Friday, October 16, 2009

Buildings, Landscapes, and Historical Memory

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


Bird on the Wing Design said...

I'm interested to see how Bruggeman carries out his "object fetishism" argument. While the appeal of the relic can often be used disastrously (I don't think I'm ever going to be on board with the GW wax figures...) I also don't like to see when historians who pursue the object fetishism line of thinking turn away from objects altogether. I'm curious where he falls on that spectrum. The anecdote about the struggle to stage the exhibition of arrowheads sounded so classic. I think it's important to study what is revealed about modern society as reflected in the ways museums fight over interpretation of the past. I'm always surprised people don't comment more about that regarding the ongoing Sally Hemings controversy--it seems to reveal far more about our own hangups than Jefferson's.

Mandy said...

Historical memory fascinates me. It bears so heavily on public history and how historical sites are interpreted. I think it is good practice to critically analyze the way history is presented. I like this quote in particular:

"If the birthplace tells us more about the history of commemorative regimes in the twentieth century than it does about the eighteenth century, what is the continuing rationale for its

It leads me to wonder whether the history of commemoration, in and of itself, would be an interesting way to frame questions about history to the public. It would be an excellent venue in which to examine the validity of stereotypical, popular beliefs about the past. Would it not be a jumping off point to discuss romantic notions of the "good ol' days?" The National Park Service could discuss why certain places matter, what those places can tell us about the past, and how that view of the past has changed over time in relation to changing cultural, social, political, and religious values. Can not the fact that Wakefield tells the history of commemorative regimes in the twentieth century alone justify its existence? Personally I would restore the replica house back to its original design, including the high-style furniture. I would use it to interpret the history of not only this site but others like it that were preserved by private associations and "restored" (e.g. Mount Vernon). I would also exhibit the archaeological site as a way to explain the methods we currently use to understand the past.

For too long historic sites, namely house museums, and especially those associated with our founding fathers, have tried to recreate a brief moment in history (e.g. 1799 at Mount Vernon). Can one frozen moment in history fully encompass a person’s lifetime of achievements? Historic sites and landscapes have much deeper pasts, and an attempt to interpret the evolution of their history would be a far more enriching and engaging venture. Life is not static, nor were the lives of our esteemed historical figures. And further, the manner in which historical figures are portrayed changes as new information comes to light and as the light we use to view them adapts. Perhaps the policy of recreating historic sites to reflect an appearance as we in the present believe it to have existed needs to be reconsidered. How history has been presented to the public over many years may in fact be just as interesting as the events that became history.

Boy Monday said...

I finally got the book and made it only partway through the introduction before I was annoyed with the jargon and had to put it down for a bit. Plus, for an author who claims to be taking the high road when it comes to historical accuracy, there are several factual mistakes in just the first few pages (Wakefield did not get its name from the Goldsmith book). You should know you're in trouble, though, when an author relies on Kathleen Brown's _Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs_ for his take on Colonial Virginia history.