Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Whatever happened to imagination?

In an effort to revive sagging fortunes and declining attendance at Colonial Williamsburg, organizers at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have affianced themselves to an organization called "Revolutionary City" (Virginia Pilot, Feb 21st). Starting in March, parts of the town will be closed to tourists unless they pay extra admission fees. Behind the gates, "Revolutionary City" will recreate events during the American revolution between 1776-1783 in which "George Washington" will address the troops before the march to Yorktown, for example. Fee paying guests may ask a soldier what he thinks of his leader (Newsweek, Feb 13th).

Apparently, museum administrators opine that people today have a harder time connecting their own lives with living history sites like Williamsburg. They feel that recreations of distant events with live actors will help today's multicultural audiences do just that.

The Virginia Pilot article reports that in the mid-eighties 1.2 million paying visitors a year kept local restaurant and hotels busy. When I visited in 1976, it was thriving. I enjoyed every minute of my visit. So what happened to imagination? I don't know about you, but once I see a recreation of an event or a book as a movie, its likely that images from the movie replace what I once imagined as the battle of Culloden and the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, or a tea farm in Kenya where Karen Blixen once lived at the foot of the Ngong hills (about which I know a tiny bit having grown up near Kisumu). Imagination not only liberates our minds and hearts but it creates possibility and vision. It is polyvalent and not uniform: no images need be set in stone.

Recently I revisited the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. My acoustiguide allowed me to access three kinds of information: descriptions of art works, assessments of the religious significance of various pieces and short pieces of music thought relevant to the piece. With imagination and emotions kindled, I can still see and hear a painting and accompanying music from that visit. If my critical imagination abandoned painting descriptions or thought another piece of music more suitable to a painting or sculpture, so much the better.

I've been to Gettysburg. The field where Pickett's charge took place and the setting for President Lincoln's Gettysburg address live in my imagination aided by a few photographs of the time. I am alas, sceptical that recreating events from the period of the American revolution will heighten my engagement with the period. I'm glad I went to Williamsburg a long time ago.


Rev Dr Mom said...

Oh, me too.

When I was in jr. high I was living in Virginia, and we studied Virginia history. One of the highlights of that year was a 3-day visit to Williamsburg and Jamestown. I loved imagining what it would have been like to live in colonial Williamsburg or in Jamestown.I didn't need staged events to help me do that. Rather than increasing engagement with history,it seems like these events might constrict what one takes away from visiting such a place.

I wonder the purported inability to connect with living history sites is a result of our (over)exposure to fast paced video games, music videos, and constant hyper-stimulation. Just walking through a site, experiencing it and talking with a tour guide isn't enough anymore. Sad.

Don said...

Actually, 1976 was the peak year for visits to outdoor living history museums. It's been downhill ever since. Almost all of the majors are cutting staff and expense and are struggling with questions of how to make connections with audiences. I can understand why CW is trying something different.

In addition to changes in the culture (there are more choices for experiences, the blur of culture/entertainment/education, access to DVDs & cable programming, general less interest in history) there is also a problem with previous methods making the guest a passive, mute bystander watching someone recreate the past. Engagement that includes allowing the guests to participate in an activity, and that is aimed at including the guests interests, curiosity and hands-on involvement may actually generate more excitement and interest.

Alas, we do live in a culture that does not appear to value history, but instead assumes that the world we live in has fallen from the sky, complete, whole, and without complicated/nuanced evolution or development. It just is.

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