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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.
Casting ice and skating as “intangible” heritage implicitly distinct from “tangible” material culture risks making the latter seem more authentic for its concrete presence. Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton argue that the significance of any heritage–whether a practice or a castle–rests in how it performs values, place, and identity (compare Barbara Kirshenblatt‐Gimblett). The Dutch could turn ice skating’s narrative into an interrogation of dissonance in the Netherlands’ history; a critical dissection of Dutch identity; or an exposition of the ways the Dutch environment over a period that has included a little ice age, warming climates, and 21st-century global warming.
Yet ice skating could just as easily be reduced to emotionally appealing symbolism, an attractive visual discourse about frozen canals that romantically evokes the chill, movement, and visual appeal of skating. This would be a heritage discourse rooted in no especially concrete place and focused less on difference and social complexity than on belonging, which is similar to Hendrick Avercamp’s own imagination of ice skating. Avercamp’s ice skating paintings were for the most part not illustrations of concrete places; instead, Avercamp painted imagined places that borrowed from people he had likely seen and scattered real buildings. Avercamp assembled an idealized winter landscape in which nearly every Dutch person seems to be represented.
The heritage of ice skating could of course be wielded to look backward romantically. For instance, the Director of the Dutch intangible heritage program applauded ice skating’s recognition as a defense that “is about traditions handed from generation to generation and that has a group of people behind it that is committed to making it future-proof.” That support for a “future-proof” heritage risks painting ice skating simply as an arrested past, a visual and imaginary symbol deployed for a host of purposes like attracting tourists. The challenge with ice’s heritage is less with its ethereal materiality or the inchoate emotional appeal of skating than with the management of it as a defiance of change. A “future proof” heritage risks producing taxidermied historical practices and things and celebrates histories considered to possess some timeless significance. The question may be how interpretations of ice skating heritage will instigate change. This is akin to what Rodney Harrison has referred to as “emergent futures” or Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels frames as persuasive rhetoric; that is, socially engaged heritage scholarship selects dimensions of history that chart possible futures, using heritage to mobilize forward-thinking transformations. Ice skating certainly could be interpreted in ways that trace the long history of skating and the Dutch experience of nature while looking forward to the ways skating illuminates various perceptions of Dutch identity and the future of skating and ice in the face of global warming. However, a “future-proof” imagination of ice skating risks producing a romanticized vision of Dutch identity and ice that borrows more from Hendrick Avercamp than 21st-century heritage scholarship.
Winter Skating in Netherlands (Irina Dobrolyubova, Getty Images)
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Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating image from roevin, Getty Images
Hendrick Avercamp, A scene on the ice. Ca. 1625, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art.
Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice. circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
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
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 Britain. The 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.
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
Some readers interested in post-war urban displacement, race, and Indianapolis histories may be interested in this piece from the Invisible Indianapolis blog.
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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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.
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
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
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
Last month the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony joined 50 Cent to launch the rapper’s fashion line at Bloomingdale’s in New York City. Observers attempting to fathom consumption are routinely befuddled by the apparently irrational expense consumers will devote to style, and 50 Cent’s endorsement will leave many of those observers once more scratching their heads. The rapper has been joined by Anthony and Timbaland as investors in Frigo underwear, taking aim at the “premium” men’s underwear market with a line that includes a $100 pair with a patented “interior pouch”. A surprising universe of companies appeal to this upscale men’s drawers market ranging from the likes of Versace (a pair of briefs at $175) and Derek Rose to upstarts like the Swedish firm Tani or Mark Mocy (which promises to protect you from an astounding range of personal offenses). The pricey celebrity-endorsed undies illuminate the confluence of consumer desire, branding, and individual material imagination in what might seem to be the most prosaic of all things. Read the rest of this entry
This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.” Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors. Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.
Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning. Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms: for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience. Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic. Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality. Read the rest of this entry
A host of observers repeatedly prophesy the death of the traditional shopping mall, disparaging the regional mall as an archaic spatial, material, and social experience. Somewhat paradoxically, many artists, scholars, and explorers pick over the literal ruins of dead malls in an exercise that in various hands reflectively dissects materiality, transparently bemoans lost youth, or launches another attack on mass consumption. Americans seem quite fascinated by the ruination of the enclosed regional shopping mall, fixated on its hulking material remnants, anxiously monitoring its demise in surviving malls, and acknowledging our boredom with much of the remaining shopping mall landscape.
Those people forecasting the mall’s demise may have felt their pessimism confirmed by last week’s news that the ubiquitous mall chain Claire’s is fighting off bankruptcy (a decline marketers have been watching for over a year). Claire’s decline may indeed confirm malls’ fundamental design liabilities and reflect broad economic and demographic shifts, but our fascination with the declining mall almost certainly risks pronouncing their death sentence too soon. While shifts in consumption and settlement patterns have transformed the contemporary shopping landscape for malls, our sheer boredom with the homogeneity and predictability of malls may be more dangerous to their survival than factors such as our attraction to online shopping or the decline of department stores. Read the rest of this entry