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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/masstravel/8531786440

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]

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