Monday, October 11, 2010

Putting the past in its place

We walk up the stone steps and out onto the lawn. The Morris-Jumal mansion appears before us. The first thing that stands out is that it stands out. Surrounded by Washington Heights, only a block from the corner of St. Nicholas Ave and 60th St., the building seems terribly out of place. White painted wooden side-boards cover the exterior, and high columns support a triangular entablature. The color and neoclassical architecture make the building look like a miniature version of the White House. Suddenly I remember having read that George Washington had some connection to the building. I turn to tell Mom and she nods.

There are a few others standing or walking around the lawn. Two men are smoking off to the right, an elderly couple slowly strolls the grounds, and what looks to be a father and his two young children enter the gate after us. Dad walks behind us at first, but soon he over-takes us as Mom stops to read a bronze plaque on the fence. He begins to wander lazily across the lawn, looking but not quite looking. Mom has discovered a new bit of information from the plaque and comes to tell me. We’re outside but she speaks in hushed tones, as if we were in a museum. She continues to walk slowly, alternatively gazing at the building and reading plaques. I walk around the side of the mansion to find where Dad has gone. He’s made it to the other side of the lawn. His back is now almost turned to the mansion. He turns to me as I approach, grins and says “Well?” I mention the George Washington connection. He nods and says “hmm”, then looks away over the ridge that leads down a steep hill covered in rocks and trees.

Eventually Mom finds us. She walks up, smiling. Dad turns to us and says “Ready?” We walk back to the gate and onto the street. Dad is eager to beat the traffic back to Boston, so we say our goodbyes and they drive off.

I have seen this routine before. As children and teenagers my sister and I made many trips with our parents, mostly around New England and upstate New York. But we’ve also gone as far south as St. Augustine and the Everglades in Florida (my mother is from Jacksonville, FL) and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada (where my father’s family first arrived after leaving Ireland). In all of these places we inevitably end up walking (always slowly) around forts, lighthouses, mansions, churches…anything deemed “historical”.

Mom reads all the plaques, information boards, signposts and brochures. She studies the architecture (her father was a builder and she grew up looking at houses). She creates an understanding of the place and contextualizes it with tidbits from her reading of David McCullough and Howard Zinn. She talks about it, sharing what she finds, and often brings it up again later when we are having lunch or dinner. Dad wanders. He soaks in the atmosphere in a more passive manner. He’s already read about it, or will read about it later.

This experience started me wondering more deeply about how people interact with historical sites, why they act certain ways while there, and, perhaps most importantly, how exactly they know they are at an historical site. As the Morris-Jumal mansion happens to be around the corner from my apartment I decided to start there. A quick Google search brought me to, the mansion’s website. Yes, being a model product of my generation, rather than walk down the street my first inclination was to begin with the internet. However, the website provides some revealing looks into how the keepers of the house would like to portray it to the public. The first piece of information (which continually crops up as you peruse the site) is that this is Manhattan’s oldest house (though not its first). The second piece of information (which is another recurring theme) is that George Washington used the house as his headquarters for a brief period in 1776. The site also advertises regular family events, where visitors (especially children) can come to “experience” colonial life in some activity or another, as well as two separate concert series: one for baroque music and the other for jazz. The baroque series seems designed to recreate the atmosphere of the place in its early years, while the jazz series finds its foundations in the fact that Duke Ellington apparently called the mansion “the crown at the top of Sugar Hill.” Noticeably, neither style would be considered mainstream today. Including a jazz series seems to bring the activities in the mansion just shy of up-to-date; hip but still historical.

Walking over to the mansion, I see a tour group. On other days I have seen such groups walking around the grounds. Aside from the high school students who tend to look fairly bored, by and large people visiting the mansion seem to exhibit a particular set of behaviors. Voices are kept low, even when outside. Some people take pictures, while others seem to stand and stare, breathing deeply. People walk more slowly, as if on sacred ground. Some, like my mother, read the plaques. Everyone seems to know what to do, or at least what they are supposed to do.

How do we know that a place or an object is “historical”? Of course if you dig something up at an archeological site you can carbon date it, compare it to other similar pieces in the archeological record, look for signs of particular artistic styles, and so on. But what makes something a part of “the past” as opposed to “the present”? Looking around my desk, my cell phone, my laptop, my jeans and my Starbucks coffee cup do not call to mind the weight of history. But when I throw on one of my grandfather’s sport coats or hold up my great-uncle’s Air Force Captain’s pin my thoughts turn to a past era. All of these items exist here, now, today. Yet some “feel” a part of history while others “feel” a part of the present.

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned that the mansion stands out. Walk one block in any direction and you are in “New York City: Present Day”. Stand on the grounds of the mansion and you are in “New York City: 1776”. As I also wrote earlier, the façade of the building reminded me of the White House. I have been to the White House, but I did not have the same feeling there that I had at the Morris-Jumal mansion. The White House does not “feel” to me like an historical building. The themes that came more readily to mind when standing on Pennsylvania Ave. were a mix of patriotism, power, politics, some level of skepticism and mistrust…but all firmly rooted in the present. I connect the White House with current issues. I connect the Morris-Jumal mansion with the Revolutionary War. It is a point, a place, fixed in time which I (and others, seemingly) “know” to be historical and which symbolically represents an historical era because it is presented as such.

This begs the question of how we choose to represent the past and what we choose to represent it. What places and things are emblematic of certain peoples and times, and how does that guide our thinking about their societies? How do historical sites and artifacts, as well our decisions about which things fall into these categories, expand and/or limit our ability to reconstruct the past? How do we know history when we see it?


Shane said...

I thought that the comparison between the Morris-Jumal Mansion and the White House was interesting because it is true, places that are still in use as homes or places of work (even if they are historical) feel much more like a piece of the present than other historical sites. I think that this highlights the role of use in a locations perceived connection to our current reality. The moment something goes out of use it immediately becomes something foreign to the present, it loses the action which kept it alive, its simply a space. Adding to this with many historical sights we try to refill this space by trying recreate what happened there, either in our own minds or through public reenactments, many times causing the place to become even more foreign and separate from reality and the present or at least what we believe to be so.

Camille said...

I like your idea about the way in which historical buildings and entities 'stand out' from their surroundings. One way that people subconsciously measure or calculate the age and relative historical importance of an area or building is through difference. The Morris-Jumal mansion 'stands out' because it is very different from its surroundings, so much so that it seems out of place. The differences in appearance and speculated function can suggest that a building or area is historical.

Whenever I visit a historical site or museum, I find myself divided between reading all of the information boards and ignoring them in order to gain a more authentic feel of the site or material. To me, these are the two things that one should try to do while at a museum or historical site and I unfortunately find them to be conflicting. I usually start out reading everything, only to stop altogether when I realize that I have become too involved in the reading and have not been fully observing everything. I always try to absorb too much information in too short an amount of a time when at a museum or historical site.

Andrea Fabiola Vazquez said...

I really like how your post compliments those just below, about East Williamsburg and storefronts. All these posts deal with the changing landscape of NY neighborhoods, yet while the other posts talk about the issues of the past being replaced by the new and fabulous, your post focuses on the pieces that remain untouched and eventually become monuments to history.

Certainly some places and objects achieve this status because of their ties to an historical event, usually an event that far overshadows anything else in the life of that place or object. But at what point does the event become just another historical element, along with the material attributes of the object, such as the moulding of a house or the handle of an old tool? When does the object itself become historical and where exactly does the value that we attach to it lie?

Stephen said...

I ran past this place the other day- it was a pretty amazing discovery for someone who hadn't known it was there. One of the first things that I noticed was its topography actually. It's high up on the edge of a cliff with a very wide viewshed. Ties back into my post from a few weeks ago pretty well, as well as with Nancy Munn's talk about the mansion on Bishop Hill.

gec2112 said...

This got me thinking about how people behave not just in historical sites,but in museums. I find visiting history museums so much easier than visiting an art museum. For instance, in a history museum, I can talk, though quietly, about the historical object I'm looking at... I HAVE something to say about it, and its the same in historical sites for me, but in art museums, especially contemporary art museums, I have a hard time figuring out how I should behave. For instance, how long should I look at each painting? What if I have absolutely nothing to say or think about it? What is the purpose of me standing there then?

Sorry for the ramble, but I just wanted to say that the idea of "knowing what to do" in a historical site is really interesting especially if you compare it to how one should behave in other sort arenas of cultural, historical, or artistic display.

- Glenda