Baguettes and Zoom

December 2, 2022 Blog Comments (0) 1

The ubiquitous French baguette was inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage this week, and our reaction must be: Why did it take so long? It has been nearly 30 years since UNESCO adopted the Intangible Cultural Heritage convention and started cataloging music, dance, costume, food, crafts and other elements of cultural heritage from across the globe. One would think the baguette would be high on the list but at least it takes it rightful place next to couscous, Turkish coffee and Belgian beer.

Did someone say beer?

For the second Fall in a row, I have been teaching a Zoom course to UTSA Architecture students on World Heritage Management. I have had the good fortune to have some great guest speakers – Dr. Paul Ringenbach, who wrote the World Heritage nomination for the San Antonio Missions, Christine Jacobs, Superintendent of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and Nada Hosking, my former colleague and Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund.

World Heritage Old City of Lijiang – kind of a problem child.

It has been fun to teach again after a decade-long break, and I am impressed by how well the Zoom interface works. Of course, it began due to COVID but it continued because now I can teach from anywhere. I taught a course at UIC in Chicago in the Spring, and I taught two of my UTSA courses this Fall while I was on my Fulbright Specialist trip to Bogotá.

It helps to have World Heritage in your backyard.

It also allows me to relive many sites I visited and worked at around the world, collecting and reflecting on how heritage conservation happens and what it means for a community’s growth and health. We focus mostly on the cultural World Heritage sites, although several students have done papers on the Natural World Heritage Sites and we did cover Intangible Cultural Heritage as well.

Like indigo dying in Guizhou

I am impressed with how attentive the students have been and how effective the medium actually is for a class like mine which is essentially a lecture class with a lot of powerpoints – the students presented their own powerpoints on three occasions. I try to keep it interesting and connected with some basic themes, like my bottom line: Heritage conservation is a process that a community used to determine what elements of its past it wants in its future. And how.

Pilsen, Chicago, a decade ago

The semester comes to an end next week, and I have learned a lot as well as – I hope – shared a lot. You learn by teaching, seeing the connections and themes that emerge even from projects and examples that you worked on long ago. From new questions and old questions (gentrification?) asked again in a new year. The added Fulbright Specialist tour (see previous blogs) added more students and insights to the mix.

just another 5000 year old World Heritage site

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Revisiting the Past

November 1, 2022 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments (0) 32

While in Bogotá I saw a news article about the Smithsonian Institute returning looted artifacts to Benin in West Africa, part of a growing trend to repatriate historic arts and crafts to the regions they were crafted in. This was of great interest to my students at Ean University, who asked me point blank what I thought about the repatriation of historic artifacts in museums. I said repatriate them. In a world of digital reproduction, museums can easily go back to the plaster casts from whence they came. Location is a key aspect of authenticity.

A selection of Caesars that never left Libya

This reminded me of James Cuno’s book of a little over a decade ago, perhaps the last piece defending the ideal of the encyclopedic museum by arguing that antiquities belong to everyone, not a particular contemporary nation state. Cuno left the Getty this year and now I see that the Getty is hosting a symposium on “The Multiple Reinventions of the Americas in Context,” a critical look at how the “New World” has been conceived and reconceived over the last 500 years. Turns out, I could see much of that reinvention right in Bogotá.

Warriors then and now.

Bogotá has some wonderful historic museums, but what really struck me was their interpretation, which is state of the art. My first visit was to the Museo Nacional, in a former panopticon prison. They have undertaken a reimagining of the museum by abandoning traditional chronology for juxtaposition, putting pre-Columbian artifacts next to telephones under the theme of communication, for example. Objects come alive as you see them simultaneously from the perspective of the colonizer, the colonized, the curator and the curious.

The former prison.
Tema: Comunicación
Observa los tapices de dos culturas

Colombia is a vast and diverse country in both people and geography. Like the U.S. it has Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a wide range of natural and mineral resources, a variety of indigenous groups, a history of African enslavement and a surprisingly long commitment to democracy. All of these themes were explored in the museum, with some clever interpolations by contemporary artists.

So this historic image was reinterpreted by a video artist who reenacted the work of carrying people through the mountains in this manner, only with the racial roles reversed so those of African origin were the ones being carried.

There was an exhibit on the history of the building, described as a 19C panopticon prison, and while it was not a true circular panopticon, the suggestion of Foucault and French structuralism was reinforced by the tiny gold exhibit in a literal safe across the way, which had this unexpected text on the wall.

We become what we contain. We form our tools and then our tools form us, be they molcajetes or microchips.

Whoa! I have not seen McLuhan quoted in a museum before, but it makes perfect sense. Where is the medium the message more than in a museum? You are even invited to put your own self and your own culture in the museum.

Been there done that. See this blog from 14 years ago.

MUSA, the Archaeological museum, was another example of interpretative elán, sited in one of the oldest surviving houses in Bogotá, from 1738. The collection is primarily ceramics from the many indigenous cultures that inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, the three ranges of Andes Mountains, the Amazon and various other regions.

Pretty much the oldest house in town
Nursing mother from Sinú region and culture
A man with folded arms jug from the Tairona.

Interpretive text asked us not to see these ceramics as the work of the Other but as human creations that contained foods and sounds. The text asked us further to empathize with each object, reimagining our relationship to our own foods and dolls and musical instruments. The text on the wall urged us yet further to imagine their uses for ourselves without the intervention of the archaeologist or curator. The text was not printed but projected, because the museum is not eternal but fugitive, an incomplete record of an incomplete conversation. The interpretation did not dictate but prodded us to think openly about what we take from the objects presented and how their makers may have experienced them.

The Colonial Museum has the largest task in a time of decolonization, and in many ways did it best. This one was busy, with a conference going on, a massive contemporary art display on the courtyard galleries, and school groups being led with laughter through the exhibitions. Again, there were deft insertions of contemporary art interpretations, but only a few, and their style deliberately played on historic forms and tropes. The best example took familiar 17C images defining racial categorizations resulting from the mixing of Europeans, Africans and Indigenous and then crafted modern ones playing on modern subcultures in a mirror of the antique style.

Again, the exhibit asks you to insert yourself into the content. On the left, the union of European and the African produces “Mulato” while on the right the union of Indian and European produces “Mestizo”.
The union of the Headbanger (Metalero) and the Disco produces the Emo. Art by Dimo García.
The union of the LGBTQ and the Hipster produces the (Harry) Potterhead. Art by Dimo García.

The opening exhibit sticks primarily to religious and art objects brought to the Americas from Europe as part of the conversion of the population to Catholicism, although almost immediately they give you the artist reimagining the retablo.

A colonial era retablo (altarpiece) reinterpreted by a contemporary artist in the Museo Coloniale.

The arrangement produced an understanding of the massive effort it took to transport huge numbers of paintings and sculpture to reinforce European traditions and religion. The journey to Bogotá, administrative center of the complex Muisca people who likely numbered a million, took many months both on sea and land. That is a lot of work for a collection of religious items, many quite bulky. I suppose it was worth it to the Spanish crown if they ultimately succeeded in establishing control.

It often takes only a single contemporary image playing with the forms of the historic image to open them up. Here a couple, followed by an artistic interpretation that again plays with racial reversal to make a point and open an eye, not unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley.

The Viceroy of Nueva Granada 18C
This is a painted version of this guy’s dissertation defense!
Who is worthy of a portrait? What does it signify to have a portrait?
Contemporary art lines the galleries outside the exhibit halls

They even linked the tradition of saints and martyrs to contemporary martyrs due to the various insurgent groups and narcotraficantes of the 20C. Again, juxtaposition of the old and new offered a view into parallel worlds of conflict, colony and conversion.

Even Botero, who has a whole museum himself, got in on this action.
Hagiography and Camouflage/Submission and Seduction

These museums were refreshing and interesting, because you looked at each piece longer and had a stronger sense of its purpose and intent than you would have 20 or 50 years ago when it was just another item that was supposed to be beautiful or persuasive. Contemporaneity and criticality opened up the items in new ways, exposing not simply the contradictions of colonialism, but the contradictions of cultural inheritance. You can return a piece from the museum, enacting social justice. Or you can recontextualize a piece, engendering understandings that will support the ongoing pursuit of that justice.

Investigating the attic of our cultural inheritance.

Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.

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My Fulbright Specialist work at Ean University, Bogotá

October 27, 2022 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Global Heritage, Historic Districts, Intangible Heritage, Sustainability, Texas Comments (2) 73

My two week Fulbright Specialist time at Universidad Ean in Bogotá, Colombia is coming to an end in a couple of days. This has been an excellent experience, thanks in large part to Ean faculty member Juan Camilo Chaves and over a dozen excellent students in Cultural Heritage Management. Thanks also go to Fulbright Colombia, celebrating 65 years, and Paola Basto Castro of Ean’s International program, Sergio Sanchez and Laura Hernandez of Fulbright Colombia and Alejandro Torres of Ean.

Ean Universidad, Bogotá

First off, Ean has a brand new building with an incredible facade-screen passive heating and cooling system, facial recognition technology to enter and exit the building, and a host of other high-tech items, including a nap room, study rooms with color matched to your study style, etc. Even the old (2012!) building has a green roof of the type we were designing with School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in Lima in 2012, complete with hydroponics, beehives and greenhouses.

Abejas!

My weeklong workshop of five lectures was called “Heritage As Process” and included lectures on the long history of heritage conservation in San Antonio; People and the Preservation Process; Conserving World Heritage; History of Historic Districts and of course the amazing story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building. I was also asked to have a Q & A with a larger group of student last week, and guest lectured on the San Antonio World Heritage Missions for another class. Tomorrow I will do my Fulbright presentation summarizing this.

Ellos escucharon bien, a pesar de que presenté principalmente en inglés

So what did I learn, aside from what a modern university looks like? First, I am again lucky to live in a city with a long heritage conservation tradition, because Bogotá seems a bit like Houston or Singapore with endless highrises backed up to the mountains and little concern for the few remaining historic buildings. The students are working on cultural districts, but the idea of historic districts or preservation zones seems to have little traction here.

Calle 78 y Carrera (Avenida) 11. Bogotá is quite seriously a grid.

I visited the house museum of Simon Bolivar, the father of South American independence. It is a well interpreted site set in a lush garden. Especially impressive was the dining room, done in a French style – indeed, due to the timing, the whole place has an Empire feel to it.

Note the ocular clerestory windows
La Cocina, heavily restored but effective.

Of course the classic tourist visit is a ride up the funicular to Monserrate, the hill above the city. The whole city sits smack dab against the mountains, and of course Monserrate is a pilgrimage route as well, with its church featuring a Christ figure descended from the cross.

Atop Monserrate with Juan Camilo Chaves
Bogotá

I am off this morning to report on my Fulbright Specialist experience! Stay tuned for the next blog on the wonderfully challenging approach to interpretation in the museums of Bogotá!

Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.

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Catedral de Sal: Industrial Reuse

October 24, 2022 Global Heritage, Vision and Style Comments (0) 57

I saw that the famous Battersea Power Station in London has finally been opened, a stunning industrial reuse on a massive scale. As of ten days ago, it is a collection of apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and parks. It is a city within a city. The Art Deco masterpiece by G.G. Scott sat unused for nearly 40 years and went through a plethora of potential redevelopments, including demolition for housing. The rehabilitation discussion has been going on so long I admit I thought it had already happened! The present industrial reuse took nearly a decade. The building was listed (landmarked) in 1980 while it was still operating.

Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday here in Bogotá, Colombia where I am a Fulbright Specialist with Ean Universidad, I toured the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá and it occurred to me that this was an industrial reuse as well. It is a historic salt mine used since before Europeans arrived and in the early 20th century the idea of building a chapel in the mine emerged from the miners’ devotional traditions. Conceived in the 1930s and built in the 1950s, the chapel was succeeded in the 1990s by the new cathedral, a massive series of tunnels and sculptures that the Colombians have ranked as their greatest Maravilla (wonder). Designed by Roswell Garavita Pearl, the new cathedral is some 500m underground, beneath the level of the now-closed 1950s chapel.

The impression one gets upon entering is that of a mine and the long corridors known as drifts that allowed the extraction of salt. The architecture and sculpture for the most part allows the seams of salt and rock to speak more eloquently than the occasional realist sculpture – indeed sometimes the inserted angels look out of place.

The tour begins with the Stations of the Cross, all fourteen done in an abstract manner whereby a stone cross is set within or without the rock. Here the absence of literal interpretation is a blessing, and the sculptures emerge from the seams of minerals with emphasis and empathy.

Among the women of Jerusalem, represented by rock forms
The Deposition defined not by figures but the negative space of the empty cross
The final station, the cross entombed.

The main nave of the Cathedral is actually a triple nave and is preceded by a smaller chapel to the Virgin that includes salt chandeliers.

What makes the main space so effective is again the use of a massive cross above the altar that has the height (50 feet) and depth to carry the colossal space. What struck me most were the massive round columns dug from the salt rock to support the main nave. Again, the most effective aesthetic interventions are those than reference and resonate with the natural mineral forms and patterns.

The lighting also helps.
The piers are said to represent the Four Evangelists.
The nave ceiling evokes the past

The only downside (and it didn’t bother me that much) was the fairly extensive collection of shops and concessions down in the salt mine after your complete the tour. Some were obvious, like selling salt sculptures or emeralds or bath salts, but some were almost comically irrelevant, like the King Tut museum.

You do need to cater to different levels of dining, I suppose
I guess it is like the Wax Museum across from the Alamo?

So what do we have? At the end of the day a very impressive salt mine that is one of the only ones you can visit outside of Poland. It is an industrial reuse that takes advantage of the historic use to create some pretty persuasive artworks that successfully illuminate the heritage of the miners and the religious devotions they brought with them beneath the earth.

Miner sculpture near the entrance

This is a creative reuse and has become a massive tourist attraction. I like the latitude given to the intervention. While I loved Falun (a World Heritage strip mine in Sweden) when I saw it in 2007, I find this site a bit more alive, with constant living heritage additions, like the various Virgin icons that continue to be added to the chapel, as noted by my friend and colleague Juan Camilo Chaves.

Falun, Sweden. The majesty of human intervention on an industrial scale.

Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.

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The Art and Craft of the Machine in the age of Digital Reproduction

October 14, 2022 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 37

Breitbart said politics is downstream of culture, which means our current political extremism is but a distillate of larger cultural forces. I would posit that while these include globalization, climate crises and inequality, they have been profoundly and quite recently shaped by digital communications. The crowd plodding along the street looking at their phones; the basement incel fulminating in extreme words and images because they are his only communication currency; the politician pushing the goalposts for a given issue further and further because the replication of memery mandates that only violent opinions will secure any attention at all.

And here I sit in the middle of heritage conservation as I have for nearly forty years, a rare combination of education, advocacy, urbanism, regulation and economics that sometimes appears to be the last multipartisan issue. Why? Because it is about culture, upstream of the horses that relieve themselves before it reaches the town hall. But what is culture? Something we associate with aesthetics, to be sure, in art and architecture and costume and song and food and drink. The finer things in life. These too, are kinds of communication, phrases and ideas that because they are standing or dancing physically in the real world do not require ultraviolence. They are real. They do not compete with an endless intergalactic webernet’s flow of rawer and rawer sewage.

The sewage is increasingly available to all, but so is heritage conservation. Every place has its stories, its poems and its puffy tacos and every place has its structures and sculptures and street signs. Climb out of the basement and walk down the street and discover heritage, because every bit of it is a node of empathy and a key to a social contract and communication.

In 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright gave his famous “The Art and Craft of the Machine” speech at Hull House in Chicago, turned it into pamphlet sold at his 1902 exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and purchased by a teen named Barry Byrne, who read it over and over again. Here was the definition of art AND democracy. The clever title transposed two seemingly diametrically opposed cultural/political movements of the time – the Machine Age versus Arts and Crafts, the celebration of the human artifices of a pre-Industrial era. Byrne’s prodigious writings of the 1940s and indeed his buildings refer back again and again to the pamphlet.

To Wright, the Industrial Age meant liberation and democracy. Now all could enjoy the beauty of machine-sawed wood, the commodity of a clear view of nature, and the utility of affordable home and hearth. To Wright, architecture had been “the universal writing of humanity”, rendered moot by Gutenberg. He agreed with Hugo that the book killed the edifice, but instead of lamenting it like Ruskin he embraced it for freeing us from the drudgery of handcraft and allowing the infinite reproduction of beautiful forms. His European associates would likewise celebrate the Machine Age in their theory, and when time and finance permitted, designs.

Wright boiled it down. Art is artifice and all human creations are artificial. “The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that plastic art may live;” and its replication through industry allowed a broad cast of beauty that would “emancipate human expression.” It was the opposite of the mawkish medievalisms of Ruskin, reveling in ruin.

But a year later in 1903, Alois Riegl gave us the seminal heritage conservation text with his “Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin.” I have always had an affinity for his proto-Heidegerrian pseudoscientific categorization of preservation motivations: “Age Value;” “Art Value;” “Use Value;” “Historical Value;” “Commemorative Value;” and even “Newness Value.” He talked of intentional and unintentional monuments. He thought “Age Value” the best because it could be apprehended and appreciated by all.

Wright and Riegl both celebrated nature and science and both were focused on the relation of people to their world and to communication. Wright saw the Machine as bringing a new communication to the broadest possible swath of humanity and Riegl saw the Age Value of the heritage site with similar vocabulary and stimulating that same broad swath. This was an era of world views, of seeking cultural essence. It was an era that revolutionized architecture in dramatic ways but also introduced heritage conservation and its manifold motivations.

These two texts of twelve decades gone may not have anticipated the megafolding multiplicity of our current antisocial media landscape, remaining as they did upstream, on the mountain of culture, where humans and nature intersect for real. I think they would have found the plastic artificiality of our intergalactic webernet as cause for a new essay, albeit one that still valued education, nature and science.

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Fixing Mistakes

September 15, 2022 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 60

My dear friend and once and future architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times Lee Bey wrote a piece today about the “Mistake By the Lake,” a giant Modernist exhibition hall built in 1971 as part of the McCormick Place convention center. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns it, is releasing an RFI (Request for Information) to solicit ideas about its reuse and development.

A Miesian mass sandwiched between Lake Shore Drive and the beach.

The refreshing thing about the RFI is the attitude of the owner. As Bey reports:

“We don’t have any preconceived notions” for the building’s future, said MPEA CEO Larita Clark. “We are really open to all ideas at this point.”

That is how you save a building. You don’t put it in a corner and say it has to be this or that and if it can’t be that, it goes. You ask the world for ideas. We are finally reaching a period in history where the ecological and economic costs of demolition are starting to be calculated. Bey starts out noting that no one is proposing demolition because that could cost a significant chunk of the $400 million it needs in rehab. Plus, they are open to an incremental approach, which is what I have been advocating for a certain building here in San Antonio.

Institute of Texan Cultures/Texas Pavilion, Caudill, Rowlett and Scott, 1968.

I advocated this for our own large Modernist building earlier this year in my blog, specifically detailing the challenges of single-use Modernist projects that need to be approached in a new way. Our own Institute of Texan Cultures is one of our current preservation issues, built three years before McCormick Place. The University of Texas at San Antonio is studying some options over the next nine months, but maybe an RFI is what is needed?

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Texan cultures

August 15, 2022 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Texas Comments (0) 91

I wrote recently about The Institute of Texan Cultures, a unique museum created in the Texas Pavilion after the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio. The Conservation Society made Page 1 in the local paper with our announcement that we will be listing it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Institute of Texan Cultures

While the focus of the Conservation Society remains on reusing the building itself, the Institute, operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio, has over the years celebrated a diversity that most outside of the state – and many inside it – are unaware of.

For many Texas seems to be quintessential American (“Murican”) culture – pickup trucks, country music, ridiculously large portions, and of course oil fields and ranching. Many are also aware that Texas was Spain for over a hundred years and Mexico for another twenty, so there is an awareness of something called “Tex-Mex” and if you are in San Antonio, Fiesta – a 131-year old event that borrows heavily from Spanish and Mexican culture.

Beethoven Männerchor 1890. They are still singing at 155 years old.

Then there are the Germans. If you came to San Antonio in 1850, Germans were almost a quarter of the population, just behind those of Mexican descent at 30% and well ahead of the American and French at 15% each. Many of the surrounding communities like Castroville, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and Comfort were settled by Germans and have retained many cultural traditions to this day.

The double illumination of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Mission Concepción. Oh! That’s today August 15!

I remember Dominic Pacyga describing the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago where there was spatial integration but social segregation between the many (mostly European) ethnic groups that lived and worked there. In San Antonio, there is a culture of blending. This goes back to its founding as a series of missions designed to convert the indigenous people living here into Spaniards. Founded by syncretism, every major event in San Antonio history centers on the idea of a confluence of cultures, a mestizo blending inherent throughout the Western Hemisphere, but not always as celebrated as it is here.

Matachines at the Festival of the Virgin, Mission Concepción.

This is not to paper over a long history of racism and oppression of people of color, that would be foolish. It happened here as it did throughout the state. San Antonio was quicker than other Texas towns to shed the worst trappings of segregation and racial oppression, as the Conservation Society explored in its videos on the 1960 lunch counter Sit-In movement.

Native American ritual and mariachis at groundbreaking of the Museo del Westside, San Antonio, 2022

When the Riverwalk was designed in 1929 and built a decade later, it’s goal was to capture the spirit of landmark cities along the Mediterranean, and the La Villita reconstruction undertaken at the same time (1939-41) had as its goal the unification of the countries of the Western hemisphere that had thrown off the European yoke, naming its principal places after Simon Bolivar, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo and promoting historic preservation of La Villita as a way to celebrate this shared heritage.

Plaza Juarez, La Villita, built 1939-41.

The Conservation Society’s event A Night In Old San Antonio(R) was created in 1948 and has over a dozen areas each representing part of the city’s cultural heritage, including Spanish, Mexican, African-American, Asian, French, German and even Cowboy.

It has been going on for 74 years, which is almost longer than Machu Picchu, so it needs to be conserved as well.

Some other examples of the syncretic nature of culture in San Antonio include the Alameda Theatre, perhaps the premier Spanish language cinema of the postwar era, developed by an Italian immigrant known for cowboy boots and designed by a Russian Jewish architect.

The mestizo nature of San Antonio continued in the 1960s. The theme of HemisFair ’68 was literally A Confluence of Cultures in the Americas. That’s puro San Antonio. We still have two murals celebrating that.

400,000 pieces by Juan O’Gorman – being restored soon.
by Carlos Merida (Guatemala)

There are so many other cultures that have become part of San Antonio it is dizzying. We have the largest Martin Luther King Day march in the country and the largest Diwali celebration. Don’t even get us started on Dia de los Muertos.

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History is about Everything

July 25, 2022 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, History, Texas Comments (0) 366

“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

  • Mark Twain

I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.

Crockett (1882), Palace (1926) and Woolworth (1921) buildings on Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 2022

This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.

Alamo with reconstructed palisade and latest cannon addition (fifth one in last four years!)

I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.

Cooper-Molera Adobe – a National Trust site where they tell the stories of both the Coopers and the Moleras!

Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.

Montpelier under restoration

The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.

This was the huge gift shop where I bought a $10 pen celebrating the Constitution.

The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.

I’ve been doing this for 39 years and i’m still learning
Ten years ago

When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.

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Everything You Know Is Wrong, Part III

July 4, 2022 Blog, History Comments (0) 117

I don’t wake up every morning pissed off about the dominant lingering effect of Cartesian dualism on American society, but then I open Facebook and it is hard to think of anything else. Thank the commodification of politicofragilistic clickbait in emergent cryptocapitalism for this morass.

More ass, indeed.

We complain about the polarization of political opinion and wish there was a middle ground. But that is phrasing the problem in terms of a dualism that is imaginary.

New And Old Next To Each Other

And powerful. Americans are crafted from ideas more than most nations, which has made us do a lot of crazy shit, from Salem witch trials to Jim Crow, from race-based enslavement to Prohibition. We happily cut off our nose to spite our face. The political trajectory of the last forty years is indeed reminiscent of Prohibition, which spread from state to state for two generations before becoming federal law.

When logic and reason took flight.

I remember an Irish colleague asking how on earth Prohibition could have happened, and to me the answer is we were founded by a religious cult (Pilgrims) that was too wacky even for Holland. Americans see things in moral terms, hopelessly dualistic, and profoundly Cartesian.

Exceptionally so

This is not fundamentally different from how fundamentalists worldwide witness the world. Dualism is inherent in most religions, although not necessarily in most religious texts. Indeed, Descartes himself was struggling mightily to reconcile evidence-based knowledge with his own religious convictions. He needed two vessels, so he became them.

You get cooked either way.

But Americans carry dualism and categories much farther, unfettered by chains dating to the Age of Reason like experimentation, synthesis, history, and the common.1 As I have said before, history is an Enlightenment Project, like museums and ultimately, heritage conservation. Our dualisms and categories push us back further, into a medieval mind that is both timeless and provincial, safe in simplicity but fearful of nuance and the unintended consequence.

  1. And the Oxford Comma. There, I said it.

For previous excursions into this, see Everything You Know Is Wrong Part I and Everything You Know Is Wrong Part II.

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The Good, the Bad and the Interesting

June 9, 2022 Blog, Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 142

A child characterizes the world in broad strokes to make it understandable. There are good guys and bad guys. If we mature, we see more nuance. We see the good and bad in many people, and while some remain largely good or bad actors, most are more interesting than the simple dichotomy because we are able to see them as a bundle of interests. That is more interesting.

The Hughes House, 1912

Here is the Hughes House on Courtland Avenue, an absolutely beautiful 1912 Prairie Style home here in San Antonio (by a St. Louis architect) that was threatened by demolition last fall. A demolition permit had been applied for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which had owned the property for 50 years. The obvious purchaser was San Antonio College, which owned the adjacent parking lots.

They have a cool MCM building – and lots of parking lots.

A lot of neighborhood activists and the Conservation Society of San Antonio opposed the demolition and asked that it be considered as a landmark. Ricki Kushner of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and Michael Carroll put together a detailed history of the house. In addition to its lovely architecture, it was where Russell Hughes grew up, a famous international dancer who was celebrated for her skills.

A papel picado portrait by the incomparable San Antonio artist Kathleen Trenchard of Russell Hughes- known as “La Meri” – dressed in Chinese costume.

So, depending on your point of view, you could say there were good guys (preservationists, or the two institutions) and bad guys (the two institutions, or the preservationists). But that view requires some kind of obliteration of one side or the other. That’s not how you save a building.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

You save a building by finding where the various actors’ interests lie, and seeing if there isn’t a way to ally those interests into a solution. So, in this case, the preservation folks asked San Antonio College to NOT purchase the property for demolition since the site was valued by the community. We distributed yard signs saying “SAVE THE HUGHES HOUSE”. San Antonio College agreed not to pursue acquisition of the site because good community relations is in their financial and public relations interest. Then we asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the property on the market, since their interest was to make money off the deal.

They did that and found a buyer who is interested in preservation. Now, everyone gets to be the good guy, because all interests have all been considered and the landmark lives on.

Many thanks the May Chu and Andrew Weissman for teaming up to save this landmark! Look for a new venue that will allow you to see the fabulous interiors – like these fireplaces! The Conservation Society introduced May to our local legendary chef Andrew and the whole community is excited about the possibility!

Thank you Andrew and May!

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