By Judith Geer
A recent letter writer lamented plans to use life-size cutouts and an artificial archway along the historic Michigan Street corridor. The writer questioned the inclusion of these modern accoutrements, implying that such placements just to appeal to the tourist trade would interject an atmosphere of inauthenticity, thereby blunting the full significance of some of the city’s courageous forebears. The writer further indicated that the use of actual objects and structures from the past is far more instructive for visitors.
This letter got me thinking about historical sites and living museums I’d visited in my life and what made them effective. I am certainly aware that many people in our country – sadly, some with great authority – express no interest at all in past personages or events. This puzzles me because increasing our knowledge of the past informs the present and helps us forge a pathway toward the future. It affords insight into who we are as a people.
So, how do we spark excitement in the past at historic venues without creating an environment reminiscent of an amusement park? Original objects, structures and docents well-steeped in the time period in question can produce a memorable impression.
I remember taking trips to Williamsburg, Va., where actors portrayed real people who lived there in the 1770s. The actor playing Thomas Jefferson was especially good. In an interview I heard with this actor years later, he said he read everything he could find on the former president until he’d perfected his subject’s witty demeanor and passion for life.
Speaking of Jefferson, a couple of visits I made years apart to his home, Monticello, taught me that historical sites can change as new information is found. The first time I was there, the docent seemed affronted when a visitor asked about Jefferson’s liaison with his slave Sally Hemings. The next time I visited, great deference was given to that relationship because further research had established that Jefferson almost certainly had fathered children with Hemings.
A trip to Concord, Mass., illustrated the effect that authentic objects have on visitors when I saw an Asian tourist gazing devotedly at a reconstruction of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study in the town historical society building. Emerson’s original furniture had been placed there.
With quiet reverence, the visitor asked, “Where did he sit when he wrote?” When Emerson’s chair was pointed out, the visitor got tears in his eyes. It was obvious that this simply re-created site about the great 19th century American philosopher held great meaning for this gentleman from the other side of the world.
Without a doubt the most striking historical site I’ve ever seen was in Fredericksburg, Va. I was walking down the street when I turned a corner and there before me on the sidewalk was the big tree stump once used as an auction block in Fredericksburg’s old slave market. I was so startled that I gasped.
It had a plaque stating what it was and someone had left flowers beside it. The top of the stump had been worn smooth and was dented with the footprints of the unfortunates who had stood there so many decades before. Its presence on that street corner was a way of abruptly challenging passersby to contemplate a horrific time in our nation’s past and, by extension, to wrestle with its impact on our modern democracy.
In Western New York we have an incredible history, with some local sites already affording an elegant and unforgettable experience to visitors. May such places grow in number – thoughtfully and with grace.