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What happens at the intersection of history, art, and commerce, when historical sites and/or historical re-creations are turned into tourist attractions? Some folks on my blogroll have been writing thoughtfully on these questions.
First, Flavia at Ferule and Fescue went to North America’s “Shakespeareapalooza” this summer (a.k.a. the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) and writes about the curious flava of the festival:
[T]he best parts of the festival were the most amateurish, in the best sense of that word: though the actors were all professionals, there was a palpable sense that they and the audience (even the annoying lady with the dyed-red hair in the row behind us, who was loudly showing off her Shakespearian expertise before the show and during intermission) were there out of love for the plays, for Shakespeare, and for live theatre. And if you have to be a tourist in a tourist town, it’s pleasant for it to be one with three bookstores on the main drag, where you can saunter to a tasty post-show dinner at midnight, and where all the other tourists also have rolled-up programs popped beneath their arms.
But the less amateurish stuff was less agreeable. The mainstage production–the one in the fancy theatre, with the big-name star, and with lots of special effects–was dreadful.
And speaking of dreadful–some inept “social media” hack from the Stratford Festival “argued” in the comments with points she didn’t make, in a commentary on the festival that was overwhelmingly positive. Whatever, d00dz! Keep on practicing using those interwebs, will you?
Next, Chauncy DeVega at We Are Respectable Negroes wonders about the practice of sleeping in slave cabins: is it “Honoring the African Holocaust and our Ancestors, or Trivializing their Memory?” He writes,
Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill has been trying to commune with the ancestors by sleeping in slave cabins throughout South Carolina. His mission is noble and ought to be admired. However, part of me is uncertain about his project. For example, I have always wanted to go on a tour of the underground railroad where one traces the actual routes used, sleeping in basements, navigating north to freedom over several weeks. I have also wanted to go to Goree Island in Senegal, where I would meditate in the slave fortresses where thousands upon thousands were imprisoned and died.
As powerful as the experience would be, I wouldn’t have slave dogs on my heels and bounty hunters a step behind me. I wouldn’t be trapped in the belly of a beast, exhausted and frightened beyond all belief, for I knew not what would happen to me tomorrow. What would you do? How does one balance a yearning to experience just a tiny bit of the unimaginable with a fear of reducing hallowed ground to a tourism destination?
I think these are important questions–but ultimately, I come down on the side of opening up as many public history sites as possible, especially those that commemorate the lives of people whose histories pose challenges to Whig history or American exceptionalism. All re-creations are ultimately performative and sanitized versions of the history they re-create–Stratford, Ontario offers just a highly selective view of Shakespeare’s world. Colonial Williamsburg (for example) is undoubtedly lice-free and the re-enactors there bathe or shower and launder their clothes a lot more often than they would have in the eighteenth century. Plimoth Plantation doesn’t hold public executions, and all of the bodies remain buried at Gettysburg.
My bet is that the people who would choose to visit or even stay the night in a slave cabin are people who are genuinely curious about the history and would be respectful of the sacred grounds they visit. It would be wonderful to have public history sites that commemorate the histories of enslaved and working people in the same numbers as the sites that recreate their owners’ and bosses’ lives in high-style Georgian and Victorian mansions.
What’s your view of the intersections of history, art, and commerce?