Here is the Sommers saloon as it looked 2 months ago, then a month ago, and now.
Which is kinda sad, but also puro San Antonio, because this is a place where preservation is the first thought, even if that is preservation by relocation or reconstitution. You can argue that those are not true preservation solutions, and you would be right. But in this city, landfill is never the first option. The plan is to have some of the best architects in town re-use the old limestone and caliche for a new development.
I continue to worry about the Hughes House, 312 W Courtland. We worked to save it and found two willing buyers a year ago. They did landmark it and get a zoning change for a wine bar, but vandals/obdachlos broke in last winter and now it is for sale again. In addition to its architectural beauty, it was the home of Russell Hughes, known as La Meri, whose dance was internationally known.
This is when 503 Urban Loop burned in February 2022 on the coldest night of the year. The building was a very famous brothel and then spent a century as a Catholic institutions helping women and children in the impoverished Laredito district of San Antonio. We worked with Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and Westside Preservation Alliance to landmark it and were delayed again and again until it burned. Now, the purported developer of an 8-story building there is selling the site. The landmarking process is supposed to insure four things:
- Archaeological investigation of whole site
- Preservation of any items recovered at a local museum
- Permanent interpretation visible from the public ROW.
Will they do it? Stay tuned!
To address the surfeit of accidentally burned buildings, the City Council yesterday expanded the Vacant Building program beyond historic districts and upped the fines to $500 a day. Now maybe those Austin developers will modify their tactics. But there is still a lot of charcoal in the landscape.
It will be a busy fall – November 1-3 we are having a World Heritage Symposium which will not only recall our status as one of only 25 World Heritage sites in the US, but also recall the UNESCO San Antonio Declaration of 1996, which was the Americas’ response to the Nara document on Authenticity in 1994. Together these statements led to the community- and culture-focused approach to heritage conservation that has characterized all the advances in our field in the 21st century. It is called Affirming Cultural Identity: World Heritage in the 21st century (nice title if I do say so myself).
There are some basic principles of heritage conservation/historic preservation you will always hear from me. The first is that preservation is not a series of rules or standards but a PROCESS. It is a better process than zoning or building codes because it treats every property as an individual with its own character and history. Zoning and building treat properties as alienated commodities, one-size-fits-all.
Fortified Saxon village, Transylvania. I guess these two pictured structures are the same. Both are made of the same material and designed for both commerce and fortification. They must be identical.
Which is why preservation folks often bump up against zoning attorneys, because the whole treating-resources-based-on-their-actual-characteristics thing is especially annoying to them. After all, their expertise is commodification. You don’t have a house, you have a residential unit.
3-2 $2400 a month ignore the picture.
I taught Historic Preservation Planning for almost twenty years and one of the two final paper assignments was ALWAYS developing design guidelines for a specific historic district. The principle, which was clear since the advent of historic districts, was that you can’t really have design guidelines that apply to all historic districts in a city. Some are Victorian. Some are bungalows. Some are Mid-Century Modern. Any design guidelines that applied to such diverse districts would have to be so bland as to be useless.
This is a San Antonio historic district, so it should follow the same rules as….
this San Antonio historic district, or this one (they all look the same, right?)
I would show my students the Mid-North Historic District Design Guidelines from 1973, created at the time the historic district in Chicago was designated, because EVERYONE KNEW that each district had its own characteristics and needed its own, specifically tailored design guidelines. But that did not happen due to money. So, a perennial Master’s student assignment was born.
Mid-North historic district, Chicago
Fast forward thirty years and the Conservation Society of San Antonio gives a grant to the River Road neighborhood to craft design guidelines. I also helped them from the technical side, since my dissertation was on the history of historic districts and I have a lot of experience with design guidelines.
This is River Road. Some commonalities with bungalow districts, although with more Revival Style and fair amount of Moderne influence, especially in windows, unlike other districts from that period.
Those are the windows on the right – very particular to this area.
And they came up with an excellent document. It was set to be adopted by the Historic and Design Review Commission today but some people in the neighborhood (attorneys probably, or some other commodifiers) raised a last-minute stink so they pulled this thoughtful document from the agenda. Apparently they think that the citywide guidelines are enough, which means they missed the entire point.
Which means they think that River Road looks the same as everywhere else.
Quod erat demonstratum.
If you need a primer on how historic districts work, here’s one of mine from 2009.
In the last installment of Time Tells we learned about how elevators are older than bicycles and we restrained ourselves from commenting on fixies (unlike this time).
What other strange bits of technology trivia can we find in the backward lens? There are always reversed technologies, like the “introduction” of concrete in the late 19th century only to learn 120 years later that the Romans actually did it better 2000 years earlier. Or the case of Qinshihuangdi’s chromed blades predating the 1930s discovery of the chrome process, again by 2000 years. But I am looking for either things that seem old but aren’t – like the bicycle – or things that seem new but aren’t – like hydraulics.
Acequia flowing right now in an aqueduct above a stream – since 1745.
The reason this is interesting is because we tend to organize things in a progressive manner – x begets y begets z – so when we find things that happen in a transgressive manner – z happened before x or y happened and then everyone forgot about it – it is interesting to us. Because it is differently patterned. Like the fact that the first bread toaster predates sliced bread by 35 years. Yes, there was a toaster patented in 1893, the same year we got the zipper, the dishwasher, the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Pabst Blue Ribbon, spray paint and diet soda. And to think that Coca-Cola was only 7 years old at the time.
Then there are the things that go away and come back – like the electric car, which was all the rage up to about 1910, but then got squeezed out until the 21st century where it is hitting back with a vengeance. I guess the oil companies were pissed off about losing the battle for indoor lighting to the electric folks, also around 1910. We often forget that John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil made their money off indoor lighting. Cars had nothing to do with it up to the point where his trust got busted in 1911 (which made Rockefeller even richer, because capitalism).
Oooh look at that truck – it just caused zoning!
Fun Fact; Rockefeller’s Standard Oil made its money off of kerosene, which is what everyone was making out of petroleum. Standard Oil was the first oil company to NOT throw the gasoline (an unwanted byproduct) into the river.
You have probably seen those lists where things that seem to be separated by great chasms of history are actually closer in time to each other than you think. Or farther, like the fun fact that Cleopatra (VII) lived closer to the invention of Snapchat than the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. My favorite is the 66 years between the first powered flight and landing on the moon.
But what really amazes me are the things that seem to be backwards in our lens. Take these two human inventions. On the one hand we have the bicycle, a ubiquitous form of transportation and amusement that is deceptively simple but also strikingly modern. Our contemporary bicycles with chains and gears and rubber tires are basically the same age as the first automobiles, starting in the 1880s. There were velocipedes in the early 19th century, and some form of pedal locomotion emerging in the mid-1800s, but even the term bicycle dates to at best 1860, and the modern “safety” bicycle that begat beer guts in lycra is pretty much contemporary with the first automobile around 1885-86.
Now contrast that with an invention that is a good two generations older – the elevator. The first counter-weighted elevators emerged in the 18th century and were steam-powered by the early 19th century. Elishu Otis patented his “safety” elevator in 1853 over thirty years before the “safety” bicycle.
So, when you get off your bicycle and get into an elevator, do you feel like you are going back in time? Because you are.
I would like to correct my perspective. In the 17 plus years of this blog I have occasionally gone a little Luddite with some anti-technology rants, like this one back in 2007 or this one a few months ago. When you can remember rotary phones, priming carburetors and rolling your own slide film, you will occasionally become an old grouch. On the flip side, I get massively impatient at slow internet and the horrible jumping up and down on websites caused, I assume, by the damn cookies or whatever. I will join your revolution if I must, but please don’t have it at 17 miles an hour. – even I am not that slow.
Most pickup trucks are not to my taste but I found this one palette able.
I grumble about how external hard drives have special connectors designed to slip out of place if there is any percussive motion within three feet, such as typing on a keyboard; or how those same drives always have to be Force Ejected; or how Google needs me to login six times a day. I whine about how “Check Engine” lights are always on no matter what; and how whatever app you are in you will be forced to sign into another app in order to complete your business. But I admit readily that mostly it is progress, even if I have to call my daughter in to talk to the refrigerator. I don’t want to be the stereotypical grouch, especially as a student of history. We’ve been down this road before.
he stereotype of the old person grumbling about how things were better in their day is at least as old as recorded history. One of the things I could grumble about today is how the craft beer revolution that I was part of 30 years ago is now succumbing to hard seltzers and mango white claws – the offspring of Zima and grandchildren of wine coolers and “alcopops”. They have taken over 2-4 more coolers in the grocery store, squeezing out my beloved IPAs in favor of this flavored nonsense.
There is a Sumerian tablet from 2600 BC where the author – in perfect cuneiform – complains about how the coffee today (2600 BC) is watered down and everyone adds cream and spices (mango? chelada?) and it is no longer “like coffee” was back in my day. Harumph. The same tropes of the generationally challenged can be found in most all surviving literature – Greek comedies two thousand years younger than our grumpy old coffee man have identical characters, and Shakespeare in particular can be set in any time period and place without loss of authentically Harumphian stereotypes. Your generation is not special. All the other ones said the same thing. That’s how history works.
Fashion forward. Imagine what the Gibson girl connoted in 1910.
The other night at the Beethoven Männerchor Halle und Garten the choir came out to read a poem in German and English and sing briefly to a tree. The large pecan tree will be cut down on Friday because it is cracked and a hazard. Meanwhile, a major project for Brackenridge Park was heard by the Historic and Design Review Commission following a couple of years of protests to “Stop the Chop” of older trees in the park. While the number of trees to be cut down has been halved since the protest began, the protestors remain at full strength and more than two dozen crammed the hearing room.
Why do trees have this power over people? They lie at the center of most religious traditions, not just the Germanic ones. There are sacred trees throughout Asia and Africa. Trees are oracles, places to expiate illness or sin, gods and goddesses and even human souls. You would find a similar spoken homage to the tree about to be cut along the Irrawaddy River as we saw last night along the San Antonio River. And one protestor at the hearing interrupted with “they are sacred,” voicing a human perception that dates back tens of thousands of years.
Not technically a tree but a centuries-old camelia flower, Weiboashan, Yunnan, China.
No wonder it has always been easier to landmark trees than buildings, such as I often experienced in China, where trees were tagged red and green for how old they were and more zealously preserved than any building. Same in the U.S. where real estate developers are only happy to tell you they will save trees on the site but the buildings have to go.
I am also reminded of the pisog trees of Ireland, where ribbons, articles of clothing, glasses or other objects are tied to a tree as a prayer for healing. This is also found in many other cultures, for examples Arab folklore and Greek mythology.
So is it the religious associations, the idea of a world tree, or the idea of human transference into and out of trees that causes this level of worship and attachment? Perhaps it is simply the basic environmental impulse, the mythology of the Avatar movies. Trees symbolize our entire environment, tended by avatars of our better selves, wrapped in a harmony myth.
Naiju tree gods, Ise, Japan, 2004.
Trees were symbolic to ancient Egyptians and African farmers. They are pretty darn near universal, on par with kittens and puppies. Like kittens and puppies, they symbolize “nature” but are generally farmed and thus a part of human culture. In parks especially the vast majority of trees were planted. The goal of great landscape designers was to make these places feel that they were natural even though they were designed. Parks are designed just like a Shinto temple or the Parthenon, but we tend to categorize them as “nature” because they are alive. And of course, trees breed new trees which are unplanned – like the ones now subject to removal in Brackenridge Park. Volunteers, they are called.
Framed. Farmed. Symbolic.
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape above in great detail. He curated our experience and manipulated our views. Brackenridge Park was similarly designed, and the pecan tree at the Beethoven was curated and planted in the early 20th century. Yet unlike other human designs, these living things embody a mythology and passion that buildings do not.
Mural at Weibaoshan, Yunnan “Dancing under the Pine Trees”
There are of course natural areas, some great forests where the trees aren’t farmed. Occasionally burned, yes. And yes, the indigenous like the Ohlone would burn other species to focus on the oak.
Note how the forest burned here in modern times is described: “fuels had been building up for 117 years”. That is because normally (whatever that means) fires occurred every 8-10 years. Tree lovers tap into a long human tradition of tree worship, but there is an equally long human tradition of tree farming. The advocacy arguments are made in moral terms, but the moral realities are ambiguous. We have a preference for human-designed species, like dogs and cats, and we have made similar selections of our arboreal friends.
No one designs trees like the Japanese.
What I used to call “weed trees” up North are called “trash trees” here, but in either appellation the hate is great and the implication is that we humans did not design these trees into our environment. They were, as we say, “volunteers.” The lack architectural or historical value. We tend to curate our trees as we curate our cats and dogs.
I guess the Chinese crested is considered uglier than the Mexican hairless. This one is Peruvian.
Kittens, puppies, trees. In Brackenridge Park they have signs warning against the dumping of animals. They also have had a massive feral cat problem slowly being solved by humane spaying. Feral. That’s what you call your designed creatures when they escape the farm.
Christmas Tree farm, Los Gatos, California, ten years ago.
But why the zero-tolerance policy? That’s what I don’t get. Not a single speaker who protested last night admitted to the need to remove even one tree. Maybe that would violate the moral imperative. All or nothing. Asceticism. Not my vibe – heck I compromise on historic buildings all the time.
They were concerned about moving a large old live oak. I was not concerned about moving this 1880 limestone house across the street and rotating it 90 degrees. I’m crap at asceticism.
I sang the revised lyrics of Der Lindebaum to our Beethoven tree the other night and I will happily sing it to those park trees that are being removed because they are breaking down walls and threatening historic buildings. I can’t make more historic buildings.
Oldest industrial building in San Antonio. Note the volunteer trees, which are younger than me.
My students always chided me for handing out thick reams of readings and assignments, telling me I was “killing trees”. The implication was that I should do things digitally and save trees. My response? “I can plant more trees. I can’t plant the coal, uranium and lithium powering your digital device.” *
We planted all of these trees. You wait 20 years and there they are. I remember when the river birch on the right was in the back seat of the car.
Man kann den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen
- – I guess the proponents would imbue each tree with its own identity and personality, be it volunteer, trash, designed, or sculpted. They might say we can always build more houses, and just to add a layer of overlapping irony, I would respond that the new houses won’t be made of old growth wood, which is straighter, denser, and more disease-resistant than any modern farmed wood. So, there is that.
One of the issues of the current decade is the push against single-family zoning, usually from the perspective of increasing the supply of affordable housing, but also arguably from a climate change perspective. In either case, more density is desired. So, how does preservation fit into this? Well, many of the YIMBY proponents of same accuse historic district preservation of being a cloaked kind of exclusionary zoning.
Like many such apprehensions of the historic preservation/heritage conservation field, there is truth in it — if you go far back enough in time. (Pro tip – you need to go back at least 30 years and ignore everything that has happened since).
In fact, historic preservationists have been advocating for ADUs (accessory dwelling units) in districts for the last 30 years – as a technique to insure preservation by offering additional income to owners. I remember it from the Oak Park Illinois Preservation Plan Lisa DiChiera wrote in 1993-94. We have long seen adding extra units as a way to increase density and HELP preserve beloved community fabric.
When I do my talk on the history of historic districts, I note that arguably the first modern historic district inspired by residents and not tourists was Georgetown in 1950. It literally took an act of Congress and was perceived – correctly – of causing gentrification and displacing African-Americans. Which it did. A similar thing happened a couple of years later with the first revolving fund in Charleston. Zoning itself emerges in California in the 19th century as a way to exclude the Chinese, and even the density-based New York City zoning of 1916 was adopted by hundreds of suburbs, in part as a way to exclude people.
Historic districts, however, took a different turn starting in the 1960s as they were tweaked by community activists to become something a museum curator would never recognize. This process itself also took 30 years, so that by the time I was fighting alongside community members in North Kenwood, Chicago in 1991-93 to create a historic district, the goal was quite the opposite in terms of race and income. (Race Against Renewal, Future Anterior, Winter 2005)
But it would take a little longer to push the preservation practice a little further in terms of building types. You see, in North Kenwood they refused to include any multi-family apartment buildings in the historic district. You could put in two-flats and three-flats but they excluded century-old architecturally intact six-flats and 12-flats. It would take a couple more years for the preservation community to accept the multi-family as worthy of preservation, even though I argued it in North Kenwood in 1991. When 409 Edgecombe in Harlem, New York became a landmark in the mid-90s, the whole scheme changed. Within a few years, the old Hamilton Heights historic district – which had excluded multi-family – had filled in and marched a dozen blocks up St. Nicholas with four separate additions. Multifamily was now decidedly historic.
So, if the YIMBYs accuse preservation of exclusionary zoning, you can let them know they were correct in 1915 and 1950 and there was a lingering effect into the early 1990s.
But they’ve been wrong since.
“The wrong side of the tracks.” This is an idiomatic phrase that most English speakers would recognize. It indicates something is lower in status, class, wealth and even safety. It refers of course to pre-20th century urbanism, where BIPOC and other communities were segregated, redlined and denied municipal services. It is somewhat surprising that the phrase survives, because much of its urbanism has been lost over the last century plus, when the truck and the automobile introduced radical uncertainty into the location equation, causing zoning, redlining and arguable public housing and highways to keep people apart through most of the 20th century.
The redevelopment of industrial districts and railroads in the last three or four decades has further eroded the clarity of “wrong side of the tracks” in the physical world, yet the verbal palimpsest persists. Old industrial districts served by often defunct railroads have become trendy neighborhoods, from SoHo to LoDo to Third Ward. Here in San Antonio, the West Side remains both physically separated by railroad tracks and underdeveloped, but it seems only a matter of time before that physical economy changes with the growth of downtown and especially the UTSA downtown campus.
The verbal palimpsest has also survived at least two rethinkings of the century-old mechanism that eliminated radical uncertainty by “zoning” various communities. The vast majority of the 591 communities that adopted zoning in its first decade were residential suburbs, and their goal was single-family zoning. Today that is being challenged in many cities with a push for more density to battle climate change (and that can help) and unaffordable housing (not so much). Accessory Dwelling Units, ADUs, are all the rage. Of course historic preservationists were touting those a quarter century ago.
We also have an effort to preserve shotgun houses, because they are historic “small” houses and thety are affordable because they are already built. You can’t build new and rent cheap.
Interestingly, this row runs right up to the railroad tracks, which I live on the other side of. And while the tracks still have trains many times a day, the neighborhoods on both sides of the tracks are up and coming, despite the demise of the streetcars that created them a century ago. The verbal palimpsest persists, as does the physical, but both have lost their meaning in a 21st century regenerating city.
I have been reworking an old slide show about architectural styles. “Styles” are rubrics we use to categorize things, generally after the fact. This means that the labels we produce for stylistic trends are not usually those being used by the practitioners at the time. In architectural history, for example, the asymmetry, contrast and exuberant ornamentation of the Victorian era is labeled “Queen Anne” when many of its practitioners called it “Free Classical.”
To make things understandable, we push them into categories they never conceived, which is itself a problem, as I have explained before. Compounding this contortion is the problem of time and history. We can say that the Art Deco style kicked off at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, or that Napoleon instigated the rise of the Empire Style around 1805, and we would be partly right. The problem is that historical events can often have two, oppositional results.
One of my favorite examples is the 1954 Supreme Court case Parker v. Berman, which famously declared “the right of cities to be beautiful” as well as safe and sanitary. This has two opposite effects in terms of design. One result was Urban Renewal, which in less than a decade would be labeled “Urban Removal”. This involved the wholesale demolition of huge tracts of urban land, to be rebuilt with modernist housing and shopping.
Of course the formal opposite of Urban Renewal in 1954 would be Historic Preservation. Preservationists ran with that 1954 decision and within 12 years some 70 cities had historic preservation ordinances. By the time of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, most cities could create their own ordinances without state legislation, and the Act itself mentioned urban renewal as a challenge it was trying to address.
In fact, both urban renewal and this new idea of historic preservation were inspired by the same “right of cities to be beautiful.” They just had different concepts of beauty.
To find an even more interesting example of oppositional synchronicity, we need to go back 60 years earlier, to the birth of this new, unadorned, mechanistic mass-produced Modernism. In 1893, 27 million people visited a World’s Fair in Chicago called the World’s Columbian Exposition. At the time, Chicago architects had been building the first skyscrapers for about a decade, and one of them, Daniel Burnham, was the architect of the Exposition. In order to coordinate architects from across the nation, they had to go with the Classical Revival style they had all been instructed in at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or its imitators. As the story goes, the “White City” in Jackson Park celebrated old styles just as Modernism was being invented in the same city. The exception that proved the rule was Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the fair.
The Columbian Exposition had such an impact on architectural design that the following year a young Frank Lloyd Wright, newly independent of Louis Sullivan, submitted a pure Classical design for the Milwaukee Public Library, even as he was refining a Modernism even more abstract than his Liebe Meister. He never did this again, but the weight of the moment had a momentary impact on his design. Everyone wanted in on this Beaux-Arts Classicism that enthralled 27 million.
But those 27 million also saw Louis Sullivan’s ornament, and may well have seen the stripped skyscrapers downtown, embodying a new modern style. Louis Sullivan wrote “The Tall Building Artistically Considered” in 1896 placing him firmly in the Modernist camp. BUT… turns out he was one of the most skilled ornamentalists ever, creating rich flourishes without precedent.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 also launched the modern field of urban planning, with Burnham designing “City Beautiful” plans for Washington, San Francisco, Manila and Chicago, among others. These tended to be in the same style, replete with columns and pediments and swags and balustrades.
As Sullivan was declaring tall buildings “every inch a proud and soaring thing” in 1896, Frank Lloyd Wright was bending the rules of architectural design with horizontal houses that pushed away traditional ideas of facades, entrances, walls and windows. By 1900 he had invented something completely opposite to Beaux Arts Classicism, and by 1910 he blew away Europe with his “Ausgefuhrten Bauten” that illustrated his newly realized designs.
In 1908 Adolf Loos would declare ornament a crime in the building arts, citing an analogy with tattoos that would not exactly work today. So here we have the oppositional synchronicity of a world charging on in two seemingly opposite directions and an architect paving the way for an unadorned future with the most elaborate ornament ever. In fairness, his ornament was always secondary to the building design from the plan outward, and the impact of Loos would only be felt fully in the 1920s.
Yet, in many ways you can trace BOTH the Neue Sachlichkeit of bare bones European modernism and the White City mimicry of Beaux-Arts City planning to the SAME event in 1893, when young Frank Lloyd Wright was still a “pencil in the master’s hand.”
Moreover, ornament can be misleading because architectural composition starts with a plan and massing, which can be generally Classical with symmetry and hierarchy, or Romantic with asymmetry and contrast.
Here are a couple of examples from San Antonio. First, we have a classically inspired arrangement of volumes, replete with abstract, modernist ornament. Second, an irregular, emotive arrangement with very traditional detailing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.