Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Historic Preservation vs. Hyper-Preservation

Apparently, some people want the Berlin wall back.

They do not want communism to return, but they want some trace of the infamous concrete structure left for posterity, and because some tourists become disappointed when they’re not able to locate the original site of the wall.

After the wall was breached in 1989, the people quickly removed all tra ces of it in the name of newfound freedom and democracy. My concern is not really regarding the threat of communism or that the wall is an insult to democracy, but rather in the way which humans strive to protect history and feeling a constant need to preserve it and commemorate it.

I remember having this discussion numerous times in my graduate History classes. Where is the line between honoring history and over-preserving it? I think the best example of hyper-preservation is Gettysburg. I love Gettysburg. I’ve visited numerous times, and I always get swept up in the romance of the city: reenactors in 19th century costumes everywhere, horse drawn carriages, the Jenny Wade house (she was the only civilian killed during the battle). My favorite time to visit is in the fall, when there are candle-lit ghost tours aplenty. But if you look at the battlefield, and the town as a whole, there are monuments, plaques, and markers EVERYWHERE. I understand that we like to preserve certain occasions in our past, and pay tribute to people who lost their lives, but when we try to preserve everything- like the location of each separate battalion as they engaged each other- doesn’t that detract from the authenticity of the place? How can the essence/memory of it be ‘preserved’ if we constantly erect new concrete structures all over it? It seems counterproductive. Where do we draw the line between commemorating history and hyper-preserving it, so that eventually anything that ever happens to anyone will need a plaque or marker?

In regard to the Berlin wall, the article states that some citizens fear a “Disneyland” effect of the wall restructuring; they are afraid a symbol of division and repression will become a tourist attraction. A check mark on the list of “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that”. There are streets in Germany that have cobblestone lines embedded in them to designate where the wall once stood, but still some people feel it’s not enough. The wall came down 22 years ago. Is that enhough time to really allow for society to reflect back on history and decide that this piece of it must be preserved? If not, then what is the proper amount of time that should pass? When do we actually decide that an event has so much historical significance that it must be preserved? If we decide too soon, in the heat of the moment or in some passionate after-math, then we’d have to preserve everything. Don’t we need the passage of time in order to evaluate history, measure it, and consider the effects and implications of it?

As time goes on, we view things/events/people differently. For my Historiography final paper, I compared biographies of Lincoln: from the earliest hagiographic ones to the extensive Sandburg one, to the revisionist ones of the 1960’s, ending with one of the newest ones (at that date). Needless to say, they were all very different in tone and critical value.

How people felt about the Berlin wall in 1989-1990 is obviously not the same as they feel about it now. But how are they going to view this edifice in 5, 10 or 50 years from now? Will they be grateful they preserved it, or will they see it as a hollow gesture to appease tourists? Eventually, a time will come when no one in Germany will have been alive when the wall fell; how are those people going to view a restructured version of it? Will they understand and appreciate the gesture the same way as the people there now?
I guess what I am trying to tease out of this writing is determining the qualifications for preservation. Who or what? What’s the significance, and how significant is it in the greater scheme of history (local, state, national or world)? When should it begin?

As always, questions but no answers. . . .

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