I touched on the differences which I have witnessed over the years on how the treatment of history and historic sites has changed in my lifetime after my visit to the British Museum and I thought that it would form a good basis for this week’s post.
The main engine of change has clearly been the development of mass tourism. Affordable air travel has opened up the wonders of the world to people of quite modest means and increases in population density have only added to the presure.
Like many things, the change seems to have occurred with the increase in housing values from the 1980’s onwards. Two trips to the U.S which I made, one during the mid 80’s and the other in the early 1990’s are good examples of the changes which occurred during this period.
In the mid 1980’s I took a fly/drive holiday in the western United States. One of the places which I visited was the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. This site, famous in world history, consisted of a small visitor centre (center!), alongside which small stone markers had been placed where the bodies of Custer and his men had been discovered by the relief force soon after the battle in 1876. A road led along the ridge to the place where the remainder of Custer’s force held out as he and his detachment were slaughtered. This road ended in a loop before retracing its journey back to the visitor centre. Beside the road were the remains of the hastily thrown up earthen banks which the surviving troopers had dug for their protection from the attacks by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors that fateful day. The only protection that these poignant reminders had been afforded were a few signs dotted about warning people to keep to the path because of rattlesnakes. I would be surprised if the cartridge casings from the battle were still not lying in the grass thereabouts!
By the time of my visit to the Plimoth (sic) Plantation in 1994 things had changed dramatically. This historical recreation of the first settlement made by those who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower in 1620 was far ahead of any then found in Europe. The level of detail involved in recreating the buildings, crops and animals of that time was fantastic but the detail which was most impressive was human. Every man, woman and child on the plantation, and further up the coast on the replica Mayflower, represented a person from the original settlement and each one of them had researched that character and their background in meticulous detail. I lived in a place called Wickford in Essex at that time and many of the original settlers had left for the New World from those parts. One of the ‘villagers’ noted my accent and asked where I ‘hailed’ from to which he replied, ‘Oh, I am from Billericay. We were neighbours!’
As with many things, Britain finally caught up with this level of concern for the past a little later, but in a sort of ‘neither one way or the other’ way. Perhaps one of the best examples at home is Sutton Hoo. The first visits which I made to the burial site entailed parking the car in a layby and walking along the side of a field of crops to a completely open area near the lip of the ridge. There were several attempts at looting there before the present National Trust buildings and visitor centre were built and opened to the public in 2002. The centre has since developed into an important focus for studies into Anglo Saxon England but some feel that its very popularity has detracted from the burial field itself. Most visitors look around the visitor centre, exhibit hall and visit the restaurant, never bothering to take the short walk along the ridge to the burial mounds. Re enactors and craft exhibitions tend to concentrate in the same area because that is where the visitors are and no doubt they are paid by the National Trust, which I believe own the visitor centre but not the field which contain the burial mounds themselves. A similar thing is happening at Stonehenge where a visitor centre is being constructed fully two miles from the standing stones themselves. As with many things in the U.K it often feels like profit comes before the ‘attraction’ itself. It is the double edged sword of the title, how best to display and protect our great ancient monuments and history, assailed as they are by increasing visitor numbers, without overshadowing them. Although the new buildings and exhibitions are usually fantastically well executed I still feel that we may have lost a small element of ‘magic’ in our relationship with the past. Free (literally!) access to places where our ancestors lived and died has been traded for gift shops and National Trust sourced organic crisps. In the same way that our airports have now largely become shopping malls with a few aircraft outside, many of our historic sights have become cafe’s and gift shops (usually poor and/or selling objects which have little connection with the site). A sign of progress? Personally I feel that the ‘history’ ship is in danger of sailing too close to the ‘entertainment’ lee shore. I pretty much gave up on t.v history several years ago as it seemed that the subject was increasingly becoming more of a ‘vehicle’ for the presenter than a serious historical programme. How do you feel?