Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Laying the Bricks

Some years ago, I worked as a seasonal historical interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac, a fur trading outpost in northern Michigan. Among other things, Michilimackinac is the site of one of the country's longest ongoing archaeological excavations, with over fifty years of digging followed by regular reconstructions of historic structures. For more than twenty years, archaeologists worked on the site of the "South-Southwest Rowhouse," a long structure divided into family homes for French and British fur traders and other residents. This spring, crews began work on the reconstruction of this building, as detailed in this video.

Colonial Michilimackinac

The end result of this construction will certainly be impressive, adding the largest building yet to the fort's interior and completing the western half of the community as it appeared in the 1770s. And the building will also include new interpretive spaces related to "Pontiac's Rebellion" of 1763, when Native Americans captured Michilimackinac and killed most of the British garrison.

But I can't help but think that Michilimackinac is missing a wonderful opportunity.

Visitors love feeling invested in a site. Although we live in a virtual world, where a museum's audience is global and may in fact never set foot on the museum grounds, a number of institutions have demonstrated the potential of online interpretation in establishing connections with the public.

At Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, a multi-year project to reconstruct the Public Armoury has included an active blog fostering discussions and community-building among the museum's far flung patrons. Williamsburg aims to achieve three things with this project. The addition of the structures to the museum will provide a center for interpreting the material requirements of a military revolution. Secondly, chronicling this process through various media allows visitors to become invested in the project and the site before ever visiting it, making their eventual arrival all the more meaningful. Finally, by constructing the buildings using period techniques, Williamsburg makes the process itself an interpretive tool. The entire project is an ongoing conversation between museum workers and their audience, rather than a means to that end.

Of course, smaller sites like Michilimackinac face barriers in such undertakings. Chiefly, they usually can not afford to maintain staff who understand both period construction and public interpretation. And yet, visitors are not as narrow-minded as we like to think. Even modern reconstruction activities can be the seed from which conversations grow, as visitors and interpreters discuss the choices that are made when we seek to marry modern necessities and historical accuracy.

It is a shame, then, that construction like that currently underway at Michilimackinac is so often done in the off-season, when a site is closed, in anticipation of an opening day ribbon-cutting. Historic sites change all the time, and whether we use hewn log sills or poured concrete foundations, historical reconstructions should be prized tools for audience engagement. Pull back the curtain, and you might just be pleasantly surprised to realize that your audience isn't too worried about electric saws and backhoes. They just want to see you in action, to follow a project from start to finish, to feel like they had some part in laying the bricks.

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