Perhaps the most distinctive ruins of the Cold War lie east of Richmond, Virginia. In 1943 a decoy airfield was constructed by the 1896th Engineer Aviation Battalion to confuse potential aerial attacks on the US Army Air Corps based at nearby Byrd Field in Henrico County. The battalion constructed a series of artificial structures and a fake runway arranged much like that at Byrd Field. Yet a compelling if somewhat more complicated story is provided by the tract’s post-war history and its interpretation in the subsequent half-century.
In February, 1947 the state bid to purchase the decoy airport tract in Elko from the War Assets Administration with the intention to build an African-American mental hospital. A streetscape, drainage, fire hydrants, and a water tower were erected, yet by June 1954 the Richmond paper had reported that “$500,000 of utilities are rusting at Elko.” In October 1955 the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star reported that the state was beginning training of “the grounds and buildings department of the proposed Negro training school and hospital at Elko near Richmond,” but in February, 1957 the Governor approved a switch of the hospital’s site from Elko to Petersburg. The unfinished ghost landscape left behind remains an overgrown empty grid today attesting to measures of arrogance, racism, and distorted historical memory that distinguish Cold War America. Read the rest of this entry
Geekdom has spent much of this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which is one of the most prominent and long-lasting of all popular cultural fandoms. The impending regeneration of the 11th Doctor at year’s end and the November showing of Who’s 50th anniversary show have lent some elevated excitement to Who followers. Yet perhaps the most interesting development in Who fandom is the search for lost Doctor Who programs destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. Television shows like Doctor Who were once destroyed as a standard practice, and the lost episodes have since become Who grail.
In an otherwise transient popular culture, Who fans hope to recover and breathe new complexity into an oeuvre that is already exceptionally complex. For various fans, the missing episodes may harbor some new insights into one of television’s most deconstructed series; for many the search itself and the scholarship on the lost episodes is a central dimension of Who’s committed fandom. The corporations seeking out the same episodes are eager to sustain fan interest in the missing programs (BBC had a “Treasure Hunt” program seeking lost shows), but corporate interests revolve around the profits such shows may harbor in a renewed lease on life as DVD’s and iTunes downloads. That question of what is meaningful is actually quite similar to the skepticism often directed at scholarship (including archaeology) that seeks out, preserves, and celebrates apparently mundane everyday life. Read the rest of this entry
Last week the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened to debate the existence of alien life. This is perhaps a compelling scientific question (formally the hearing was titled “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond?”). Nevertheless, the committee’s current membership has normally been reluctant to acknowledge any rigorous scientific insight that might upset their narrow personal visions of the world.
The subject of this month’s Blogging Carnival is the good and the bad of archaeological blogging, and they may both revolve around how blogs represent archaeology as a rigorous and creative science. On the one hand, a popular digital discourse can produce a richer, more compelling, and still-rigorous archaeological scholarship that can shape and interrogate concrete policy-making. On the other hand, the blogosphere admits some observers who are dismissive of scholarly rigor and eager to champion a shallow populist notion of science. Read the rest of this entry
At the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana’s Holliday Park sit the remnants of an artwork its designer hoped would be known as Constitution Mall. The remains are typically referred to simply as “the Ruins,” though, and in the heart of the city park they are a picturesque if unexpected backdrop: ambiguously evocative of a deteriorating heritage, the Greek columns, a reflecting pool, and a scatter of limestone statuary are today fenced-in and grown over with weeds. The centerpiece of the remains is an 1898 sculpture designed by Karl Bitter known as “the Races of Mankind” depicting three kneeling figures who represent “the Caucasian, Negro, and Mongolian races bearing mankind’s burden.”
The three sculptures were created at the end of the 19th century, but the installation itself was created in the 1960s and 1970s, a faux ruin rather than a genuine architectural shell. Park boosters’ interest in “renovating” the Ruins now signals that the piece has passed from an artwork evoking romantic ruination to a true ruin that somehow fails to capture an aesthetic ideal and has no self-evident consumable value. The discussion over how to rescue an artwork that was always intended to be a ruin illuminates the complicated intersection of aesthetics and ruination.
Bitter’s statues came to Indianapolis in 1958 after the St. Paul Building in New York City was torn down. Architect Francis Keally presided over a committee that reviewed proposals for re-using the statues: the city of Indianapolis, as well as New York University, Columbia, and Farleigh Dickenson submitted plans to re-use the sculptures. The New York Times’ Meyer Berger reported that “Indianapolis was awarded the figures by a committee because it plans to set them in the middle of a reflecting pool, a lofty setting identical to that envisioned by the sculptor.” The paper indicated that Indianapolis architect David V. Burns “has drawn tentative plans for the future installation.” Read the rest of this entry
Last week’s American Anthropological Association conference perhaps once more confirmed that archaeology is a thoroughly public scholarship as the halls resounded with scholars theorizing activism and leading calls for revolution: increasingly more of us celebrate collaborative work with descendant communities, indigenous peoples, and social collectives beyond the walls of the academy. The embrace of civic engagement and public scholarship reaches well beyond anthropological archaeology circles, with a host of scholars and universities committed to reaching beyond narrowly defined “pure” scholarship.
There are many reasons to celebrate public scholarship, but academic culture profoundly influences what passes as scholarship at conferences, in employment, in peer review, and for promotion and tenure. The Society for American Archaeology conference in April 2014 will include a Blogging in Archaeology session that almost certainly will illuminate the political implications of public archaeology scholarship in the blogosphere and beyond. In the months leading up to the conference Doug’s Archaeology is hosting a “blogging carnival” that will include archaeology bloggers addressing the same questions each month (posts can be followed on Twitter at #BlogArch).
This month’s question is why do archaeologists blog? The host of bloggers that have responded to Doug’s question so far have provided thoughtful answers that I would echo on many counts, but the question also raises a bigger set of issues. First, why is public archaeological scholarship not always accommodated by conventional scholarly discourse? The easy answer in university settings revolves around academics’ traditionally cherished peer-reviewed scholarship, which blogs and digital public scholarship aspire to expand. Second, what defines the disciplinary boundaries of “archaeology” at all? Bloggers violate many of the conventional definitions of archaeology as the objective material analysis of antiquity, part of a broad expansion of archaeology in contemporary scholarship. Finally, how do universities in particular and archaeological employers in general (e.g., cultural resource management, cultural heritage industry) view blogs and public scholarship? Read the rest of this entry
This year even Apple appears poised to join the host of American retailers offering dramatic sales in the early morning or middle of the night on Black Friday. By Black Friday standards the Apple store sale prices are not especially dramatic, but a legion of consumers seem eager to find an iPad under the tree and will likely beat a path to some of the competitors who are promising dramatic deals on iPads.
It is now an expectation that Black Friday will be greeted with irrational crowds rioting for prosaic things, and by Saturday a host of videos will dot the internet documenting the most boorish behavior. Much of the media coverage seems to suggest that the consumer miscreants storming the housewares aisle are a horde quite unlike the bourgeois patiently awaiting iPads. For some observers, Black Friday reveals the distinctions in class consumer desire and obliquely disparages mass consumption as emotionally driven irrationality; at least implicitly, that storming of the Target doors is suggested to be quite unlike the material desire at high-end retailers and upscale spaces like the Apple store.
The mass consumption experience is followed closely by the media, which routinely psychologizes Black Friday as mob manipulation by clever marketers. This week, for instance, the Las Vegas Guardian Express hysterically argued that “it seems necessary to recognize that this much anticipated retail extravaganza can be as deadly as it is lucrative.” In 2011, a Huffington Post article likewise painted Black Friday shoppers as an emotionally frenzied mob, suggesting that “Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for finding impossible bargains, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.” The Las Vegas paper’s Daniel Worku blamed all this on clever marketers and manipulable consumers, arguing that “This atmosphere seems to be intentionally manufactured by the countless advertisements, blurbs, signs, billboards, and radio plugs, constantly seeding the suggestible public mind about how this years deals will be better than ever. The energy and frequency of this media frenzy, galvanizes the debt burdened public into spend-crazy, deal-hunting, sale-seeking, mob with zombi-like [sic] determination.” Read the rest of this entry
It seems like a uniquely rich moment for history: a host of gangsters, Vikings, and royals have stepped out of the past onto the small screen. These historical dramas freely pilfer from real personalities, documented material culture, and style drawn from the past, finessing historical details, amplifying threads of style, and fabricating an oddly persuasive picture of wholesale manufactured pasts. Heritage purists are perhaps always wary of history in the hands of Hollywood, and the most recent wave of serial dramas suggests that an aesthetically magnetic and decidedly non-critical vision of pastness has found a mass audience.
Perhaps the freshest wrinkle in the historical serial celebrates a completely contrived heritage that is all about style and makes no claim to substance. NBC’s Dracula, for instance, cuts its characters and premise from the rich literary and cinematic heritage of Dracula narratives. NBC’s version of the Count captures a familiar thread of the new histories in its focus on an impossibly stylish and beautiful Dracula (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), with the network TV carnality only implied (as opposed to his unabashedly carnal Showtime version of King Henry VIII). Fox has likewise seized on a literary character in Sleepy Hollow, which also has a beautiful man in stylish garb portraying a time-traveling Ichabod Crane. Like Dracula, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow refers to various real historical figures and events as well as historical literary subjects like the headless horseman. Read the rest of this entry
Few archaeological artifacts are better known than the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, which are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles. Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon and Acropolis between 1801 and 1812, and they were spirited away to London for sale to the British Museum in 1816. They remain in the British Museum today in the Duveen Gallery, which was specially constructed to showcase the Parthenon marbles.
A flood of people stream through the gallery each day to see the sculptures, and many if not most of those visitors know the basic histories, mythological narratives, and perhaps even individual designs of the marbles. The incessant stream of photographers capturing the statuary is not especially unique in contemporary museums, especially those displaying the treasures found in the British Museum. Yet the frenzy of picture-taking in the Duveen Gallery suggests that many museum artifacts are latent camera images and not material things with which we physically interact. Read the rest of this entry
No compliment on the online review site Yelp is as highly esteemed as being dubbed “authentic,” and that authenticity is routinely linked to restaurants’ material spaces. An Oakland reviewer believed herself transported to another place, concluding that “i looked around the restaurant and noticed how well the place is decorated…felt like i was back in thailand (ive never been, but i felt like i was there maybe?).” Yelp reviewers fancy they are unlocking a hidden consumer geography: In the class and ethnic niches of neighborhoods outside bourgeois comfort, yelpers discover dishes, spaces, and new experiences. However, the search for an authentic burrito or an urban “dive” may tell us more about yelpers than it reveals about foodways.
Yelpers stake their claims to authority by capturing dimensions of authenticity that often include material descriptions of space. A Mexican grill review waxed rhapsodic that “The meticulously painted walls and ceiling, accompanied by fountains and trellis, will make even the least-cultured of individuals feel as if they’ve just stepped into an authentic Yucatecan [sic] bodega.” Many Yelpers echo that an appropriately appointed ethnic restaurant sweeps the guest to that distant place: in one Moroccan restaurant in Indianapolis, for instance, “When one steps into the restaurant, he would almost feel as if he had been magically transported to the streets of Casa Blanca [sic].” A review for a Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis pinned its authenticity on its materialization of the Mexican immigration experience, indicating that “The decor is authentic: homesick people putting things on the walls that remind them of home.” A review of a German bakery in Indianapolis pointed to the store’s décor, indicating that “The lunch fare is a 3 star since its fairly simple. However, what makes it a 4 star is its authenticity as well as the numerous knick knacks and [sic] hoarder would love to have.”
Yelp is simply one of many web sites that allow users to assess consumer goods and services in the internet public square. Meredith Kuehn’s 2011 dissertation argues that sites like Yelp “capitalize on the productivity of users who create discourses through and about local consumption by voluntarily rating and reviewing local businesses and services.” Kuehn argues that Yelpers aspire to be citizen-consumers seizing power over consumer symbolism and returning it to the users themselves. However, Kuehn is wary of the limits of such empowerment: she is critical of the literal “architectures of participation” that Yelp pages provide; she is circumspect about how Yelp and similar sites focus on “the local” in ways that elide global consumer structures; and she warns that Yelps’ focus on “lifestyle politics” risks reducing citizenship to shopping. Read the rest of this entry