Wednesday, November 2, 2011

History, history everywhere

 On my walk from the commuter rail station to Tufts University the other day, I was struck by a kind of instant stage set or living history environment or nostalgic theme park created by an organic food delivery truck trailer parked behind the Porter Square Shopping Center in Cambridge.  The owner of the company and his mom were both featured on the side of the trailer, not an uncommon strategy for organic and family/local food producers as ways to differentiate themselves from more anonymous or purely commodified supermarket food.

What made this really interesting, though, was the fact that the back of the shopping center is itself painted with heritage-oriented murals depicting various periods of the neighborhood's existence.  Images of the mansion, cottages, and gardens that pre-dated (and were torn down to build) the plaza decorate the architecturally undistinguished back view, along with portraits of neighbors and some generic "olde-tyme" street views.

And more interesting yet, for the purposes of thinking about how historical materials, narratives, and knowledge are encoded in contemporary landscapes, is the plaque historicizing the murals themselves.  

This blog is devoted to reviewing historical exhibitry in an age of "ubiquitous display," and this kind of landscape of instant/casual/under-the-radar documentation and memorialization is exactly what we mean by "ubiquitous display."  If someone had happened to ride past on a vintage one-speed bicycle while I was standing there taking pictures, my day would have been complete!

~ Cathy Stanton


  1. Nice post, Cathy....Interesting how memorializing murals is becoming part of granting them permanency & is acknowledging or fighting against the perceived ephemerality of mural art, do you think?

  2. Good question - I've wondered the same thing! Like a lot of vintage movie theaters that people are now struggling to preserve, murals weren't usually made to last, but they do contribute a lot to people's sense of place, so there are these often heroic efforts to stabilize and keep them. I'm not sure if it's heroic-smart or heroic-dumb...

  3. The notion of the "preserved mural" makes me think about the metaphor of the palimpsest which is often beloved of historians of architecture and landscape. What makes a palimpsest so interesting is the idea of erasure and re-writing. Preservation seems to delay this layering and change... Do you think one process/human instinct is more or less "historical?"

  4. Adina, My two cents ----- I've been known to gush over the occasional palimpsest but part of me thinks it is because deep down, it makes me feel like an "historian" to have noticed it and theorize about it, etc.

    I think murals require a certain amount of buy-in from the people who live/work/shop near them merely to exist, as they are easy to paint over, graffiti over, etc. The process of attempting to preserve it, seems to me, another layer of the mural process itself, like underlining the image to say, "this matters!"And that has to matter, right?

    Will be interested to see what Cathy thinks.

  5. Hmm... There's definitely a tension between the preservation impulse and the participation impulse when it comes to murals. I think it's like the tension between an "official" and permanent memorial and a vernacular or more temporary one. But then the lines between the two can be interesting and blurry - eg. people leave stuff at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington which then gets brought inside and collected/curated by the National Park Service. So maybe the graffiti, re-painting, re-inscribing, and preservation efforts all fall into that gray area where we're collectively debating about meaning.

  6. Excellent news to someone like me who can't afford grass fed beef. Thanks for the post!