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Change Over Time

An International Journal of conservation and

the built environment

Fall 2013


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Change Over Time AN

INTERNATIONAL OF

AND

THE

BUILT

JOURNAL

CONSERVATION ENVIRONMENT

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154 Editorial: Interpretation, Experience, and the Past F R A N K G . M AT E R O

ESSAYS

162 Storyscapes and Emplacement, Layer by Layer M A R Y M I T C H E L L A N D D AV I D S . B A R N E S

CONTENTS

174 World’s Fairs: Language, Interpretation, and Display FERNANDO VEGAS AND CAMILL A MILETO

188 Housing the Bell: 150 Years of Exhibiting an American Icon F R A N K G . M AT E R O

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162

202 With ‘‘Feelings of Reverence for Departed Greatness’’ FRANCES HENDERSON FORD

222 The Display of Ruins: Lessons from the Ghost Town of Bodie

174

DIANA STRAZDES

244 How Heritage’s Debate on Values Fuels Its Valorization Engine: The Side Effects of Controversy from Alois Riegl to Richard Moe CHRISTOPHER KOZIOL

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Change Over Time

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EDITORIAL Interpretation, Experience, and the Past

FRANK G. MATERO University of Pennsylvania

Figure 1. New York State Pavilion, Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, New York. Philip Johnson, architect (1964). Decay and the failed promise of the future combine to make a forceful and poignant postmodern ruin whose interpretation and reuse remain ambivalent, 2009. (Frank G. Matero)

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Any consideration of the interpretation and display of heritage sites demands reflection on three critical questions: • How should we experience a place, especially one that is fragmented, accreted, and possibly illegible? • How does intervention affect what we see, what we feel, and what we know? • How can display promote effective and active dialog about the past across space and time?

All conservation is a critical act that results in the conscious production of ‘‘heritage.’’ As an activity of mediation between the past and the present, conservation is ultimately responsible for what the viewer sees, experiences, and can know about the past and its relationship to the present. Much contemporary practice is concerned with finding an acceptable balance between protecting the many values that characterize places of historical and cultural significance, not the least of which involves the complexities of change to the tangible and intangible aspects that uniquely define all heritage. Such questions have been fundamental to classical conservation theory and practice concerned with interventions in the life of a building or place regardless of age. The tension inherent in this dialectic defines the very nature of conservation as the push and pull between the emotional and humanistic on the one hand, and the rational and scientific on the other (Fig. 1). James Marston Fitch attempted to explain and guide such intervention policies through a triadic model (Fig. 2) based on three tangible aspects of heritage:

1. The ‘‘present physiognomy’’ of the building/site, that is the accumulated physical evidence including age, what Ruskin called ‘‘voicefulness’’; 2. the ‘‘architectonic or aesthetic integrity’’ of the building/site in purely formal terms or the original artistic aesthetic intent, what Viollet-le-Duc termed ‘‘stylistic unity’’; 3. the ‘‘phylogeny and morphogenetic development of the artifact across time’’ or the development of type and structure, each work being unique and individual unto itself, a concept associated with Cesare Brandi’s ‘‘potential unity’’ and related to Gestalt philosophy.

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Figure 2. A triadic model of the modalities of built heritage. (Frank G. Matero)

More recently, intangible aspects of heritage places have joined the list in the name of a more evenly represented values-based approach that has gone far in attempting to give heritage greater visibility and meaning to a larger audience.1 At least since the late eighteenth century in Europe, sites of national historical importance have been maintained, repaired, and interpreted in a manner distinct from their ordinary everyday counterparts. Whether preserved or restored according to the prevailing principles of their time and place, heritage sites were viewed as exceptions to the rules of normal building maintenance and repair and practical alterations. Take for example the extreme case of ruins. Preservation and display as an integral part of their intervention began in the eighteenth century with the belief in and contemplation of nature and the solace that could be derived from a ruin. There was no question of preservation in the Romantic or Picturesque attitude toward a ruin.2 The ruin was there to stimulate the visitor, the effect sometimes enhanced by selective destruction and cultivated vegetation. The pleasure to be derived was one of reconstruction in the mind’s eye of the ancient place in its original state; the better one understood the ruin, the better the imaginative reconstruction. It was in the late nineteenth century that the first formal attempts to both excavate and display in a scientific manner were attempted at excavations such as Assos (Turkey), Knossos (Crete), and Casa Grande (Arizona). Like other heritage sites, the conservation of ruins requires the removal or mitigation of deterioration; however, the very nature of their fragmented disposition also determines and affects their meaning and character. This has a direct and powerful effect on visual legibility and indirectly conditions our perceptions and notions of authenticity. The myriad ways a site can be mediated in the name of heritage directly affects how that site is experienced, transmitted, and therefore understood. In contemporary practice it is the professional in consultation with stakeholders—both cultural ‘‘affiliates’’ as well as outside visitors—who generally influence how those narratives will be staged on site and transmitted further through publication and social media. Heritage sites are what

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they are by virtue of the disciplines that study them. They are made, not found, and their display is the interface that mediates and thus transforms. In their introductory remarks on the art of exhibiting, Kossmann, Mulder, and den Oudsten sum up this challenge with words that apply to any interpreted space including heritage places: Like any other medium, the exhibition mediates between . . . two dimensions (things and words) and thus becomes an agent in communicating knowledge and insight. Exhibitions speak the language of the image and the mediating image needs to be embedded in a metaphor capable of connecting the things and the words. That is why language and interpretation are the driving forces in the materialization of an idea, irrespective of the narrative structure. To articulate the idea a translation is required and the key lies in the staging of the means.3 This synthesis of the visual, the emotional, and the intellect can occur through the transformative power of design, and it is the designer’s job to bring an environment to life for the visitor; using the language of the site. The visitor/spectator in turn determines the interpretation of the visual based on what he or she fixes upon, despite how many spatial tricks or words of explanation are offered in the process.4 This leaves the designer with the difficult task of anticipating the many varieties of interpretations that will produce maximum engagement. The last century’s obsession with artistic unity, style, and connoisseurship in the conservation of the visual arts planted the seeds for a revolution of intangible content and process over tangible form. But the question now is are we losing the desire and ability to respond to the simple physicality of things and places, to see, hear, and feel, in deference to the aggressive revealing of content at the expense of the physical place? As Susan Sontag warned in 1964, ‘‘Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art . . . interpretation tames art by reducing it to its content . . . and makes it manageable, comfortable.’’5 Here Sontag recalls Hegel’s problems with the analytical zeal of ‘‘‘understanding’’ upon ‘‘beauty’’ when he wrote, ‘‘Beauty, powerless and helpless, hates understanding, because the latter exacts from it what it cannot perform.’’6 Site-based interpretation can offer up a complex reading that has the ability to reveal much about a place or thing that is invisible; it offers another form of excavation that completes what the trowel has removed or left behind. But then so can a site’s inherited physical presence transport the viewer out of time through a series of experiential sensory stimuli. In an effort to develop all-informing histories, we revise, revamp, reveal, and expose, littering places with static commentary in the form of interpretive infrastructure: information centers (no longer museums), signs, viewing platforms, protective shelters, digital technology, and shops and cafes. Instead, to paraphrase Sontag, shouldn’t our ultimate task be to show how it is what it is, rather than to show what it means? Traditional curation and exhibition have long dictated that the curator controls content and until recently, the form. The curator was the primary and sole authority on content—what to see, what to think—while the designer, if present at all, has been

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responsible for how to see. The white box neutrality of the twentieth-century avant-garde allowed museums to liberate former collections from the residues of nineteenth-century historicism and eventually any context whatsoever. Such display techniques quickly found their way to heritage sites where modern materials such as glass, steel, and plastics pretended to be neutral or invisible in their application. This approach would be challenged by late-twentieth-century postmodernism, which cried out instead for ‘‘fiction over function’’7 and the use and intentional abuse of historical metaphors attempted to contextualize architecture and museum collections as well as historical sites. Today critics and students of narratology clearly differentiate between the static ‘‘staged’’ nature of postmodern architecture’s historical narratives with that of a more processual or ‘‘operative narration’’ that exploits the hybrid narrative environments of real and virtual space and advances in media technology to create ‘‘event spaces.’’8 A revolution in display and exhibition, beginning in the 1960s challenged these notions of single disciplinary control and the passivity of the viewer/spectator in receiving meaning as well as content for the visual arts. In today’s scenography, author, staging, and audience are all part of the same dynamic system that defines narrative space. Scenography is a new transdisciplinary field that represents the intersection of real and virtual media spaces. Now applied to stage and set design, exhibition design, and importantly urban design, scenography negotiates between past and present, between the understanding of experts and the general public, between the everyday experience and the production of visionary ideas.9 For all these reasons, contemporary scenography has much to offer in the interpretation and display of heritage places. Every place carries meaning; the visual world cannot be separated from the world of thought. Each interpretation generates a story all its own, and like books each place has its own accumulated history, despite the original text. In response to this challenge, the concept of narrative space offers the possibilities for any location to tell its stories. Narrative space should be a multidimensional, nonlinear experience allowing multiple interpretations—alternative ways of seeing and experiencing. The visitor composes his or her own story. Each visitor brings his or her own framework of unique knowledge, memories, and expectations that need to be activated by the place and its presentation. That does not mean a neutral or all-inclusive presentation, whereby the curator or designer is absent, but rather it means an interpretation that allows for variations, deviations, but still within certain limits. Interpretation and display become a matter of fuzzy logic.10 Take for example Franklin Court, the site of Benjamin Franklin’s house in Philadelphia and part of Independence National Historical Park, where a team of designers, engineers, and archaeologists offered a revolutionary solution during America’s Bicentennial in 1976 by revealing the site’s historical and aesthetic authenticities through real and exaggerated elements (Fig. 3). The result was the construction of a spatial montage that never confuses the present with the past yet allows visitors an open-ended experience of history, memory, and time. Earlier plans in the 1950s to celebrate Franklin on the site of his house included building a memorial park or architectural reconstruction. They were

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Figure 3. Franklin Court, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1976. Venturi Scott Brown, architects. (Frank G. Matero)

rejected despite the use of both approaches within the National Park Service and the nation in general since the 1920s. The alternative solution proved that didactic interpretation and somatic experience could be achieved together through the skillful combination and display of above- and below-ground archaeology as well as reconstruction at the urban interface, two- and threedimensional historic space as a hidden urban court and garden, an abstract house plan and volume (the famous ‘‘ghost structure’’), and a multimedia underground museum. The brilliance and success of the design solution lay not only in the diversity, placement, and juxtaposition of the site’s interpretive components (both archaeological remains and ‘‘interpreted’’ features) but in the recognition that the original hidden enclave setting of the Franklin site could offer up a powerful experience that brought time and space together in an urban oasis appreciated in Franklin’s time as well. The successful integration of content and display that has remained relevant and engaging for contemporary visitors even after thirty-seven years is proof that such open-interpretation works and can be done well.11 No matter how we define built heritage conservation, are we not appropriating and manipulating space in the interest of preserving and telling a story or stories? Modern principles are invested heavily in the auratic values of the original or historic fabric to access such narratives, and where this is not enough, buildings, features, and landscapes are littered with footnotes as verbose as they are inarticulate.12 But the public demands more of places, including heritage places; they expect sites of dramatic action, no doubt

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fueled by the familiar possibilities of film, stage, and exhibition. If built heritage professionals have much to learn from scenography and narratology, they can also contribute much about the transcendent power of authenticity and its fragile nature in defining the soul of a place. Heritage sites should be deployed as narrative spaces especially for their uncanny ability to present multiple stories, albeit (and perhaps happily) fragmented, simultaneously and over time, through all our sensory channels. For public space, this is especially important if conservation is to join other players such as urban design, public art, and city and regional planning in their collective contributions to reconstitute public life. In its most radical form, the notion of heritage sites as narrative space should enable the visitor, as an active participant, to take part in the process of active remembering that reestablishes history as a living legacy and opens up the thing or place to a process of interactive decoding. Like all disciplines, built heritage conservation has been shaped by its historical habit and by contemporary concerns. What began as a focus on the specific, the singular, and the tangible has developed into the protection of the whole place including its associated customs, beliefs, and lifeways. Built heritage, like all places of human activity, are constructed. They are complex creations that depend on the legibility and perceived authenticity of their components for meaning and appreciation. Yet they are also places that are dynamic, possessing the power to remember, to admonish, and to elicit strong emotions. How the interpretation and display of such places are realized remains the challenge for the professional in shaping what we as spectators see, how we feel, and what we know.

References 1. Erica Avrami, Randall Mason, and Marta de la Torre, Values and Heritage Conservation (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2000), http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/ pdf_publications/pdf/valuesrpt.pdf. 2. While the basic definition of a ruin has remained fairly constant throughout recorded history, associated meanings and values have not. ‘‘Ruins are the remains of human-made architecture: structures that were once complete, as time went by, have fallen into a state of partial or complete disrepair due to lack of maintenance or deliberate acts of destruction. Natural disaster, war, and depopulation are the most common root causes, with many structures becoming progressively derelict over time due to long-term weathering and scavenging.’’ (Definition available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Ruin, accessed on June 29, 2010.) 3. Herman Kossmann, Suzanne Mulder, and Frank den Oudsten, Narrative Spaces: On the Art of Exhibiting (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2012), 6. 4. In this regard I am indebted to my colleagues David Leatherbarrow and Marilyn Taylor, who, in their own distinctive ways, have sharpened and broadened my understanding of design, especially as process. 5. Susan Sontag, ‘‘Against Interpretation,’’ in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), 7–8. 6. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, quoted in Speaking of Beauty by Denis Donoghue (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 24. 7. Hans-Peter Schwarz, ‘‘Routes to a New Scenography,’’ in Frank den Oudsten, space.time.narrative (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), x. 8. Ibid., xi.

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9. Ibid., ix. 10. Note 5 in Kossmann, Mulder, and den Oudsten, Narrative Spaces, 13. ‘‘In fuzzy logic everything comes down to gradations . . . In fuzzy logic an answer to a question will always entail multiple options instead of two extremes.’’ 11. The current renovation of Franklin Court is focused on the complete reinstallation of the underground museum dedicated to Franklin and his world with minor changes to the above ground interpretation. In its day (1976), the underground museum was a model of innovative interactive technologies, which have proven to be much more short-lived than the interpretive design strategies employed above. 12. Thanks to Michael Lewis for this wonderful couplet.

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UPCOMING ISSUES Urban Conservation Spring 2014

The Venice Charter at 50 FALL 2014

Vandalism S PRING 2 0 1 5

Landscape and Climate Change FALL 2015

Ruskin Redux S PRING 2 0 1 6

National Park Service Centenary FALL 2016

Profile for Change Over Time Journal

3 2 interpretation  

A selection from Change Over Time's issue on Interpretation and Display

3 2 interpretation  

A selection from Change Over Time's issue on Interpretation and Display

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