musings.
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when there’s nothing left to preserve.

Historic preservation is about two things: saving and protecting historic buildings (or structures, or spaces), and saving or protecting (or redefining/inventing) historic memories. But our ideas about memory change over time, and sometimes when a community wants to preserve a memory they find that the structures associated with that memory no longer exist.  This is especially true when memories relate to memories of conflict or pre-conflict society, since conflict is often characterized by physical destruction.

So what do you do if there’s no neighborhood to preserve, no site to protect?  Or, more abstractly, if you want to recognize a particular event in collective memory independent of the physical built environment?  I’d like to propose that we can understand this as the difference between preservation and commemoration.  While preservation specifically refers to maintaining the appearance and structure of the existing built environment, commemoration is more abstract I think, having to do with the incorporation of social or collective memory into our experience of the physical world.

How can you do commemoration effectively, with or without an existing site or structure to connect it to?  Is signage effective?  Are interactive processes — tours, temporary installations — most useful?  How about education, actual direct curricular commemoration?  Is preservation sufficient if the physical structures remain, or do we need to have an approach of commemoration in conjunction with preservation strategies?  And how do we do both in a way that’s not oppressive to the present day? And how do we develop in a way that’s sensitive to the needs both of preservation and of commemoration?  And who decides who gets to commemorate what at a given site, whether there is a structure there or not?  These last questions seem to me to be an argument for temporary approaches that allow for layers of memory to occur in a particular place…

What do you think?

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2 Comments

  1. Alex R. says

    What an interesting question. One thing that springs to mind is entertainment–movies or historical fiction, for example–that use a story or event from the past. Though the accuracy of those sorts of things is usually compromised, they often do a great job of bringing a past event into the public’s current consciousness. It’s not a commemoration per se, but I do think that entertainment can be useful in getting people to want to learn more. Of course, even though some locally important events might be of widespread popular interest, entertainment can only cover so much ground, or go so far as a commemorative tool.

    I’m not sure about other strategies. It would seem that each event or site might call for something different–if for no other reason than to avoid tedium. Meanwhile, what about cultivating more of a public interest in genealogy? It seems like that would mitigate a few of the challenges of commemoration. Schools could teach students how to learn about their own geneaology and connect them to historical events.

  2. Pingback: the nostalgia machine. | flaneuserie

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