The destruction of the sacred

I watched the screen in disgust as the crowd began to tear apart the tree. They ripped off whole limbs with their hands and women grabbed leaves and began to stuff them inside of their jacket pockets. The mob grew larger and eventually the assault on the tree resulted in the bare trunk being pulled out of the soil and onto the ground. It lay like one of the ill pilgrims hoping for a miraculous healing from the Madonna. The scene pans away from the detailed rape of the tree to show the chaos of the surrounding paparazzi and pilgrims – all hoping to gain a glimpse of the Madonna. (Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.)

Previously, two children had testified to the Madonna visiting them under this particular tree.  Eventually the location of the tree become a pilgrimage destination and crowds continued to gather.  The scene soon became a media spectacle and the crowds became zealous with religious fervor. The children then told the crowds that the Madonna had mandated a church be built on the site of her manifestation– at the tree. Hence, the scene cited above.

I was transfixed – the drive to possess the unique, sacred, and finite, ultimated in the destruction and loss of the very thing that pulled the mob to the desolate spot in the first place – the tree. But, what were the outcomes for such a situation? Preserve the tree as an artifact? Build a church around it? Next to it? Out of it?   How best could a reverent acknowledgment of the miraculous encounter be facilitated? And more importantly, how could the miraculous event be formalized into a positive experience for the believers?

Was this scene from Fellini’s film, La dolce vita, an metaphor for what what we all have done to historic sites?  Have we made them into media destinations without a soul?

Although a stark example, some critics might say this is analogous to what we have been advocating  in reference to historic house museums? Are we proposing to tear apart the very thing we love in order to feel a part of it? Is the visitor experience we advocate for really just the pornographic voyeurism of watching the scared being defiled? Am I one of the paparazzi, standing on the scaffolding with bright lights, illuminating the slow destruction of our cultural heritage?

No – despite what some may think, I am not a paparazzo.   While I do want to bring attention to, and shed light on an historic site, I want our guests to appreciate the sites from a deeper, personal level. My collaborator and writing partner, Ms. Deborah Ryan (UNCC Professor of Architecture, Specialist in Community Engagement) and I have spoken about this much.

*I feel the urge to push for tactile, emotional and poetic experiences at historic sites.  

*I wish us to transcend the fetishization of the “object” and to swim in a sea of experience.  

*I advocate for the soulful honoring of historic sites in a way that engages a guest viscerally. 

*I am interested in how might we draft a new course for preservation that not only inherits the past but allows the use of its value in the present.

What is sacred?

Perhaps nothing? Perhaps everything?

How then, does one honor and memorialize without fetishizing?

Mabry-Hazen Historic House Museum (With Knox Heritage).  Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museum day-long workshop in which we remove all of the barriers from the experience and use the house and collections as they were intended to be used.  The participants were asked to use “anarchist tags” (shown below) to tell us their thoughts about the experience.

IMG_6507 IMG_6541IMG_6594


Ai Weiwei’s “Colored Vases” was created by covering urns that are thousands of years old with new paint, Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

droppingurn1Weiweis most iconic work, a triptych of photographs, Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn (1995). The action makes us witnesses to the willful destruction of a superb, “museum quality” urn that had survived for 5,000 years in pristine condition. Weiwei impassively sends it crashing to its death.  A persistent reminder of Weiweis fearless, transgressive iconoclasm. Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

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