A 2008 book by Seth Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (University of Georgia Press), focuses on the history of George Washington's birthplace at Wakefield on Virginia's Northern Neck (pictured above). In doing so, he raises some rather interesting questions about the relationship between historic sites, landscape, and the problematic nature of historical memory.
Here are some excerpts from a recent H-Net review by Kirk Savage of the University of Pittsburgh, who "has written extensively on public monuments within the larger theoretical context of collective memory and identity."
'While a major part of the book concerns the administrative history of the site under the direction of the NPS, Bruggeman frames that history within a set of larger contexts. He is particularly interested in the long history of “object fetishism,” especially in the Christian traditions of saints’ relics and pilgrimages to holy sites. Bruggeman sees the secular birthplace phenomenon as a residue of these medieval spiritual practices. The question of who has access to and control over these potent objects is thus an age-old question of power and representation. At the same time, the survival of these practices of worship into an increasingly professionalized and “scientific” discipline of history raises problems and paradoxes for the bureaucrats who are charged with managing “sacred” sites and relics.
Over the past century, Wakefield has been a collection of various kinds of objects competing with one another for authenticity. The women who furnished the faux “replica” filled it with high-style colonial era furniture bought on the antiques market, while the NPS superintendent of the site fought to exhibit--in the house’s damp basement--a ragtag collection of arrowheads and pottery shards found onsite in archaeological digs, which, in his view, had special significance because Washington might actually have seen or used them. Bruggeman usefully sorts these competing objects into semiotic categories--index, icon, and symbol--according to the system laid out by philosopher Charles Pierce.
But Bruggeman’s narrative makes clear that, off and on, the NPS tried to sidestep the nagging questions about authenticity by shifting attention from the memorial house and its objects to the site itself, the landscape in which Washington was supposedly born and raised (up to the age of three!). From an early date the managers of Wakefield set up a “living farm” along colonial lines, and even hired an elderly black man, apparently born a slave near the Wakefield property, to work eighteenth-century crops like tobacco. Later, the NPS installed a comprehensive program of living history on the farm, one of the first in the park system. Until the 1990s, this program did not openly deal with the issue of slavery. Instead the birthplace tried to create an idyllic plantation environment supposedly “untouched by time” that would somehow conjure the memory of Washington, primarily for the benefit of a white tourist audience that might also take in Robert E. Lee’s birthplace just a few miles down the road.
While Bruggeman throws light on the issues of race, class, and gender at stake in these regimes of preservation and interpretation, his analysis would have benefited from a somewhat stronger emphasis on the core issue of landscape. Although “object fetishism” certainly plays a crucial role at Wakefield, the significance of the birthplace--from the moment Custis installed the first memorial stone there--has depended even more on the authenticity of the landscape itself. Yet that landscape arguably is no more authentic than the faux “memorial house,” since subsequent generations of owners, most notably the NPS itself, have so dramatically altered it. The idea of a landscape “untouched by time” is transparently antihistorical. It would be interesting to hear more of Bruggeman’s thoughts on the persistence of this rhetoric in NPS interpretation, which has been a constant from 1940 to the present, despite all the changes in administration and bureaucratic philosophy.'
For the full review, go to http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24798