Local History Makes Good-sometimes

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The immense popularity of WiIliamsburg, which coincided with the widespread proliferation of automobiles, led to the creation after the Second World War of a number of open-air museums, to which old buildings in danger on their original sites were moved. At Cooperstown the New York State Historical Association collected together a school, church, country store, tavern, and small offices to form a “Village Crossroads” as an adjunct to its imaginative and beautifully installed Farmers’ Museum. At Mystic, Connecticut, the Marine Historical Association, Inc., assembled ships, smaller craft, and buildings to create a synthetic seaport of the nineteenth century, of equally nostalgic intent. Two other assemblies of old buildings in New England have become institutions from the enthusiastic acquisitiveness of private collectors. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, sprang from the antique collecting of Albert B. and J. Cheney Wells of Southbridge; the Shelburne Museum in Vermont from the omnivorous accumulations of the late Mrs. J. Watson Webb. Old Sturbridge Village presents a pleasing illusion of an actual New England community; at Shelburne the impression is simply of a fine field in which buildings from various parts of New England have been reassembled after moving, to house Mrs. Webb’s miscellaneous collections. Sometimes it seems that these efforts confuse rather than enhance local history, for although they have rescued from destruction some buildings by moving, their primary purpose is the creation of a well-walled illusion within which the visitor may enjoy a synthetic “past” that relieves the ugliness and monotony of the tedium in which he spends most of his life. “There is,” in addition, as the city planner Carl Feiss has pointed out, a curious contradiction in the great popularity of the simulated villages used as museums, while real villages, one after the other, are subject to the deterioration and misuse caused by the automobile age. In fact, villages on the way to Sturbridge and several other historic museums, which in their own right had at one time great beauty and artistic value, are being destroyed by those very tourists who are looking for quaintness and culture at the museums. In just the same way that the flower market, the Place Verte in Brussels, has been converted to a parking lot, so have village green after village green in New England.

 

The instigators of these nostalgic dream images of an immutable past consider their villages legitimate offspring of the open-air folk museums of Scandinavia. It should be remembered, however, that the prototype of these institutions, Skansen in Stockholm, was founded by Artur Hazelius at a moment in the 1880’s when Sweden was rapidly being industrialized and numerous artists and writers were consoling themselves by reviving the memory of a simpler agricultural world in which none of these nasty things existed. As Dr. Ingvar Anderson has remarked, “They harked back to a world of fantasy that bore no relation to modern Sweden.” … According to Nan Fairbrother’s definition, the proponents of open-air museums are Shunters, “more realistic but less sympathetic” than Reversers:They accept that modern living means unattractive developments like cement works and pylons, but propose to shunt them into someone else’s territories.

According to her, The Translators are the most advanced and therefore most useful: they appreciate the past but accept the future, and aim to incorporate the inevitable changes with least harm, and even with benefit, to the environment. Most serious societies (whatever the still-blinkered attitudes of some of their members) are now reaching this advanced stage of realism and responsibility.

This is equally true in the United States. For many decades, whenever anyone succeeded in rescuing a fine old building, the principal use contemplated was to turn it into a museum for the edification and inspiration of visitors. The United States already has on exhibition more historic houses and museums than it needs or can afford or are good for it as a nation. And some of these deal out, in the sacred name of “education,” some pretty dubious nostalgia, disguised as “history.” But the Translators are now at the helm. Historic Preservation Tomorrow , issued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1967, states unequivocally on page 1 : Only in exceptional cases should a historic building be converted to museum use. The objective is to conserve buildings by continuing to use them for their original, or compatible purposes.

Again it is stated that “the emphasis should be on the historic structures and their sites as components of viable neighborhoods.” Such an approach gives hope that local history will count buildings, as well as books and manuscripts, among its documents in the future.

During the nineteenth century countless histories of towns were written, especially in New England. In the last third of the century, with the simultaneous (but unrelated) development of the “scientific” study of American history at universities and the ancestor hunting of persons attempting to qualify for membership in newly formed hereditary patriotic societies, history and genealogy became estranged. Although it was long the fashion for historians to ignore, or speak patronizingly of, the older town histories, these same books today often prove invaluable sources for social history and demography, since they contain so much specific information about actual people.