On Preservation and Physical History

“Why do you care about old, dilapidated buildings? What’s the big deal? They should be knocked down for something new.”
^ A real statement, one that sent my eyebrows up to my hairline.

YIKES.

Historic preservation=Giant museums with objects behind glass…right?

At least, that’s what we’ve come to expect.

We’ve all been to museums and probably found it enjoyable to stroll along quiet passageways peering into temperature controlled boxes that hold items of significance. This kind of preservation is invaluable, but it also removes the physical context, and often the meaning behind a thing gets reduced to a summary line and a year. Unless you are REALLY into a topic and have done research, a lot disappears when you’re breezing through display case after display case.

Let’s say on a museum trek you come across an ordinary item by itself; a small dish ensconced in a glass box. It’s porcelain, has a design on it, and you’re secure in your knowledge of its use. It was owned by US President George Washington, so hey! That makes it slightly more interesting. You see it and you move on.

But what if you saw it in all its splendor on a table in the very dining room that it was used in? Imagine standing in Washington’s house of Mount Vernon in Virginia and walking through the same doorways he frequented in the 18th century. The tasteful walls are covered with art, and antique furniture welcomes you to admire a fictional dinner party where you are the guest of honor.

You’re laying eyes on the same scene that a notable historic figure experienced when entertaining important guests, and that dish is part of his pricey, imported Chinese porcelain, the same porcelain that established trade between the US and China. Immediately he’s tangible and not just the guy on your currency…and that little dish just became a whole lot more interesting.

Context adds a whole new element to what we experience when we seek out a history lesson, one that I find invaluable if I want to understand the world a little bit better. The advantages that come with saving an “old, dilapidated building” include that we’re preserving physical reminders of our culture, society, and heritage. Not every building can be saved or has prestige, but the ones without a famous name attached sometimes tend to be the most humbling. They represent a slice of humanity, which as humanity should not simply be read about but also experienced.

I care a great deal about not knocking down landmarks simply because of their age or eminent domain. It’s a lot more powerful to see/feel where something occurred first hand than be told about it. No story is insignificant, in fact it is in the “insignificant” lives and moments that we can glimpse how life was lived at a different point in time.

I’m not knocking large traditional museums, but give that old historic house in your town a second look. It’s lasted this long for a reason.

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