Narratives of Disappearance

Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.


“The history of the work of the dead is a history of how they dwell among us – individually and communally. It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives, how they structure public spaces, politics, and time. It is a history of the imagination, a history of how we invest the dead…it is really the greatest possible history of the imagination.

Pg. 17, The Work Of The Dead, Thomas W. Laqueur

 3000px_IconicImplosion_Pruitt-IgoeMyth_Credit-STL-Post-Dispatch   Reichstag+1946
Choosing to erase an artifact can have as much symbolic meaning as choosing to preserve something.(left) Pruitt Igo (St. Louis, MO, 1954) originally viewed as the housing of the future, declined rapidly until in the mid 1970’s the 33 building complex was destroyed. (right)  German Reichstag (Berlin, 1884) as seen following the end of WWII 1946.  It has since been restored and the dome has been turned into a memorial experience (Norman Foster architect) in which visitors can view the German Parliament from a glass floor.  This experience symbolizes the German commitment to political transparency. Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.


What motivates us to preserve things? Why do we chose to demolish some and  keep others?  And further still, Why do we preserve these select things in the manner that we do?

The most common answer to these questions is that we preserve things and take care of them so that future generations will have the benefit of knowing them. By knowing them, we hope that these preserved things can help influence future choices and policies. I wonder if this is really being totally honest?  Are we really keeping these things around for future generations – or are we doing it for ourselves and the “here & now?

I mean, I guess either OR both are OK reasons to cherry pick things and preserve them. It just seems to me that we need to be honest about our motivations.  You see, preservation is not a benign act.  It has social, political and financial implications.

I think it is misleading that we, as preservationists and museum professionals, state that we are only interested in the facts and representing history from an authentic perspective, and then we proceed to eliminate much of the context.  FACTS and AUTHENTICITY are conjectural and derive much of their energy from imaginative assumptions. Every preserved historic village, or structure; Every conserved artifact and document exists in a field of un-knowing.  They are like fireflies in a vast dark meadow, drawing attention to their light, while we ignore the blackness that surrounds.

547B98C6-E7B8-4B80-B972-678089DCF984_mw1024_mh1024_s.jpg  Phyfe_BoscobelFragmentsOnTruck_Boscobel.jpg

Removal of the context in order for the singular and the unique to thrive.  (left) Demolition of Matthew Whaley School, Williamsburg, Virginia, to make way for the reconstructed Governor’s Palace, early 1930s (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation); (right) Over a five-month period in 1956, Boscobel House was dismantled and moved piece-by-piece to Garrison, where the pieces were stored in barns and other vacant buildings. They were later used to reconstruct a facsimile of the original house (Boscobel). Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.


What choices are made when we chose the light of the firefly over the darkness of the meadow?  What part does preservation play in this continuium of choice?  Many times, even when we have the contextual “meadow”, we have chosen to remove vast sections of the built environment so that the light of the firefly can be better viewed. This selective preservation I call a Narrative of Disappearance.

This type of narrative exists where entire sections of a town, complex, or building are intent-fully destroyed, so that some mythological period of significance can be re-created in physical form.  The Narrative of Disappearance is told through the discarded debris rather than the artifact- Through that which is removed rather than that which was allowed to remain. There is meaning in what is no longer visible – the darkness of the meadow.


19th century slave cabin at Greenfield Plantation in Botetourt County, VA–set to be disassembled and stored in a barn

What we don’t know, destroy or ignore tells us more about our present selves than what we document and preserve.  In most cases, what we have as artifact is merely what has survived our cultural “sifting”- not what was most authentic.


portsmouth nh-goodwin house-strawbery banke-charles street-1961  portsmouth nh-sherburne house-strawbery banke-charles street-2012

 For every building artifact removed from the 1961 version of the house, there was a story – a “narrative of disappearance”.  The Sherburne House (1695-1703, Strawbery Banke Historic Village).  (left) The Sherburne House in 1961 before the selective reconstruction work. (right) The house as it appears today after the reconstruction work. Imagine the choices and conjectural assumptions that had to be made in order for this structure to go from the image on the left to the image on the right.


Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

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