Thursday, April 28, 2016

How We Present the Past

One of the things that was discussed and studied in my archaeology lectures is the very real problem of how historical and archaeological sites are presented to the general public. 

My mother and sister first toured England and Scotland thirty years ago, and in many ways I envy them their trip, as it bore more resemblance to HV Morton, travelling through Britain in his bull-nosed Morris in the 1920s and '30s than visiting castles and sites today. No information plaques, no attached gift-shops. In a way there is an attraction to just experiencing a place without any help. 

One of my professors, Jeremy Huggett, admitted this when he showed us an Iron Age broch that was literally in the middle of nowhere, hidden in the woods, and if you didn't know it was there you would never happen upon it. 

Jeremy Huggett addressing my archaeology class in the spring of 2011, in the broch mentioned above.

Whilst living in Scotland, I found out about Sanquhar Castle, which is not owned by Historic Scotland, or any other company that is preserving it. For more pictures (I think I took over 50!) I'll put a link to my old blog about my adventures there. The exciting and unique thing about visiting Sanquhar Castle was the fact that it was untouched. There was a fence around it which my friend Rachel & I had to break into in order to access the castle. It hadn't been tidied up, and we tripped over rubble quite a bit. The spiral staircases hadn't been preserved and restored. There weren't any signs telling us which bits of the castle had been used for bedrooms, halls, cellars. It was exciting. 

Sanquhar Castle seen from a distance, with the deep defensive ditch which runs around it.

Clambering up the spiral staircase!

We weren't the only visitors, as sadly, much of the castle was graffitied. 

I'm not saying that all castles should be like this. If they weren't tidied up and preserved, they would fall into greater ruin, and this might prevent them from being visited. And I am sure there was much about the castle that could have been learned by at least a few information boards. 

Another issue in preserving and presenting the past is the question of what period should be preserved? There are examples in Britain of later periods being demolished in favour of earlier eras, for example, in Conwy, Wales, Victorian houses built up against the walls were torn down.

Conwy Castle, which has a wall which encloses the city.

 Another excellent example of this difficulty is one seen in America, and one of which I am acutely aware, being a Mormon. It is the way in which the LDS church restores its historical sites. No one can fault them on doing an excellent job, and creating informative and interesting visitors centres, and landscaping the area beautifully. 

A postcard showing the Joseph Smith home as it once stood, with the additions which were built after the original home. 

The restored Joseph Smith home as it looks today. 

The Joseph Smith house in Palmyra, NY is an excellent example of this. My sister was living in upstate NY at the time, and we'd visited this site before and after the church restored it to what it would have been in Joseph Smith's time. At the risk of sounding sentimental, my family and I agreed that something of the spirit of the place had been lost when the later 19th century additions to the house had been removed. I learned since that in the 1910s, Willard & Rebecca Bean, members of the LDS church, went to live in the Joseph Smith home and through their presence in the community, were able to pave the way for the Church to obtain land and built memorials to our history there. An account of their experiences can be found in this book. Yet their lives and contribution were wiped out with the restoration of the Joseph Smith home. 

There are a lot of difficult decisions to make when determining what aspects of history and archaeology should be preserved and shown to the general public. I'm not offering any answers, it's just something that's been on my mind lately and that I wanted to explore. 


  1. Such a difficult topic--I'm still so sad about Palmyra (as you well know!)

  2. So well and thoughtfully presented, Mairi. There IS much to lament, much to wish for and even long for. It is a shame that people cannot, in quiet and contemplation, explore sacred and/or ancient places, so that their spirits might rise and feel the presence of things and peoples who went before, and whose influence still lingers upon the spot. (Think of Lawrence Chamberlin's comments about Gettysburg. Thanks again. We could stand more of these!

  3. An excellent topic! It's very interesting and such a dilemma when it comes to interpreting an historical site with a long and varied history. I think some museums deal with it by having different areas on their site that deal with the different time periods, but it is hard to interpret the evolution of a place without examples of each. So fascinating!