Posts Tagged ‘Hidden Truths’

Making the past visible

February 11, 2009

My Research Studio class is looking at historic sites and how we mark them. This has been an interest of mine over the last decade, brought on by my experiences writing tour guides, being a tour guide and most of all, trying to explain the history of place to people. My graduate seminar is looking at the same issue, and I will report on that later this semester, but yesterday my First Year students and I took a tour of Lincoln Park and found lots of signs worth looking at, including a new project by Pamela Bannos called “Hidden Truths” which focuses on the fact that the southernmost 60 acres or so of Lincoln Park was once the city cemetery.
They moved the cemetery and reinterred the bodies, mostly at Rosehill, but a few remained behind – like the Couch tomb behind the History Museum – and skulls and bones invariably turn up every time someone digs in the park or even the Gold Coast, a fact Bannos presents in maps on her website
The Hidden Truths project is interesting because it uses the oldest and least interactive form of interpretive signage – the bronze plaque. The bronze plaque has an enduring quality in every sense of the adjective, but its ubiquity as a mode of communication has made it a turn-off for many people.
I tend to like artistic interpretations like the project on the sidewalks of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. We found an example of that in the form of footprints and medallions in “Dad’s Park” in Mid-North, not far from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, which is unmarked.
We also wandered through the Zoo on this preternaturally warm day and were greeted by the granddaddy of “wayfinding,” the signage that gets you around to see Rhinos and giraffes and even CTA buses.
We also found a few memorials, like the incredible Eugene Field memorial, which is on Zoo grounds and is an exquisite riot of 19th century sentimentality even though it was crafted in 1922. A fairy putting children to sleep with poppies…
A memorial is a different idea than a monument or even than an historical marker, which I believe is about the interaction of person and place. Memorials and monuments have less of a relationship to place, hence we have war memorials all over the country even though we have not had wars all over the country.
But we use the words sort of interchangeably: memorial, monument, landmark, markers, etc. and I think this is another example of conceptual laziness. I thought the Germans did better by having Denkmal, Mahnmal, Ehrenmal and Gedenkstätte, which are pretty specific in concept but it seems in practice they do not hew closely to the distinctions.
You know, we also have a Grant memorial in Lincoln Park.
And Lincoln, who would turn 200 tomorrow if he hadn’t been shot.
august-abesWe also found markers indicating the historic shoreline, which is useful in Lincoln Park, since the majority of its acreage is landfill.
At the South Pond, there is a lovely memorial garden with a Shakespeare sonnet on a series of four stones along a winding path. The plaque on a boulder is again one of the oldest forms of memorial marking/interpretation, and it is remarkable that it has returned to us now, in a world with such technological possibility. Why aren’t there interactive sound installations?
Actually, we found one of those in the Conservatory.
But it is striking how older forms abide even as new ones appear. It seems there is only addition, not replacement, like this odd boulder that my grad student Noel Weidner reported on Monday – erected in 1902 to commemorate the death 50 years earlier of a man who claimed to be 115 and have survived the Boston Tea Party.
The original plaque succumbed to the only force it is vulnerable to – metal scavengers – and was replaced. Now there is a brand new olde style plaque, part of Bannos’ Hidden Truths, and the whole place has become a sort of memorial to a memorial, a real memory of an apparent falsehood and the enthusiasm of those who would commemorate it.