Thursday, July 22, 2010

More Musings on Travel and History

I got into Boston this afternoon, and finally made it to the North End area in the late afternoon. It was a bit too late to actually get into too many tourist sites, but still early enough to walk around a bit and enjoy the landscape. Having said that, between Philadelphia and Boston, I'm actually rather impressed. I'm used to traveling in Europe, and for some reason, I didn't think the States would have as much to offer.

I believe much of this may have to do with the little traveling I have done in the States on previous occasions . . . I've been to Chicago and Seattle with my parents and San Francisco with a friend and her grandmother. I've never really had the opportunity to explore any of those cities on my own. Generally, when we went to Chicago, we went to see Michigan Avenue and maybe the Art Institute. In Seattle, I remember going on a class field trip to the Science Museum, which I already felt too old for in 8th grade. As a result, I've always tended to think of the States as having nice scenery (Seattle and surrounding area), sky scrapers and random historic attractions (Alcatraz) but nothing too substantial. Illinois, of course, has all the Lincoln history but something in the way it's presented makes it seem superficial: there's the Lincoln Museum which seemed like a series of over-simplified posterboards and wax figures, and New Salem, a recreation of the village Lincoln lived in before going to Springfield. As I said, American history seemed, kind of, well, fake.
However, in Philadelphia and Boston, there are the century old buildings next to sky scrapers, the short two story homes surrounded by office buildings, and I love the juxtaposition of the two, and the way it looks. It's much more European in that way. Although, in Europe, it really depended on where you were - the super-tall sky scrapers tended to be further away from the old downtown areas, especially in places like Florence or Seville. Of course, even here on the East Coast, there are cases of history being "fake" or a reproduction - I went to the City Tavern in Philadelphia to see where the Founding Fathers and their peers used to drink and eat, only to discover a board that explained that the orginal tavern had been torn downyears ago and this reconstruction was built in the '70s. Similarly, Franklin Court simply shows the frame of what Benjamin Franklin's house was since the house itself is long gone.
However, I wouldn't say that this disregard or lack of respect for history is necessarily American - it's just more noticeable here in some cases. Take Rome or Athens for example: yes, they have many historic monuments but it's not like they always took good care of them: the Colosseum was in ruins, and people stole stones from it to build their houses. The Greeks stored weapons and ammunition in the Parthenon in Athens, which in turn caused their enemies to attempt to blow it up. It is impossible to know who is going to be famous or important decades or even centuries from now, so obviously, it can't be expected that every one of that person's houses is preserved for posterity. There are so many centuries more of history in Europe that perhaps it is more easily overlooked that those things aren't preserved and instead when a building that once housed Victor Hugo or Beethoven is still standing, it's easy to simply convert the rooms back into what they once were. America, one the other hand, almost seems to draw attention to the fact that much of its history has been demolished with progress by rebuilding it - at that point, is it being rebuilt for historic purposes or commercial reasons?
I guess another reason I wasn't sure what to expect from actually traveling the States is that I tend to strongly dislike history museums. I'm a history major. I like seeing historic sites, and historic things (although, could we get over the Civil War obsession already?). Show me where an important historic event happened - yes, I'm interested. Things that once belonged to a historically important person? Yes. Random old stuff that has been found or recovered? Definitely interested. A posterboard that attempts to explain years worth of history in all its complexities within two paragraphs? Shoot me now. If history museums were just filled with old things with minor context ("this belonged to . . ., general/mayor/spy during . . ."), I'd enjoy them. I think that's why I love archealogical museums and art museums so much - it's a matter of looking at things, and then either being inspired to explore further on one's own, or a way of putting a visual to things already learned. And I'm sure every nation does this but I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable as far as American history is concerned so it's much more noticeable to me that everything seems so sugarcoated: "This president helped win more territory for the United States. All the settlers liked him and appreciated him." It isn't till much later that there's a comment along the lines of, "The Native Americans did not have an easy time." - Yes, I'm oversimplifying the simplification. And I know there are plenty of people that didn't study history or pay attention in class so they need the background (I need reminders about certain things as well) but I just wish we could find a more comprehensive way of presenting this to the public and the children.
Having said that, there have definitely been a few places so far that have succumbed to death by poster board. However, there have also been quite a few that actually had displays of authentic old things so I'm not as perturbed as I expected to be. Instead, I'm actually amused so maybe I'm just more relaxed than usual - I even volunteered to take a picture of a group of tourists for them today, and yesterday, when a child ran into the Asian section of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and touched a priceless old artifact I didn't want to kill him - it helped that his mother immediately said don't touch and he at least touched it gently when he ran in. However, I still want to kill the kid I saw climbing around on the ruins of the Ancient Forum in Rome last May- he was old enough to know better, unlike the little boy from yesterday. The kid in Rome really just made me want to yell, "get off of there, I hope you fall, and that piece of wall is worth so much more than you." What can I say, I'm big on the "look, don't touch" approach to monuments, statues etc. Kind of like when people keep getting in the way of my pictures because they insist on posing with absolutely everything - guess what, the statue is much prettier than you, now get out of the way.

Speaking of amused, here's a picture from the Liberty Bell Center. We Americans certainly tend to have a rather high opinion of ourselves and our importance in the world. The Liberty Bell = The World's Symbol for Liberty. I'd be willing to go with "World-Wide Recognized Symbol of Liberty" but somehow, I'm sure each nation has its own symbol of liberty that it would think of prior to the Liberty Bell.


Tracer Bullet said...

You missed Elfreth's Alley? I don't think about it much since I literally pass it everyday, but you don't get much more in the way of real history than that. There's a colonial chapel at 5th and Arch and plenty of the churches in Society Hill and Old City have graves that pre-date the Civil War. Don't you hate on my adopted hometown, lady.

Jen K said...

I liked Elfreth's Alley and a few of the graveyards. As I said, I was pleasantly surprised by Philadelphia since most of my traveling in the States before this has involved less historic places. I didn't go into any of the churches, though - I think Europe has spoiled me on those with all the huge decorative Catholic ones. Still didn't prevent me from making cynical comments about them later.

denesteak said...

Boston! I like Boston a lot, and I've been there thrice doing barely anything. I think I just walked around and had lunch, but it was great - really laid back and beautiful there.

Jen K said...

I visited the art museum in Boston and Paul Revere's house, but for the most part, I just walked around everywhere and took lots of pictures. Philadelphia and Boston were both gorgeous, and I liked how relatively close everything was. I wish I lived in a city!