Monthly Archives: December 2013

Ruins and Race in a World War II Ghost Town

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

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

Saving Doctor Who: Transience, Canon, and the Missing Episodes

A 16 MM film canister from "The Evil of the Daleks" (image from wikimedia).

A 16 MM film canister from “The Evil of the Daleks” (image from wikimedia).

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

Archaeological Blogging: Beyond Stones-and-Bones and Pseudo-Knowledge

blogging-archaeology-e1383664863497Last 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

Renovating Ruins: Ruination, Consumption, and Art

Karl Bitter's 1898 installation The Races of Mankind was placed on pillars when it came to Holliday Park (image from Donna Cazadd).

Karl Bitter’s 1898 installation The Races of Mankind was placed on pillars when it came to Holliday Park (image from Donna Cazadd).

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 Ruins in April, 2013 (image from netmonkey)

The Ruins in April, 2013 (image from netmonkey)

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