One Does Not Simply…Write About Anthropology

My Time as a Graduate Student

Preserving the Past

Just finished my archaeology exam and I have just been reading about the reenactments going on in Fredericksburg, Va. So I was just thinking about the reasons why we preserve the past and certain aspects in history that we decide to preserve.

Historic preservation has been a cultural movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century that largely involves the task of protecting the sites, objects, and artifacts that are culturally and historically important to a nation. Unlike European countries, the United States is a fairly new nation with little history. The past we preserve can be as far back as Native American ruins like Mesa Verde as a substitute for European sites such as Athens, or to the first McDonald stand. Anything worth saving is important.

But what is history? History has been defined by past events, but who tells these events? History is a collective memory that is made up of fabricated myths of individuals and reinforced by rituals such as celebrations, heritage tourism, and reenactments, that have all come together to create national symbols. It is through these national symbols that a collective identity is created with a shared historical memory that must be renewed by constant reinforcements so it will not be lost.

So the question is, why do we preserve? Robert Stripe in the prologue of A Richer Heritage states seven reasons why we preserve: 1) “we seek to preserve our heritage because our historic resources are all that physically link us to our past,” 2) we save because we have lived with it and it has become part of us, 3) personal identity, 4)“we preserve historic sites and structures because of their relation to past events, movements, and people that feel are important to honor and understand,” 5) intrinsic value, 6) we preserve our past because we believe in the right of our cities and the countryside to be beautiful, and 7) “we seek to preserve because we have discovered – all too belatedly- that preservation can serve important and social purposes in our society.

The Mount Vernon Ladies Associations preserved the image of George Washington, a Revolutionary War General and the first President of the nation. But what makes him more important than any other officer in the army? As a patriotic nation we have instilled an almost divine right upon these people, idolizing them for being greater than the average human man.  Although they have had their faults and flaws, we neglect to tell these for it would disrupt the cultural narrative and be detrimental to the fabric of history. If we were to tell elementary school children that Benjamin Franklin was not only an inventor but was a pimp of his time, the cultural narrative would change. As a collective memory, we neglect this because we see these men as idols without flaws because of their influence upon the past. We are in a sense creating shrines for these individuals by transforming their homes into museum houses or creating monuments that people visit as a way of honoring these individuals. One could go so far as to say worshiping their ancestors. In the early nineteenth century there was an emphasis on patriotic sites due to the fascination of the nation’s findings with an effort to “recapture the early days of nationhood.

Tocqueville believed that the American people had a strong connection with the individuals who founded the nation, although there is not a direct link of kinship, people want to share the same values that they instilled upon the nation; individualism and freedom. These men are the famous wealthy dead white guys of a shared history, so we place them symbolically at the top of the totem.

The ritual of heritage tourism not only reinforces the collective memory but the way preservationist and interpreters tell the myths of history to the population as an educational system, Bathel states that preservation sites use heroes, Revolutionary legends, presidents, as means to each civic obedience.  The other rituals that capture the myths of history are the reenactments. After visiting one of the Civil War reenactments, I talked with a few of the men that participated. When asked why they participate, they responded “we are reliving history.”  One man stated: “we are not only reliving the events of history by dressing up in the period clothing, but we are honoring those who fought and died for the country.” In the sense of Civil War reenactments, it is a sense of ancestor worship even though these individuals may or may not have any direct descendants, these ritual serves as dramizations of the cultural narrative or myth. The feeling that they are embodying someone from the time, gives the event a meaning and identity in the historic preservation movement. Tocqueville states that it is nostalgia that creates American to have a need to reside to their past as way to search for their identity (Tocqueville 1854).

Reenactment actors embody an individual and seem to almost step back in time and out of the present, these individuals clothe themselves in the period clothing and use the weapons of that time to preserve as if they are ghosts of the past walking among the present-day living. Another binary opposition can be made with sacred and profane time; reenactments take place during holidays or on the weekends when people do not have work during such a time the Civil War reenactors are in a state of liminality. They have embodied an individual that is not themselves and not any specific individual of the past, they are just the symbolic representation of that individual of the past.

The ever prevailing theme in historic preservation is nostalgia for the past: we romanticize about the primitive past. As a result of nostalgia, elitist have invested thousands of dollars to finance for the preservation of sites, but instead of preserving the image of the site they are interpreting history through their eyes.

In conclusion, historic preservation has the duty to preserve the ideas and values of the collective memory. In the United States, people associate their culture identity with the ideas of freedom and individualism that our Founding Fathers fought for from Great Britain. We have come to idolize the individuals that fought and created these ideas and preserve their images in myths and the physical materials that they have left behind, such as the Declaration of Independence. This document is just a piece of parchment with ink, but once symbolic meaning is bestowed upon the paper, it becomes a national symbol that people have come to associate with as their cultural identity. As Americans we want to stand apart from other countries and with the little history that we have, we feel the need to preserve everything that represents the individuals who founded the country to objects of the past. Historic perseveration has preserved the physical symbols that represent the history and the past as collective memory through fabricated myths that are reinforced by the rituals that American perform to preserve the past.



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