Author Archives: Paul Mullins

The Aesthetics of Bliss and Trauma in Plantation Weddings

The Flossenbürg camp landscape today (click on all images for larger view).

Between 1938 and 1945 the little Bavarian town of Flossenbürg was the home for a Nazi concentration camp that held political prisoners, German criminals, and, near war’s end, Hungarian and Polish Jews. About 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its neighboring subcamps by the time the camp was liberated in April, 1945.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected dimensions of Flossenbürg today is that it is a beautiful little Bavarian town that departs from our imagination of a landscape of genocide. Nestled in the Bavarian forest near the contemporary Czech border, Flossenbürg was a small medieval village that was home to granite quarry laborers by the late 19th century. Atop the village’s highest point sits the picturesque ruins of Flossenbürg Castle, which was built in about 1100 and eventually was burned in 1634 during the Thirty Years War.

The ruins of Flossenbürg Castle viewed from the village (image Nikater).

Many dark tourism sites associated with death, tragedy, and disaster are likewise aesthetically appealing contemporary spaces. Sites like Flossenbürg acknowledge our anxieties about death, violence, and injustice, and interpretation at such sites usually paints a sober if unsettling picture of historical experiences. Nevertheless, many of these preserved places inevitably have been purged of most of the material trappings that made them horrific places, and some of them like Flossenbürg are once more visually appealing spaces despite their heritage.

The American landscape is dotted with places that witnessed enormous tragedies, and much like Flossenbürg they have now been absorbed into the everyday landscape. Unlike Flossenbürg, though, many of these American sites clumsily negotiate their dark heritage or simply ignore it in favor of aesthetically pleasant contemporary landscapes. Some of the most interesting examples are Southern plantations, where surviving buildings, landscapes, and archaeological materiality are the products and expression of captive labor. Yet few if any plantations conceive of themselves as sharing the mission of dark tourist sites whose stories revolve around trauma and tragedy. Some plantations have embraced a critical analysis of the relationship between captives and White slaveholders, but many have not really pushed beyond painting the plantation as a relic of the antebellum South.

While he was overseeing construction of Nottoway Plantation in August, 1858, John Randolph ran this notice seeking an escaped captive.

For instance, one of the largest antebellum Southern plantations is Louisiana’s Nottoway Plantation, which was completed in 1859. Nottoway was built by John and Emily Randolph, who owned 155 captive African Americans in 1860 and had the 53,000 square-foot house built by those captives. In 1858 Randolph advertised in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune seeking the return of one of those captive craftspeople, the escaped 30-year-old carpenter Sunny, who was identified by Randolph as being “very black, with shot marks on his back.” After the war, Randolph left speech notes for a lecture on the White League, a paramilitary organization that resisted the Republican party and Black voting through violence, intimidation, and murder (though Randolph’s views on the White League are unknown).

Nottoway Plantation today (image Elisa.rolle)

Some hints of captives’ presence are provided in the home: for example, a row of 15 bells with distinctive tones summoned captives to particular rooms in the mansion, and nine reconstructed slave quarters are on the plantation grounds. Nottoway’s web page says nothing about its heritage of captivity, but like many plantations Nottoway hosts a prosperous wedding trade. Nottoway has a detailed page on its wedding services, and The Knot estimates that a wedding at Nottoway will cost about $11,000 for a party of 100 people. Like most plantations, many other events are held at Nottoway. In 2016, for example, a “murder mystery dinner” was held during a Nottoway visit by a convention group. In 2013 singer Ani DiFranco was forced to cancel her “Righteous Retreat Song Camp” at Nottoway, expressing surprise at the “high velocity bitterness” with which critics greeted the proposal.

A 1940 image of Boone Hall’s Avenue of the Oaks (image Historic American Building Survey).

In contrast to Nottoway’s clumsy evasion of captivity, the Belle Meade Plantation near Nashville details the history of captivity on the plantation and the post-Emancipation African American community that lived and worked on the farm. Yet Belle Meade also hosts a lucrative wedding trade that reduces much of the plantation’s heritage to an aesthetic “backdrop.” Belle Meade’s wedding page uses relatively typical rhetoric to define the plantation setting as a visual frame for the wedding experience: “Belle Meade Plantation is an award winning wedding and reception venue with the backdrop of a historic farm setting, framed in beautiful flowering gardens (Boxwood Gardens).” One couple indicated that “Belle Meade Plantation is the epitome of Nashville Southern living. The venue was the perfect backdrop for our wedding and celebration, and had such a historical factor that our out-of-town guests loved.” The Knot describes Nottoway in similar rhetorical terms as “an 1850s style sugarcane estate delivering notorious southern charm with enormous white columns and majestic balconies that belong to the largest mansion in the south. … Couples can use the mansion as a backdrop in the Nottoway’s historic front lawn or share their vows under massive oak trees on the plantations awe-inspiring rotunda.”

Nottoway Plantation’s White Ballroom (image Kermit K. Murray).

One of Nottoway’s best-known rooms is the White Ballroom, a room bathed in white reputedly to “show off the natural beauty of his seven daughters” (six Randolph daughters eventually were wed in the room). The Knot notes that “Many couples use the elegant White Ballroom as a backdrop to their bridal portraits,” and the ballroom is indeed a staple of Nottoway wedding photography. That theatricality was always part of the broader antebellum experience of Nottoway: Richard J. Follett’s study The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860 argues that the Randolphs imagined that the Nottoway “mansion served as a stage upon which Randolph could portray a hierarchical social structure and conspicuously perform his role as master of sugar, slaves, and households.”

Preparing for a Nottoway Plantation event (image Serge Ottaviani)

Contemporary discourses frame plantations as aesthetic “backdrops” or “settings,” and for wedding planning those backdrops are staged photographs partly chosen for their capacity to foster visual memories. In that sense they probably do not differ significantly from any wedding setting. The departure may be in plantations’ invocation of “pastness,” an ambiguous sense of historicity that in the case of plantations is strategically untroubled by concrete definition or the concession of historical brutality. Cherry Lynne Pyburn Levin’s 2012 dissertation (PDF) argues that the contemporary tourism industry markets weddings by leveraging “plantation mystique”: that is, the plantation wedding portrays the Southern landscape as a setting in which every woman can be a Southern belle living out her ideal romantic wedding. Levin convincingly argues that the contemporary imagination of the plantation wedding is drawn from a rich range of popular cultural sources; these are fused with an ideological notion of Southern womanhood and the antebellum traditions of weddings as performances of ancestral White affluence.

The Boone Hall Avenue of Oaks is today the backdrop for many wedding photographs (image bluesurf1311).

The South looms in wedding photographs largely as an aesthetic invoked by the likes of old trees, Spanish moss, towering mansions, and riverfront or field vistas. In a 1996 study of wedding photographs Lili Corbus Bezner concluded that such wedding images show couples as they wish to be seen rather than how they actually look. Plantation wedding photographers situate brides on the Southern landscape in the role of Southern belles alongside the aesthetic signifiers of plantation history. Outside of Charleston, for instance, Boone Hall plantation’s Avenue of Oaks was planted in 1743, and the three-quarter mile boulevard is today commonly used as a backdrop for wedding photographs (as well as engagement photography). Boone Hall recognizes that the oak-lined avenue is “an awesome spectacle and creates a spectacular backdrop and the perfect setting to let those memories for a lifetime unfold in a variety of ways” (the plantation’s wedding planner has a pinterest page featuring a broad range of ways it stages images). A bride enthused on The Knot that “the Avenue of Oaks is the perfect backdrop for amazing pictures!” Photographs at sites like Boone Hall often place newlyweds at the plantation’s gates, as though the landscape is possessed by the couple. Boone Hall has appeared in several Hollywood films including The Notebook, and one bride indicated that “being featured in The Notebook makes this location the epitome of romance!”

Captives’ quarters at Boone Hall Plantation (image denisbin).

Most wedding parties ignore the most prominent material remains of captivity that disrupt the untroubled aesthetics of plantation materiality. Nevertheless, Boone Hall has nine standing slave quarters, and those quarters are sometimes used as the backdrop to wedding photographs, including pictures of the newlyweds inside the quarters’ exhibit space. One wedding party ceremoniously signed their marriage license in Boone Hall’s slave quarters. A photographer capturing a wedding in Florida’s Dixie Plantation noted that the bride’s “cousin told us about the old slave quarters on the plantation. We took her in this horribly gross hallway…and it was beautiful. Slave quarters. Who knew they would ever be useful?” In 2011 a wedding dress designer decided to display her newest designs with images of models wearing them in “the haunted slave quarters” at Jamaica’s Rose Hall.

A 19th-century stereoscope image includes a bridge that remains a feature of the contemporary plantation (image New York Public Library).

Online discussion of plantation wedding sites tends to revolve around physical descriptions and aesthetic beauty. The romanticization of the natural and built plantation landscapes masks or naturalizes their history of bondage. In his analysis of South Carolina’s Magnolia Gardens plantation, Michael A. Chaney argued in a similar vein that the plantation “offers a visual story of the South which, like a landscape, seems politically innocuous and promises worry-free consumption, but which also conceals an erasure of the brutalities upon which the New South, like the Old South, was founded.” Magnolia has five surviving slave dwellings and conducts a booming wedding trade.

The scores of online plantation reviews nearly never mention their heritage of captivity. One review of a Belle Meade wedding did note that the “grounds are expansive, with old slave houses (this is the South, after all).” After touring Nottoway one person was disappointed by the apparent absence of captivity, concluding that “The landmark is beautiful. Well kept. There are very little original pieces to home-disappointing. No original inventory either. No slave quarters exist- disappointing.”

Guests at Nottoway Plantation weddings sometimes have access to the house after tourist hours (image Serge Ottaviani).

In some venues like Nottoway, wedding guests have the run of the mansion grounds after the day’s tourists have marched through the home. Dropping the velvet ropes from tours allows wedding guests to entertain fantasies of themselves living in the mansion in antebellum times. One visitor enthusiastically indicated that “if you’re staying in the mansion you are allowed to roam freely through any of the open rooms in the house (which was most of the house as only a few rooms were closed).” Another visitor to Nottoway enthusiastically told Yelp readers that “My favorite part was that they left [sic] you actually touch a lot of the stuff inside. You could even sit on most of the furniture.”  In 2017 a Nottoway visitor also remarked that “You can take pictures and even touch/sit on furniture.” E. Arnold Modlin argues that the physicality of plantations is important to visitors, but the sense of ground and stairs underfoot, furniture textures, and scent of the home and grounds risk masking the experience of antebellum captivity. Modlin suggests that “touch inside the plantation-house museum misleads us from what the felt experience of slavery was like back in the antebellum period and before.” Nearly all of these plantation venues have a tourist trade that hazards disrupting the antebellum wedding fantasy. One bride at Boone Hall was upset that a tourist interrupted her possession of the landscape, complaining “I have a tourist BANGING on the door to the plantation in my wedding video, in my photos, and in my memory.”

Willing and naïve misconceptions of captivity shape plantation weddings and popular heritage fantasies, and they are clumsily concealed by appeals to the aesthetics of plantation space. The distinction between the beauty of Flossenbürg and Southern plantations is rooted in the former’s conscious acknowledgement of its dark heritage, and the unsettling message of Flossenbürg may even be heightened by the village’s contemporary banality. American plantations seem much less willing to imagine themselves as dark tourism sites narrating the heritage of trauma, but it is difficult to separate plantation heritage from the contemporary color line. Before murdering nine African Americans in a Charleston church in June, 2015, Dylann Roof visited a series of historical sites around Charleston including Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall, and McLeod Plantation. At Magnolia, Roof posed for a selfie on the red Conservatory Bridge where numerous couples have posed for wedding pictures. On April 13, Roof visited Boone Hall and his photographs included a selfie in front of the Plantation House where scores of weddings have been held.  The specter of a mass murderer in the footsteps of a wedding party is understandably unsettling, but there seems to be somewhat less anxiety over the numerous captive African Americans who lived and died on the grounds of these and many more plantations. Instead, their stories risk being subsumed in an ideological makeover of the plantation and a romanticization of the aesthetics of the Southern wedding.

References

Derek H. Alderman and E. Arnold Modlin Jr.

2014 The historical geography of racialized landscapes. In North American Odyssey: Historical Geographies for the Twenty-first Century, eds. edited by Craig E. Colten and Geoffrey L. Buckley, pp. 273-290. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

2017 On the political utterances of plantation tourists: vocalizing the memory of slavery on River Road. Journal of Heritage Tourism 11(3):275-289.

 

Patricia Arend

2011 Dream Weddings: Fantasy, Femininity and Consumer Desire. PhD Dissertation, Boston College. (Preview version)

 

Lili Corbus Bezner

1996 “Divine Detritus:” An Analysis of American Wedding Photography. Studies in Popular Culture 18(2): 19-33 (subscription access)

 

Michael A. Chaney

2002 Touring the Spectacle of Slavery at Magnolia Gardens Plantation. Southern Quarterly 40(4): 126-140.

 

Renee’ Anita Donnell

2014 Interpreting the African American Experience on Charleston County Plantations.  Master’s Thesis, University of Georgia.

 

Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small (editors)

2002 Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

 

Richard J. Follett

2005 The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.

 

Stephanie Hardy

2014 Shedding light on dark truths: The interpretation of African American history at Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC.  Master’s Thesis, East Carolina University.

 

Lisa Hix

2014 Why Aren’t Stories Like “12 Years a Slave” Told at Southern Plantation Museums? Collectors Weekly 28 February.

 

Cherry Lynne Pyburn Levin

2012 Wedding Belles and Enslaved Brides: Louisiana Plantation Weddings in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. PhD dissertation, Texas A&M University.

 

Arnold Modlin, Jr.

2008 Tales Told on the Tour: Mythic Representations of Slavery by Docents at North Carolina Plantation Museums. Southeastern Geographer 48(3):265-287. (subscription access)

 

Images

Belle Meade Plantation 1940 Historic American Buildings Survey (Lester Jones) image from Library of Congress

Boone Hall Avenue of Oaks 1940 Historic American Buildings Survey (C.O. Greene) image from Library of Congress

Boone Hall Avenue of Oaks image from bluesurf1311

Boone Hall Slave Quarters image from denisbin

Flossenburg Camp image from author

Flossenburg Castle image from Nikater

Magnolia Plantation Stereoscope circa 1870-1895 image from New York Public Library

Nottoway Plantation image from Elisa.rolle

Nottoway Plantation event image and Nottoway interior from Serge Ottaviani

Nottoway Plantation White Ballroom image from Kermit K. Murray

Memorializing Uncanny Histories: Materiality and Memory at Pulse

Pulse nightclub August 2016 (click for expanded view; image Walter).

In June, 2016 a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people.  In the aftermath of the murders the club has been routinely invoked in a wide range of political causes, but materially it has become a place that illuminates the depth of homophobia, complicates gun rights, and recognizes domestic terrorism.  Like most dark history, the Pulse nightclub materializes death and profound tragedy, and that makes it an especially productive place to concede anxiety, apprehension, and fascination alike.  Pulse may have become part of an “uncanny” materiality; that is, it is among a host of things and places that provoke uneasiness because, in Freud’s words, it “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (PDF; compare archaeological examples from Gabriel Moshenska, Paul Graves-Brown, and Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini).  People flock to Pulse because it allows us to acknowledge anxieties about hate crimes, terrorism, homophobia, and gun violence and potentially brings them into an open public discussion, a discussion that some people welcome and others want to escape.  That discussion is inevitably challenging: the club may be the proverbial historical “open wound,” confronting us with a recent past so repugnant and unpleasantly contemporaneous that we struggle to acknowledge it or simply ignore it entirely.

Offerings at the Pulse memorial (click for expanded view; image Walter).

After the murders Pulse instantly became a scene of spontaneous memorialization, and it is unlikely to ever again be a more-or-less invisible leisure space in the midst of interchangeable retail outlets.  Within a month of the killings The Orlando Sentinel’s Caitlin Dineen recognized that Pulse “has found its way onto itineraries for tourists from around the world who pay their respects and leave handmade memorials” (cf. The Advocate’s June video of the spontaneous memorial).  As visitors continually flock to the club, various parties have begun to discuss a place-based commemoration, which might involve the preservation of the structure, a radical remodeling, or its complete demolition.  Barbara Poma opened the club in 2004 in memory of her brother who had died of AIDS 13 years before, and in the wake of the murders she almost instantly proposed to re-open the club as a memorial.  In August, 2016 Poma proposed to transform the club into a memorial, and in November she reached a preliminary agreement to sell the club to the city of Orlando.  However, before the City Council could approve the $2.25 million selling price, Poma had a change of heart and decided not to sell the club site. Read the rest of this entry

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

Invisible Indianapolis

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home. In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of…

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A Future-Proof Heritage: Dutch Ice and Intangible Heritage

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Four centuries ago Hendrick Avercamp immortalized the Dutch winter landscape as a snowscape crowded with ice skaters traversing canals and gathering on frozen ponds.  Painting in the early 17th century, Avercamp’s works are almost wholly devoted to winter scenes that feature numerous people skating.  Avercamp’s idyllic landscapes featured a rich cross-section of people having fun on the ice during a “little Ice Age” that delivered a half-millennium of harsh winters.  Avercamp’s focus on ice and ice skating helped make winter landscapes a staple of Dutch art while confirming skating’s centrality in the heart of the Dutch imagination.

Avercamp may not have known that Netherlanders would spend the subsequent centuries traveling and playing on frozen waterways, leading numerous 21st-century observers to sound off that skating is “ingrained in Dutch DNA.”  Even beyond the Netherlands, few dimensions of Dutch culture are more firmly impressed in mass imagination than ice skating:  Every four years even Americans are briefly in awe of the Dutch domination of Olympic speed skating, and picturesque images of skaters in Amsterdam’s canals routinely grace tourism literature.


Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating (Getty Images)

On December 19th it was announced that “the tradition of skating on natural ice” was added to the Netherlands’ national inventory of intangible cultural heritage (a list of those traditions is on the Netherlands Cultural Heritage website).  Ice and skating are novel intangible dimensions of heritage, since ice has a fleeting material presence, and skating is common to many other societies; nevertheless, the celebration of ice skating aspires to capture the distinctive Dutch experience of ice and could provide a novel framing for Dutch heritage. Read the rest of this entry

The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump's motorized Mercedes.

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump’s motorized Mercedes.

It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.”  For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.”  Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown.  In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.”  A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes.  In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.” Read the rest of this entry

Preserving Repugnant Heritage

A January 2016 image of the Calais "Jungle" (image Malachy Browne).

A January 2016 image of the Calais “Jungle” (image Malachy Browne).

This week few if any heritage planners have proposed a preservation or placemaking plan for Frances’ Calais migration camp.  The camp popularly dubbed the “jungle” was being dismantled this week, its host of makeshift structures to be removed after hosting perhaps 7000-8000 migrants at its peak.  Migrants from various reaches of Africa and Asia have set up temporary camps around the port city of Calais since 1999, with camp residents often hoping to continue on to nearby BritainThe Guardian reported at the end of 2014 that at least 15 people had died in Calais that year, and this year the camp has become an increasingly unpleasant symbol of migration woes.  In the wake of Brexit Calais uncomfortably illuminates lapses in humanitarian rhetoric and state policy disagreements over the accommodation or exclusion of a stream of people escaping countries such as Syria and Iraq.

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

Administrators’ commitment to dismantle the camp (by hand rather than bulldozer or fire, to avoid conflicts from earlier camp displacements) seems to confirm the camp’s significance.  Perhaps for most observers Calais can lay no claim to be a heritage site since it is an ephemeral place in our midst, yet Calais may be just the sort of place worthy of heritage contemplation—that is, a material presence inducing contemporary anxiety and rooted in a contentious history.

The silence over Calais stands in opposition to the flurry of heritage scholars advocating the preservation of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace and earliest home in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  Both Calais and Braunau share a repugnancy that revolves around their unpleasant stories and unresolved effects.  Hitler holds a persistent grip on our collective imagination and exerts an especially unsettling effect on right wing extremists; Calais lays bare the crisis of humanitarian idealism that risks being undone by state passivity and xenophobia. In both cases some planners hope that razing these reviled spaces will eliminate the public discussions they spark, but there seems to be a more productive discussion harbored in their preservation than in their absence. Read the rest of this entry

The Last Holdouts: Community Displacement and Urban Renewal on the IUPUI Campus

Some readers interested in post-war urban displacement, race, and Indianapolis histories may be interested in this piece from the Invisible Indianapolis blog.

Invisible Indianapolis

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image). In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In 1874 the first residents moved into 311 Bright Street in Indianapolis’ near-Westside.  The modest frame house sat in the midst of a neighborhood that rapidly emerged after the Civil War.  It sat across the street from Garden Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, alongside 36 houses in the two blocks between New York and Michigan Streets.

The same year the house was built on Bright Street Ira Johnson was born in Cassville, Georgia.  Johnson, his wife Lillian, and their 13 children worked on farms in and around Bartow County, Georgia for more than 50 years.  Lillian died in 1923, and in about 1930 Ira Johnson moved to Indianapolis. …

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The Trauma of Things

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 2013 the Washington Post’s Ken Ringle probed the unsettling experience of visiting Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum revolves around traumatic things, images, and narratives that visitors vicariously contemplate across time and in the face of the inexpressible irrationality of hatred.  The museum provides some concrete mechanisms like “privacy walls” to avoid some of the most unsettling material and visual dimensions of the museum’s narrative; nevertheless, Ringle argued that the museum perhaps collapsed that distance most effectively when visitors “have to look into the face of someone caught in the Nazi death machine.”  The Tower of Faces, for instance, is a massive three-story installation of 1,032 images of the residents of Eishyshok, a community in contemporary Lithuania where the Nazis massacred nearly the entire town in 1941.  Ringle argues that the pre-war family photographs are among the museum’s objects, images, and stories that force visitors to confront their “limit” by displaying prosaic humanity while acknowledging how these lives tragically ended.

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Cutlery recovered from a holocaust site are typical of the prosaic things that populate much of the Holocaust Museum.

The everyday things populating the archaeological record secure much of their power from their familiarity—personal trinkets like eyeglasses and jewelry, food, and bodily remains themselves narrate humanizing stories, but those sympathetic and even uplifting human experiences are simultaneously complicated by sober realities.  Scholars often champion narratives that aspire to define the concrete realities of human adversity if not despair, often with an ambition to examine the lingering effects of historical trauma.  Archaeology in particular has gradually shifted its focus from material description toward “dark” histories of enslavement, racism, warfare, sexism, and violence that perhaps strike some observers as a rather bleak picture of everyday life across time and into the present.  Human tragedies and adversities materialized in things often spark emotional responses that archaeologists aim to channel into reflective discussion.  This may come as a surprise to observers who fantasize archaeology as a dispassionate empirical description of the distant past that has no substantive connection to contemporary life, and some people inevitably will find history’s trail of horrors profoundly disconcerting if not an ideological distortion of a more-or-less placid human experience. Read the rest of this entry

Spacious Vulgarity: The Aesthetics and Morals of McMansions

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an ecelctic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an eclectic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

Few architectural forms seem to secure as much overwrought disdain as the massive homes that are often referred to as “McMansions.”  Architectural aesthetes have a rich history of attacking built environments that spark deep-seated aesthetic and social revulsion, and over-sized 21st-century homes have become targets of comparable critique.  Critics of massive residential homes often lament departures from stylistic codes, which typically includes tract mansions’ massive scale, asymmetrical forms, lack of proportionality, inferior materials, and departures from established historical or local architectural distinctions.  However, such analyses routinely descend into ethnographically shallow social and class commentaries that fail to wrestle with our inchoate aversion for this particular material form.  It is indeed hard to fathom the attraction of many oversized residences, and it is unreasonable to simply ignore our emotional revulsion for them; nevertheless, a compelling assessment of McMansions–and reflective urban planning–should sympathetically wrestle with our experiences of these structures.

McMansion Hell is among the legion of observers ridiculing massive “garage Mahals” and “starter mansions.”  McMansion Hell is distinguished by its concrete architectural analysis of oversized residences, spending much of its energy dissecting specific material elements of the pejorative McMansion.  This is in some ways an archaeological approach to a class of material things, revolving around systematic material description of specific architectural features that unsettle many observers.  McMansion Hell does not try to stake a claim to contrived objectivity, instead acknowledging its aversion for massive residences, sarcastically deconstructing a host of aesthetic features, and painting a very distinctive social and material notion of the stylistic if not social deplorability of tract mansions.  However, it focuses on the stylistic dimensions of “bad” architecture and does not feature especially clear ethnographic evidence that might interrogate both the appeal of McMansions and the widespread distaste for them. Read the rest of this entry

Pokémon Go and the Sanctity of Heritage Landscapes

Soldiers' graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

Soldiers’ graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

One of Finland’s best-preserved wooden churches today sits outside Oulu, where the Kiiminki Church was completed in 1760.  The modest cruciform frame church in northern Finland was designed by church architect Matti Honka and is noted for its spectacularly well-preserved altar painted by Mikael Toppelius in the 1780s.  Like scores of other Finnish community church yards, the Kiiminki church is surrounded by a cemetery that includes the remains of local soldiers who fell during World War II.  Often referred to as “heroes’ cemeteries” or “hero graves,” these resting places are staples of the Finnish countryside testifying to the Finns’ concrete World War II losses—and at least implicitly underscoring the nation’s defense against global super powers.

In the midst of the Kiiminki cemetery a stream of visitors moves across the site in a very distinctive motion familiar everywhere in the world with wireless coverage.  In small groups shuffling forward, trading counsel, and studying their cell phone screens, Pokémon Go players hunt down virtual creatures in real-world surroundings including Kiiminki’s church and cemetery.  The augmented reality mode of Pokémon Go transforms prosaic spaces—neighborhoods, religious spaces, historic sites–into newly engaged landscapes populated by multi-colored creatures, Poké Stops to fortify your avatar’s supplies, and Poké Gyms to train and bond with other players. Read the rest of this entry