Research Notes: Repair and Temporal Relativity

As I embark on actually writing my thesis, I have a lot of ideas I’m trying to mesh together. I’m going to use this space as a little sandbox for some of those ideas in a short form to see if that works.

One of the challenges that I see in immersive historic sites is that they seem to erase the time that has intervened between the “period of significance” and the present. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, for instance, describe a visitor to Colonial Williamsburg who directly related the experience of a slave to his childhood hardships during the Great Depression.[1] This visitor wanted to make a connection to what he was seeing but the interpreters and buildings around him eliminated most of his life experience from the conversation rather than offering a sense of perspective. This is most apparent at living history sites where interpreters in character act as if they don’t understand modern technology, but the effect is present at most sites with reconstructed interiors and period furniture.

An interpreter tends a garden at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA. Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism under Creative Commons License CC BY-ND 2.0:

Michael Baxandall describes the interplay between museum object, curator, and viewer, in a way that I think is helpful. Specifically, Baxandall talks about the curatorial choices in an exhibit as a mediation between the artifact and the viewer. “Exhibitions in which different cultures are combined or juxtaposed are inherently more wholesome than exhibitions of a single culture,” writes Baxandall. “The juxtaposition of objects from different cultural systems signals to the viewer not only the variety of such systems but the cultural relativity of his own cultures and values.”[2]

If positioning objects from different cultures makes the viewer consider their own cultural context, might acknowledging multiple layers of a site’s history better position visitors to consider their place in that story? Thomas Schlereth famously observed that each house museum has at least two stories to tell: in addition to the period of interpretation, there is always the story of becoming a museum. What Baxandall’s analysis suggests, however, is that acknowledging more stories–from visitors, as well as other eras of the house’s existence–add more context and make everyone more aware of their own biases.

Acknowledging new construction next door, for instance, puts a HHM in context. Photo by Clive Wren via Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0:

Then from material cultural theory, there’s another idea which I think has some bearing on all of this. Steven J. Jackson, observing that traditional ideas of progress feel out of place in our postmodern and fractured present, proposes repair as a method of analysis. Looking at vulnerabilities and cracks as theoretical starting points–rather than beginning with the ideal and the whole–reveals that the unglamourous work of maintenance (Jackson even uses the word “care”) is just as important as the act of creation or invention. Furthermore, repairs may make an object better suited for the world it inhabits and the tasks it is put to than the original design.[^3]

Philadelphia’s most famous repair. Photo by Michael Cover, used under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0:

Jackson is writing about repair in the context of technology and new media, but I think his theoretical shift transfers well into historic spaces. Historic House Museums, for instance, are often primarily concerned with the origin of the house and individuals who occupied the house centuries ago rather than the subsequent life there and the requisite repairs. What could telling the story of maintenance and reconstruction reveal about a house? How might that offer visitors different reference points for the building they see?

I was struck, reading the historic structure report for Thomas Edison’s final home, Glenmont, that much of what the staff of Thomas Edison National Historical Park know (or knew at the time of the report) about the structure came from repairs. A sagging ceiling might be shored up and replastered, but while there was a hole in the structure the process offered preservationists a literal glimpse at what lay beyond the surface.

These ideas–that multiple points of temporal reference provide historical perspective and that repair is an underutilized focus of investigation–seem to fit together to me. Looking at instances of repair or renovation in a historic building disabuse viewers–visitors and interpreters alike–of the notion that it has arrived from the past in a static form. They make us view the whole as a collection of fallible parts which must be cared for, in use and in preservation.

As I fit these ideas toward some of the other concepts in my thesis, the ground becomes a little more unsteady. How does repair affect authenticity? Is Glenmont any less authentic because structural steel was added to keep it upright? Jackson’s essay doesn’t provide an answer, but suggests that it is an important question.

I want to push this thought a little further, to consider what has traditionally been called “restoration.” Is replica plaster detailing, copied from a remaining intact segment or an extant photo, a form of repair? Put another way: must repair be useful? Are replica aesthetics useful? Where might the line between aesthetics and usefulness be drawn (if it is drawn at all)?

Does the steel beam make the house more or less authentic than the painstakingly reconstructed ornamentation? Do these modifications support different vectors of “authenticity”?

Looping back to Baxandall, how do/can replicas provide context for “the real thing”? Is that possible?

Any insights you might have would be welcomed. I feel a little like I’m making this up as I go and desperately want some sort of handrail to guide me. Stay tuned for more musing and questions!


Works Cited

[1] Eric Gable and Richard Handler, “Public History, Private Memory: Notes from the Ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA,” Ethnos 65, no. 2 (January 1, 2000): 237–52.

[2] Michael Baxandall, “Exhibiting Intention,” in Ivan Karp, Steven Lavine, and Rockefeller Foundation, Exhibiting Cultures : The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington: Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991) 33-41.

[3] Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, ed. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014), 221–39.

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