-playing and thus participating ourselves in the immersive experience that has been imagineered for us.

main street corner

We read architecture too, and of course the first reading at Disneyland is the Main Street, which is full-on Second Empire Victorian, an 1870s fantasy with that slight but very perceivable diminution of scale that makes the buildings more like characters, like a stage set, and we want it to be more like a stage set because then we are players too because what is even better than paying to see a show is to get to be in the show.

main street 2nd empire

But what Victorian means here is not 1870, nor even the c. 1915 Victoriana that was the backdrop for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which appeared the year before Disneyland opened. On the one hand, Victorian in 1955 meant old and outdated, and Main Streets were already going under the knife at the time, but Disney appropriated it for its nostalgic value, and as we all know nostalgia is a distilled, intoxicating version of history whose reality and downside has been denatured.

main street facades

I used to say that as if it were a bad thing, but let’s please cast aside the morality of it and marvel at its engineering prowess. The Main Street means the comfort of an old time town, in Walt’s own life the Marcelline of 1915 versus the anxiety-laden modernity of the Kansas City or Chicago of 1917. And perhaps the Disney Main Street ended up inspiring the National Trust’s Main Street preservation program a generation later.

main street penny

I was most excited to see Tomorrowland, part of the trilogy of past, future and fantasy that was the organizing principle of the original Disneyland. It was also the biggest disappointment, because outside of a wonderfully 1950s spaceship, the whole series of attractions had been redone many times. I wanted to see the 1955 vision of tomorrow! Perhaps most telling was the House of Tomorrow – no longer was it a push-button, meal-in-a-pill, Murphy Bed-meets-Rube Goldberg streamlined Jetsons-style imaginary, but a comfy, woody, earth-toned Prairie House with some fancy screens and Kinects. It was not the 1955 vision of the House of Tomorrow, but our actual house, with the big screen Wii and the full-on 1910 Arts and Crafts design. Fascinating.


And then reality intrudes. There is a REAL plaque on the Disney monorail, which is now the oldest daily operating monorail anywhere and an actual engineering landmark. Does this reality affect my imagined experience?

monorail plaque

The Disney California Adventure, on the other side of the park, was meant to be a miniature California, with a logging community that included what appeared to be an actual lumber mill with a a plaque to prove it. But plaques are misleading, and the Cars attraction has plaques that describe the landscape you are looking at, which again is fairly easy to read but an entirely imaginary landscape appropriate to the cartoonish anthropomorphic Cars. We read the landscape and we read the plaques.

eurkea timber
pelton wheel plaque
carland plaque

Have I turned my back on the authenticity so prized by preservation? I don’t think so. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with. Authenticity is dynamic and mutable too, as my recent blog in the Huffington Post noted. Disneyland is an authentic historic theme park that has stood the test of time. It is like a vaudeville movie palace, a type of architecture considered inauthentic by preservationists in the 1960s because it was designed to entertain. The “real” artifacts of Disneyland add more complexity to the mix, although adding a level of confusion that makes you doubt their “reality” or authenticity. And of course I lamented the loss of the “authentic” house of tomorrow for a comfy Arts and Crafts home with a now inexplicable circular turntable.


Other bits of Disney’s California are related largely by architecture, such as the San Francisco section with its bite-sized Italianates that are icons of the city, and of course the great Maybeck pavilion, a miniaturized version of the rebuilt icon. The original pavilion from the 1915 World’s Fair does not exist, but its replica is now a beloved icon and repeated here in small form at Disney.

sf facade
maybeck knockoff

Architecture reveals its iconography and ability to instill experience in the Hollywood section, where a street of darling Deco buildings and movie theaters ends in a clearly visible staged backdrop of diminishing perspective, letting you in on the illusion but perhaps confirming the illusionary that is always part and parcel of architecture.

hollywood facades

As many tourists do, we combined our trip with a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, where a real movie and TV production set has become a tourist attraction replete with rides like Disneyland, and more architecture. You drive through sets that emulate New York and Mexico and Europe and even the outside streets of Desperate Housewives and the jungles of King Kong and Jurassic Park. You see the Bates Motel and house from Psycho and the fishing village from Jaws. It is a behind the scenes look where we marvel at our ability to enjoy being fooled.

US city street1
to those of you around the world stealing this photo based on its label: IT IS NOT A REAL US CITY STREET!
US western flood

The latest and greatest ride is Transformers 3D, a stunning adventure into a battle between robots based on children’s toys and all I could do as I was hurtled back and forth and up and down was try to identify the Chicago locations the battle is set in. Despite some specialized knowledge, the basic use of architecture at both of these places is to suggest a wrapping for experiences and emotions, whether it is suburbia or New Orleans or the Wild West.

new orleans facades

Architecture is key to the illusion and to the story because it immerses us and makes the experience real by defining the horizons of experience both visually and bodily. Its miniaturization and its distillation into a few essential elements makes it approachable and apprehendable, distilled and clarified more than the real place could ever be. I think we know, and are comforted to know, that it is not authentic.

carland buildings

It was fascinating to see place distilled, and even replaced into a better, imaginary world. It brought me to a time and place I knew because it was so easy to know, because the buildings and faux places gave me an entertaining and anxiety-free feeling of being part of a story. It is manipulated, but in a sense all architecture, all artifice is manipulation. Usually it has the function of housing our lives, but here it uses some of the same imagery to take us away from our lives.
enter the worldS

Trip to Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

November 18, 2012

I am on the Global Heritage Fund UK trip to Cambodia this week to see our project at Banteay Chhmar. Led by our Senior Director John Sanday, OBE. We began the trip with a visit to Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. An image of Angkor Wat is the center of the Cambodian flag, and as our compatriot John Pike noted, Cambodia is the only country in the world with an image of a heritage site on its flag. You could argue that the very existence of the country is based on heritage – the Khmer empires of the 9th through 14th centuries were centered at Angkor, and the sheer quantity of intricately planned and carved stone monuments here made it impossible to overlook despite its weakened state.

Group of schoolchildren at Angkor Wat. The site resonates with national identity
Likely it would have been divided up by Thailand and Vietnam, but it became a valuable buffer between French Indochina and the Thai kingdom, itself surviving without colonization due to its position between the French and English. The Khmer enemy state of Champa disappeared from the map, and while the Khmer themselves became much less relevant with the rise of sea trade in the 14th and 15th centuries, their former empire left monuments impressive enough that France made the onetime kingdom a protectorate.

A Cham ship from the battle scene at Banteay Chhmar.

In addition to Angkor Wat itself, one of the great attractions at Angkor is of course the Bayon, built by the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII in the 14th century and featuring two famous elements: First, massive face towers with the distinctly Khmer faces of Buddhas (probably) known for their artistic sense of peace and repose, sometimes called portraits of the great king Jayavarman VII himself; and a rich series of bas-reliefs depicting both battles with the Cham and scenes of daily life.

Both represent a high point in Khmer art and architecture, distinguished both by their Buddhist iconography (the earlier Angkor monuments are Hindu) and their rich layered realism. But both also exist at a site over a hundred kilometers to the northwest hard on the Thai border, where Jayavarman built a similarly massive temple called Banteay Chhmar, with over three dozen face towers and a marvelous series of bas-reliefs.

Bas-relief wall at Banteay Chhmar

The site is largely a ruin, although sections survived, and six years ago it became a flagship project for the Global Heritage Fund. We have two major projects there finishing up this year, both led by John Sanday. First is a section of bas-relief wall that has been carefully put back together. Like the bas-reliefs at the Bayon, it depicts Jayavarman VII’s battles, and it also depicts the king himself.

The relief is vertically bisected at a couple points by rivers with fish, and I felt as if I were reading an account of the battles where the Khmer met the Cham at various rivers. The reconstruction is proceeding nicely due to a new crane we received thanks to Chris Brewer. The value of the project goes beyond the reconstruction which makes this part of the ruined temple sensible. Much of the value lies in the GHF model which emphasizes community development and poverty alleviation. Almost 50 local workers have been trained as stonemasons and continue to work in teams at the site. They have new skills as well as a new appreciation for THEIR heritage.

The second project slated to be completed this year is the reconstruction of Face Tower N 18. Like the Bayon, Banteay Chhmar had face towers – shikara spires that abandoned the traditional Hindu format of the repeated and redented aedicule for four massive faces with beatific Mona Lisa smiles. While some argue whether they are Brahma (who had four heads, so, yeah) or the Buddha (since Jayavarman VII was Buddhist and heavily promoted his piety) or even the King himself (you don’t get to be a king by being modest) the point is Banteay Chhmar is one of the most significant sites for these face towers, which came late in the art and iconography of the Khmer. It even has several separate satellite temples that are face towers.

Here it is – let’s please get a close-up of the stones being put back into place

Ready to slide the stone via winch onto tower.

Moving stone onto tower. Note safety hardhats

Winching onto tower. Note safety footwear…umm, er, nevermind.

Almost in place – you can see the face at lower left

It was very exciting to see the work actually taking place, and to know that our support of heritage was supporting economic development for a rural town that previously had few options outside of agriculture. And looting. This is a key tipping point in any community with world heritage in its midst. We might appreciate it from outside, but the key – and the central mission of the Global Heritage Fund – is to conserve that heritage by empowering and enriching the local community. Then they have an investment in saving that heritage – and they are the ones who will save it in the long run.

Some of the local Khmer conservation team with John Sanday (right)

Being literally a stone’s throw from the Thai border, Banteay Chhmar was one of those sites that was looted. Another section of the bas-relief gallery that surrounds the temple is known for its unique images of the multi-armed Boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Eight of these life-size figures survived into the 1960s, but two collapsed and then four were chiseled off in the 1990s and stolen. Two were recovered and can be seen in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Two have been restored on site, and two more remain at large.

Surviving (and revered) Avalokiteshvara at Banteay Chhmar, 2012

Here is our group at Banteay Chhmar:

Everyone agreed that visiting this rambling, massive site gave a sense of wonder and discovery that was absent from crowded Angkor. The next step is to implement the Heritage Vision which GHF Founder Jeff Morgan has supported through GHF. This vision imagines how the site can be restored and activated for the benefit of the community. Skywalks will allow visitors to safely walk above and around the toppled sections of some 48 shikara towers. The surviving sections of bas-relief can be visited, along with the restored section. The moat might be restored so you can pass the asuras and devas churning the Sea of Milk with the naga. Satellite face towers can be toured, and then a community area with restaurants and shops engendered. You can spend the night in traditional homestays, as we did.

In the ruins

balustrade at moat

the restored bas-relief wall during evening music and cocktails at the site. Also crickets.

Our homestasy hosts preparing a wedding cake

virtual reconstruction of the temple complex

We had a great discussion about how much you restore: the virtue of the two projects Global Heritage Fund has completed is that they allow you to see what key elements of the temple looked like originally. Then you can imagine the rest as you clamber above and along the ruins: this is how the best interpretation works, buy giving a role to the audience. By trusting people’s imaginations and cognitive abilities, rather than spelling it all out for them. It is a point I made 6 years ago at Tustan in the Ukraine and one I made again here: give people the tools and let them do the reconstruction in their minds – it engages them in a site in a deeper and more meaningful way.

A partially collapsed gallery

entrance to the hall of dancers

The site has it all: traditional Hindu temple layout and tower design; intricate bas-reliefs describing the history of an empire that controlled over a million people when Paris was a city of 30,000; the strangler figs you see in Ta Prohm and the
majestic and evocative face towers you see in the Bayon; the entrancing images of apsaras and the Buddhist iconography of Preah Khan, all in a remote jungle site far from the pressures of mass tourism at Angkor.

The king defeats the demon
It will only be two and a half hours by road from Siem Reap near Angkor, but for now Banteay Chhmar lies over 3 hours by sometimes poor roads from the rest of the tourists in Cambodia. We met with the Community Based Tourism group that GHF set up, and they provide homestays and guide services for about 500 tourists a year. They could easily handle 10,000, still a miniscule fraction of those descending on Angkor.

Meeting with Tath Sophal and the Community Based Tourism project


October 3, 2012

“Despite increasing diversity among archaeologists and anthropologists, there is a strong tendency for researchers to have been socialized within a Western social tradition that places a high value on individualism, regards manual labor as unrewarding, and assumes the inevitability of hierarchy in any endeavor involving more than a few people.”

The above comes from Theresa Topic’s article on Marcahuamachuco, a site in northern Peru which the Global Heritage Fund approved as a project in 2011.  I was there last week to evaluate next steps in the project, and while the greatest challenge lies in the hours I spent bouncing inside an SUV as it bounced off the scattered boulders that pass for roads to, around and on the site, I was still intrigued because the site presents a very unique physical layout.

I had been told by biased sources that this was “the Machu Picchu of the North” and in many ways it paralleled that more famous (and much more recent) site in its monumentality and dramatic mountaintop setting.  According to the Topics, who began archaeological excavations here 20 years ago, the site dates from around 400 A.D. and unlike Machu Picchu, which was built and abandoned by the Inka in less than a century, Marcahuamachuco does not appear to have significant Inka (or Huari) occupation.


What it does have are a lot of high walls, in both a circumferential “fortress” wall and a series of round enclosures on the southern end.  These are double walls with clear evidence of occupied stories inside, each story about 8 feet high, making walls of 25 feet in height in several locations.


These are in stone, not the precisely joined masonry of the Inka but a more practical combination of large and small stones that has some seismic strength.  They reminded me of the round enclosures of the ancient Irish in the Burren and elsewhere, and of course my recent post on round structures.  Now, to be clear, the main structure, which is 5 stories high and labelled the Castillo or Castle, is not round, nor are most of the large buildings in the center of the complex.  Indeed, the northernmost complex are known as the rectangular towers, and these have yielded some interesting votive offerings in the last year.




work on the torres rectangulares

What first struck me about the site (besides the SUV rollbar, which struck me repeatedly on the way there) were the huge halls that seemed to have been used as hostels or residences – massive rectangular structures reminiscent of the refectories in medieval European monasteries in their layout. This implies less a centralized, authoritarian hierarchy (always the least efficient form of social organization) than a familial federation. Less cult, more culture.



here you can see where the floor supports are – this is the west wall

So let us return to Theresa Topic’s quote above:  what it appears we have in Marcahuamachuco is a ritual site where people stayed on site in large, likely clan-based structures for extended periods of time, although not permanently.  So, there is an analogy to Irish round enclosures, after all.  These assumptions are based on the amount of arable land in the vicinity, and the like use of certain structures for ceremonial purposes.  But it is the large residential structures which are in many ways the most interesting due to their scale and complexity.


hearth visible in one of the round enclosures known as Monjas


the massive west gate


view from Monjas to western wall


The site has a 360-degree, commanding view of the entire valley.  It also has some of the ceremonial structures we expect in Peruvian huacas and other sites, mostly in the plaza around the large Castillo building.


The Castillo itself is intriguing because unlike the segmented masonry of the other structures, it appears to have been built, Bavinger style, in a kind of wrapping masonry spiral. 
Note the linear structure of the Monjas building below.


The conjecture at this point is that various clan groups operated their own hostleries on the site while staying for some extended rituals.  Burning Man?  Much more research needs to be done, and we are hoping to help the local team – the Unidad Ejecutora de Marcahuamachuco – with mapping and other high-technology solutions to documentation and conservation. 


Now we just need to get the roads fixed and we can bring tourists to an amazing site that is still waiting to tell its full story!



Historical Societies

August 22, 2012

with Anthea M. Hartig, PhD

My friend and colleague Dr. Anthea Hartig, who last year became the Executive Director of the California Historical Society, asked the provocative question: What is a Historical Society in the 21st Century? Good question. What does it mean? And what has it meant? I asked for her help answering this question and got it….


The term “Historical Society” strikes one as odd because of the second word: do we need to create a special society for those who are historical or interested in history? Why isn’t everyone? Is it a social group that gathers for fancy dress dinners to hear about each other’s adventures in the past, like an Explorer’s Society or a Wilderness Society? Or, more fairly, a group that gets together socially to share a common interest in exploration or wilderness or history or whatever? There is certainly a sense of exclusion in the use of “Society, ” although strictly speaking there doesn’t have to be – we are all one society, after all. And we share history, presumably.

Preservation organizations often used the word “Society,” such as the pioneering Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (1910) or the 19th-century American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, or more disturbingly, the Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals, founded in 1922 in Charleston, South Carolina, which consisted only of white people.

There is an old-timey air to the word “Society”, and that is perhaps why some have abandoned it. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Heritage New England within the last decade. The Barry Byrne book I just finished was researched for a decade at the Chicago Historical Society, and then for another five years at the Chicago History Museum, because they changed their name.

Perhaps the implication is that this is a segment of society that cares for historical things. Indeed, people expect a historical society to preserve artifacts of the past, to be an archive, and to accept donations of important (usually) historic items. The Chicago History Museum (Chicago Historical Society for almost 150 years) is a good example. It has collections of everything from costumes and architectural drawings to lowriders and locomotives.

The California Historical Society has a similar mission, although Dr. Hartig has worked to broaden its reach into every corner of “society” in the largest sense. Perhaps we should talk less about Society with a capital “S” and focus more on society with a small “s.”

Archives and Artifacts

Most historical societies have collections of archives and artifacts, and often one of their primary goals is the conservation of those artifacts. Another primary goal is educating the public – the larger “society” – about its shared history, often through the use of those artifacts and archives. This was the point of the excellent new exhibit on the Golden Gate Bridge that Anthea staged at the California Historic Society. Conservation will only happen if people care about their shared heritage, so education and interpretation are essential to the maintenance of archives.

Public and private agencies need to clean their drawers every now and then (so do I come to think of it) and they often look for a receptacle for items no longer current or useful to everyday business, and donate them to historical societies (and museums and archives). For scholars such as us, this is great, because original documents are vital evidence. They help us understand the context of so many aspects of our lives, from bridges and buildings to the formation of institutions and a great variety of public debates.

Now, we have also done research in active public agencies, like municipal landmarks commissions, although since these are not designed for research, it often takes a long lead time, serious preparation and maybe even an FOIA filing. Files that have been transferred to a museum or historical society are much easier to access, because they are designed for it.

The Library of Congress is basically an archive but I think its name helps focus the question here. As a “library,” we expect it to have a lot of books and files. But there is something they have – shared with historical societies and museums – that is even more important for the scholar (or exhibit designer). A library is not a bunch of books but a bunch of finding aids, the most versatile of which we label librarians.

Every historical society has archives and artifacts – the great ones have those items accessible through a series of contexts and analytics. This makes history more accessible, more relevant, and more useful.—especially when then have librarians and free, accessible research libraries like the California Historical Society’s

Exhibits and Education

Most historical societies have exhibits, which differentiates them from those other 19th-century-sounding groups focused on teas and lectures and fora. Exhibits bring the artifacts to the attention of the public, usually making an argument for their interest, relevance, and by extension, their ongoing conservation.

It was the importance of exhibits – and the desire to make those exhibits relevant to a larger portion of “society” that led the Chicago Historical Society to become the Chicago History Museum. It seems clear that successful exhibits and educational programs, especially offsite, are more important than archives to the “museum.” Interestingly, old exhibits are among the hardest thing to preserve. I was hired by the Chicago History Museum to tour the actual sites of five 1932 dioramas they had in the museum, in order to rekindle interest in this older form of exhibition.

About 15 years ago the Milwaukee Public Museum had a fascinating problem. In the 1960s during urban renewal they had saved bits of various buildings as sections of the city were being leveled, and reassembled them inside the museum into a “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit. The interpretation of the little street and buildings became pretty irrelevant by the 1980s, when various exhibits were shoehorned in to address the presence of minorities and women in the 19th century. By the 1990s the Museum realized it had better chuck the whole thing out and start over if it was going to properly represent 19th-century Milwaukee. But there was an outcry. A generation had grown up with those fragmentary “real” buildings and didn’t want to lose them. The “inauthentic” indoor street made of fragmentary “real” buildings had itself become an object people wanted to preserve.


Many if not most local historical societies were formed not because they had a cache of photographs or files or pioneers’ memoirs but because an important historical building was threatened with demolition. The Milton Historical Society in Milton, Wisconsin, was formed in 1948 to save the old Milton House, the oldest concrete structure in the U.S. and an underground railroad site. The Winfield (IL) Historical Society was formed in 1978 to save Hedges Station. The Historical Society of Glastonbury (CT) was formed in 1935 to save the Gideon Welles House, which they did the following year. The Marion County (OR) Historical Society was founded in 1950 to save the state’s first legislative building, which they failed to do, but finally opened a museum a quarter-century later.

Milton House

The Lyons (CO) Historical Society was formed to keep the old train depot in town and save the local 1881 school as well. A group was formed in Millbrae (CA) in 1970 to save Sixteen Mile House and while they failed, they eventually saved a local landmark that was relocated and became their museum in 1987. Local historical societies save artifacts, and in most cases their largest artifact is their building.

There is of course a problem with this dominant model of housing historical collections in an historic building. The best environments for conserving historic artifacts require the sort of precise climate controls that a.) do not usually exist in historic buildings, b.) actually can interfere with the conservation of the building. To properly care for a house, it shouldn’t have collections; to properly care for collections, they shouldn’t be in a house.

Some do both. The Burlington County (NJ) Historical Society, which includes the 1743 Bard-How house, furnished with 18th century antiques, the James Fenimore Cooper House and the Captain James Lawrence House. The Society also built a modern climate-controlled museum, the Carson Poley Center, behind the houses for its historical and genealogical library.


Let’s go back to that earlier concept, that we are one society and we share a history. Most “historical societies” however, are more particular. They may celebrate and conserve the achievements of one group, like Irish or Inuit or Italian immigrants, or they may commemorate and archive the achievements of laborers, or sports figures, or even public works. Most of them are clearly place-based, collecting and preserving the artifacts and buildings of a city, county, or state.

As preservationists, we know that nothing is more indicative, persuasive and significant in the history of place than its physical legacy of buildings, sites and structures. As preservationists, we also know that our concerns sometimes do not resonate with the whole of “society,” although we are usually in the majority.

This is a preserved place. And a historical society
Maybe “historical societies” are a legacy of an America that was all about building the future. The idea of saving history was so countercultural and antithetical to the true business of American society that you had to secede and create a new, “historical” society. Today of course, we have The Society for Creative Anachronism, which deliberately “lives” in the Europe of 400 years ago, and the extremely popular re-enactors who recreate Civil War and Revolutionary War battles with an incredibly precise concern with accuracy. As National Geographic reported recently, Union soldier’s caps are indigo, not blue, and you may not be able to recover from such an error should you make it.

Are all such “societies” secessions? A desire to escape from the everyday through a role-playing fantasy – Sailor Moon or Professor X or General Meade – from fiction or history? As historians, we treasure the belief that there is a reality and accuracy to our mission, and our method is scientific in that it requires evidence and documentation. Most historical societies were created by volunteers and enthusiasts, and of course most eventually graduate to be institutions that employ historians and curators and conservators. Those are less secessions than specializations.

What’s Next

The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Heritage New England, which certainly sounds like a modern heritage conservation organization. The archives and collection of the Chicago Historical Society became the Chicago History Museum, which sounds a LITTLE more fun, although it still has the word “history” in it. Is it simply an attempt to update verbiage and appeal? The Chicago History Museum has also unveiled mobile apps that allow you to peer into the history of a place within the city from the convenience of your smart phone.

What does it mean to be a historical society – a 19th century term – in the 21st century? We’re collectively answering that question each day we toil away, but for now Anthea’s not planning on changing the name of my new home, the Golden State’s, statewide heritage non-profit founded in 1870,– it’s got too much history going for it!

Context and Culture

July 25, 2012

Context is everything in heritage conservation. As any of my former students could tell you, it is the key to determining the significance of a site.  Context includes issues like rarity, authenticity, historical impact, artistic value, etc.  If I have hundreds of walled cities in China – as once existed, only those that were exceptionally intact or beautiful or impactful would be considered significant.  If, however, I have only one walled city surviving, its significance immediately becomes global.PY walls 53sand I only have the one…

Context is also important in terms of culture. There is a Belgian village in Japan which is sort of like a cultural amusement park, but we can successfully argue that it does not have authenticity because, well, it ain’t Belgium. Any cultural significance it has is related to the how and why of creating it and visiting it. Yes, Disneyland has significance, but that significance – THE CONTEXT – is America in the 1950s and not how pirates lived in the Caribbean.

We can make similar arguments about what is consdered high and low culture, and here is where it gets interesting. I have often related the storyof how the group now known as Landmarks Illinois did an inventory of significant landmarks in Chicago in 1974 and did NOT include the Chicago Theatre (1921, Rapp & Rapp) because it was considered low culture, entertainment architecture – not serious like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright or Daniel Burnham. Within six years the popular building was threatened, and Landmarks Illinois revised its high culture opinion. The context changed. The context of architectural history changed (as it always does over time), the context of popular engagement with landmarks changed as well.

Architecture? You want architecture? We got more architecture per linear foot than any of those fancy guys!

Part of this story also has to do with Chicago, which has a particular culture, especially in terms of architecture. Thanks to its singular legacy in the history of skyscrapers and modernism and fancy guys like Sullivan and Burnham and Wright, the average Chicagoan understands architecture as part of local culture. It is like a spectator sport, more so than any other city in North America. And despite the integration of the Chicago Theatre into architectural history, Chicago can be a bit snobby.

When artist Seward Johnson did a super-size sculptural version of the famous Art Institute of Chicago painting “American Gothic” by Chicago-trained Grant Wood, people generally liked it, and understood that it fit into the context of the city.

But then the same artist did an oversized version of Marilyn Monroe’s famed pose from the film The Seven Year Itch. Context was called into question: Monroe was not associated with the city, the film was set in New York, why was this here? It was certainly a popular tourist trap during its tenure, but most of the culture mavens decried it, mostly on the basis of its lack of context. (There was also a puritanical critique based on the reality that you could stand under..where?)

Keep your eyes on the architecture, buddy!”

Now, when Marilyn was taken away from North Michigan Avenue, she traveled to Palm Springs, and there she has been welcomed with open arms and unbridled enthusiasm. And I get it. Palm Springs is about the 1950s modernism that formed the context of the Seven Year Itch, indeed the context of Marilyn Monroe as a pop culture icon. Palm Springs is all about fabulousness, and what could be more fabulous than a 26-foot high Marilyn Monroe in her prime upswept skirt form? It may sound heretical, but this is to Palm Springs what David is to Florence: this sculpture conveys the spirit of the place. That is not snarky or critical, but simply accurate. Marilyn was a bit lost in Chicago, not as lost as a skyscraper in the Sahara or a Dreadnaught in the Danube, but still a little lost. She is totally at home in Palm Springs, beloved and appropriate. She is an icon and emblem of the genuine local culture. The context enhances the sculpture.

She even looks happier. Courtesy Gregg Felsen, Joe Enos and everyone at Forever Marilyn Palm Springs
I stress again, this is not a value judgement in terms of ranking one place over another, or even about high culture versus low culture. It is about place-specific culture and the appropriateness of art, or interpretation, to its specific site. This is a vital understanding in the heritage conservation field, where no solution is universal.

Impressions of the High Line

May 5, 2012

Bad weather for flying gave me an extra eleven hours in New York City so I decided to visit the High Line, which is to urban design what Facebook was to social networking in 2008 or what the iPhone was to telephony in 2007.  Even though rails-to-trails are older than my creaky knees, the High Line has been HOT, HOT, HOT.  Every city that wants to have the coolest in infrastructural fashion is getting one.  Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is the premier project in town largely thanks to the High Line analogy.  So I had to see it and here are my impressions.


As I said, there is nothing new about rails-to-trails – I grew up near the Prairie Path, a biking route on an old railroad right-of-way, and even the Civilian Conservation Corps was converting a canal towpath to a recreational trail and park way back in 1933.  The High Line is different.  First off, it is elevated.  Again, that by itself is not unique, but the conversion to a trail and park becomes an overlay on an already dense city, not unlike the stacked elevator parking garages near its southern end.  The elevation also removes it from the urban everyday and thus grants a sense of escape and relaxation.  Traditional urban parks used berms or lines of trees to screen the city/  Here, the city is not screened, but you are at a remove from it.

Second, it is more park than trail.  Filled with benches and overlooks and public art, this is a place for people to relax, to promenade, to entertain children, to visit.  The relaxation implied by the separation from street level is enhanced by ample plantings – a balanced, colorful and well textured collection of fauna from trees  to ferns to flowers.  But unlike Chicago’s Lurie Garden in Millenium Park, it is not overplanted.  I watched a bird flitting in among the brush below me at a section near 23rd street that was bi-level.



This is a nicely designed park.  I love the section where the rails and plants are visible and it seems like little more than an overgrown old railroad track.  While this is driven by the sense of urban palimpsest it is not overdone in an 80s gritty-chic way but it is delicately toned and when I say that I am smelling it and hearing it too – it is not patchouli but a whiff of lavender..

That is because other sections of the High Line revel in their design: the pavement buckles in deliberate bevels to allow the plants in on sharp but controlled angles, shading in and out of nature with a jagged edge that does not read as a jagged edge but a controlled collage of concrete and greenery.

Like the great urban parks of the 19th century, the design has a romantic asymmetry, compelling natural focus but also a reassuring sense of human design.  Like those old parks, we have a controlled nature that says: You Can Relax Here.  As a peripatetic 21st century person, I find it hard to relax, but this design did it to a very real degree.  I sat for long stretches.  The design also has lots of benches – different kinds, some rising up from the paving in the same material, some in laminated wooden platforms that feel like the rooftop urban decks.

The pathway shifts, not always following the tracks, which are sometimes over there amongst the plantings, sometimes under your feet flush with the pavement, sometimes vanished altogether.  This is not a slavish design afraid to depart from its origins, nor is it  hubritic design that trashes or violates its origins.  In this sense it is the highest form of preservation, conservation and adaptive re-use.  It creatively appropriates the past, injects it with consonant and harmonic newness without denying its original existence.  It makes it relevant by building on its relevance.


If you build it…the most amazing impression I had of the High Line on an overcast early May day was how successful it is.  Like Millenium Park in Chicago, you can kvetch about costs and concepts and inconvenience if you want, but this thing is drawing pilgrims by the boatload.  It was sometimes CROWDED.  Everyone wants to be there and a few of them were even speaking English.  It has interactive opportunities like art (not too much like Navy Pier does, but just enough) and the aforementioned opportunities to relax and interact.

The most interesting feature to me about the interaction of design and use on the High Line are the overlooks – small or large sections of the platform designed to allow viewers to look out at the city.  Often the view is unspectacular – an old warehouse street, an odd mix of housing project and commercial avenue, a construction site (lots of those).  It is almost as if the overlooks are designed not because there is something to be seen, but because there is an opportunity for the overlook.

Urban parks were first designed as escapes from the city, an attempt to bring the humanizing and even moralizing lessons of nature and rural environments to the ennui of the modern industrial city.  Now that that city is gone it is an object of nostalgia, and we can design parks that include the contemplation of both nature and the physical remnants of the industrial city.  We rise above the streets on the High Line and reflect on the city below, enjoying the unusual view, the balanced design, the connection with many other people doing the same thing.  We see the architecture of past and present, the urbanism of past and present, and we enjoy the city itself as a consumer product, not simple a setting for our hopes and desires, but a physical manifestation of them.  The High Line is 21st century urbanism because it recognizes the city itself as the primary object of our desire.

The emotional logic of Authenticity

April 21, 2012

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.

The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”

No such luck. On your bike, sunshine.

Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?

It’s foreign, so how do you know if it is real?

I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.

That roof tile general is only 5.

The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.

The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.

So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.

The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.

Tiruchirapali, 1986. They explained that he was wearing sunglasses because he was a movie star running for office. Like Reagan.

And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.

Humboldt Park boathouse, 1989

Humboldt Park boathouse, 2006

My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.

Phyllis’ Musical Inn mural, painted 1987-88.

So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.

These are the traditional Bai costumes of Dali. These are not Bai children.

This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.

Took us an hour to find it – TOTALLY worth it.

It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.

Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.

When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.

The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?

Kampang Chnang, Cambodia, 2012

Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.

Sa Dec, Vietnam, 2012

Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.

What is the commodity? What is the exchange?

But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.

Genocide Tourism

March 17, 2012

There is a very traditional view of conserving historic sites that considers such sites to be honorific and edifying; noble and good. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union saved Mount Vernon to honor George Washington as the founder of the United States. Of course, they were also trying to protect his home from the depredations of “manufactories” and prevent the Civil War, but their primary stated goal was honorific.

Similarly, much of 19th century American preservation was about battlefields and founding fathers. But historic sites are also saved as warnings to posterity; as legacies or reminders of very horrible events that are the opposite of honorific: we save them because there are lessons to be learned. The Germans have a word for this kind of landmark: Mahnmal, as opposed to the more generic Denkmal or the honorific Ehrenmal. And it was in Germany 30 years ago that I first encountered genocide tourism.

The site was Dachau, a concentration camp outside Munich where Jews and other perceieved enemies of the state were incarcerated and killed. I remember the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the ovens in the crematoria and the quote from Santayana about those who do not learn the lessons of history and are thus bound to repeat it.

The infrastructure of Holocaust memorials and museums has grown considerably since 1982, and one of the intriguing sites is of course Prague, where the Nazis saved buildings as a kind of landmark to what they planned as a vanished race. The Jewish quarter and synagogue and cemetery is still a significant tourist attraction.

I recalled this because I have just done a lot of genocide tourism the last two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. In Phnom Penh a popular tourist attraction is S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a onetime school converted into prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge during their murderous 1975-79 regime.

These sites can be brutal: S-21 features skulls in cabinets, huge displays of photos of those killed, and actual shackles, torture devices and preserved cells that were crafted out of the larger classrooms Barbed wire still lines one of the buildings.

The endless rows of photos of those who were tortured and died here is of course sobering, and the remaining physical remnants evocative, although a horror of that scale and brutality is easily beyond the experience of most of the tourists. There are crude paintings depicting some of the tortures, and there are corpse photos that give some sense of it, but like all historic interpretive challenges, the most effective and lasting memory was the descriptions given by our guide.

Our guide was not shy about describing some tortures fairly explicitly eliciting a collective physical reaction from our group as he described the way they killed babies. He also demonstrated how the shackles worked and showed us the bloodstains in one room.

I teach classes and have been involved for years with the interpretation of historic sites, so this question of how to interpret and present and re-present genocide and torture and murder is an interesting one. The barbed wired and various surviving elements do an effective job at conveying a particularly horrific episode in human history, but there was something about the stream of tourists going through the site that created an unfair equivalence of use with more honorific or aesthetic tourists sites.

The Khmer Rouge ruled less than four years, but during that time murdered – often brutally – at least a quarter of the population, over 2 million persons. They began by killing intellectuals and anyone else who did not fit their radical agrarian ideal, continued by killing ordinary citizens, and finally began killing their own cadres as Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid. You see all three groups pictured here in S-21, and sometimes you see their clothes and their bones.

How do you convey genocide? Apparently, some conventions have evolved, such as the piles of clothes and the rows of photos, because there are parallels to Holocaust museums. Just as we have standard ways of interpreting battlefields or house museums or old factories, we have developed a vocabulary for describing the brutality of murdering millions.

A survivor outside sells his book about surviving the prison, and people wander through the site in much the same way they wander about the Royal Palace or the Silver Pagoda. It is a bit more somber, clearly, but it is still a tourist site full of tourists.

So is the Killing fields site, about 20Km outside of Phnom Penh. One of 388 such sites in the country. Depressions in the ground convey the killing fields themselves, while an attractive shrine designed with elements of traditional Khmer architecture provides the backdrop, its interior packed with 17 stories of skulls arranged by age group.

The vocabulary of skulls, perhaps inherited from catacombs sites, reappears, as does the vocabulary of piles of clothing of the murdered. More clothes and more bones tend to surface after rains. The repetition and quantity convey some of the horror.

Signage describes sites where killings happened, where prisoners were held, where chemicals were used to dissolve the bodies. In the fields themselves more signs describe how many bodies in what condition were found in various pits and you swear you can still see fragments of bone and cloth as you walk through the site.

It is somber, but in the sunlight it is not eerie, although even the signs can elicit that involuntary jerk of the neck and shoulders we experienced at S-21. But what struck me again was how big the site was and how many tourists were there to see it. Concessions provided food and drink for the weary.

How must it feel to be famous for genocide and to offer that as one of your city’s – or country’s – greatest “attractions”? Does it promote healing or does it prolong suffering? Certainly it responds to a market – people have heard of the Killing Fields, seen the movie, and want to see them, much as they want to see the (long gone) “murder castle” of H. H. Holmes in Chicago, thanks to the book “The Devil and the White City.” Devil and the White City tours have become a staple the last several years. Is it morbid curiosity? Sure, but what does that mean? Is it morbid curiosity to see Napoleon’s tomb, or Ho Chi Minh’s, or Lincoln’s?

“Morbid curiosity” seems to denote the desire to see a crime scene, or the rubbernecking at a highway accident. It is also something we outlawed 20 years ago, at least in terms of Native Americans. You may not look at their graves or bones, thanks to NAGPRA in 1990. But I can see the skull of St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, as I did this January in Lima, Peru. I can even see unidentified bones in Austrian churches or French catacombs:

There is clearly a difference between an Ehrenmal (place of honor) and a Mahnmal (place of warning), but what attracts tourists to each place? Do these sites promote the idea of “Never Again” as it says on the stone in front of Hitler’s birthplace, or do they simply satisfy morbid curiosity? There is certainly an element of identity at play, the identity perhaps unfortunate that Cambodia gained from this horrific history.

Perhaps it is also a calculation about what the tourist want to see. In Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon), Americans are brought to the War Remnants Museum (originally the War Atrocities Museum) where they get a good dose of our own little genocides, villages wiped out and all civilians killed.

They also bring everyone to the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex that is literally a city underground, where the Viet Cong waged their war of resistance against the Americans and South Vietnam. And our group was brought to So Do, another Viet Cong site which has been rebuilt with concrete walkways that look like wooden bridges, restored thatch headquarters and trap doors and bunkers built throughout the jungle near Sa Dec.

There was a wedding going on there, the noise of which made it hard to understand our guide, shown here with an interpreter dressed as a 1960s Viet Cong:

This is identity tourism, but it is geared toward the visitors – Americans – rather than the locals, although there were domestic tourists there as well. This somewhat relentless series of Vietnam War sites that most tourists visit is indicative of the identity politics of the tourists. The Vietnam War defined the United States in a way it did not define Vietnam. Vietnam defines itself much more by the oppression they feel from the Chinese, who invaded for a thousand years and have fought them regularly since (including a shooting war years after the Americans left). The tourism infrastructure of these Vietnam War sites is clearly driven by the American market, and in fact So Do is almost entirely a reconstruction.

The effect of all of this genocide tourism was neither numbing nor depressing. It was certainly sobering, and certainly in many moments uncomfortable, but comfort will never convey history accurately, even more pedestrian and less brutal histories. Ultimately genocide tourism is a particular brand of heritage tourism, driven in part by identity, in part by a need to warn posterity, and largely by the market for seeing, and perhaps understanding, the shared inhumanity in us all.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 207 other followers