But we can understand it another way. Urban decay is the process by which the indoors becomes, in halting, sometimes dramatic steps, the outdoors. It is the convergence of the will of man and the order of nature. Whether it takes years or centuries – without the constant and continuous intervention of man in maintaining his creations – the latter wins out every time. These ruins are all around us, where the developer has yet to insert himself, and, just like the Grand Canyon, they are an expression of natural beauty.
Give me the crumbling superstructure of a real past to its plaster facsimile. As a monument, as a memorial, as a repository for historical memory, the ruin is underrated. In many ways, the crumbling facade of a building is a much more immediate and visceral testament to the past than is a Walt Disney-style recreation. Abraham Lincoln the man, like the ruins of the Capitol’s East Portico where he swore his oath of office, stands a hundred and fifty years removed from the present. That passage of time is important to understanding the man. The imagineered animatronic Lincoln – Spielberg’s Lincoln or the Lincoln seen on the National Mall in DC – creates the false and ultimately misleading illusion of continued life.
This tells us more about what we think of Lincoln or what the builders of the Lincoln Memorial in the 1920s thought of Lincoln than what his contemporaries thought of him. The historian’s task is to illuminate this discrepancy, but the polished, plastered version of history with which the public is so often presented in our films and our monuments serves only to create a false sense of intimacy. Counterintuitively, it makes the task of historical understanding more difficult rather than less. These ruins beg the curious to explore them, but they simultaneously and necessarily ask us to hold our history at a dispassionate arm’s length – to account also for the time and events which have transpired in the interim. In truth, Lincoln would find the twenty-first century as bewildering as I would a find the nineteenth.
Perhaps a truer memorial would reflect the time that has transpired between the past and the present. A historical structure preserved and presented as a museum or some kind of curio is a platitude, a serviceable form of entertainment in which our contemporaries do the work of interpreting the past. This is often to make it seem to some degree like the present, as if the audience is experiencing it themselves. These so-called experts in historical interpretation are often afraid of boring you or offending you with the dust of the past.
Urban exploration reflects more truly the passage of time. It offers the chance to cut out the public historian, the curator, the eulogizer, all those arbiters of the past who, as well-intentioned as they may be, refocus the past through an incomplete, modernist lens.
You too will reinterpret the past when you stand beside a faltering ruin. When you stand here, you stand on the far end of a continuum, facing the period and people you hope to understand. In the real world, Lincoln’s legacy is complicated, inextricable from the events that have transpired since. If we spend less energy producing a tidy experience of history, in the process collapsing the very real distance between our circumstances and theirs, our historical sites just might be more authentic, more honest, and more evocative of their period as it stands in relation to the present.
How do ruins communicate history in ways that designed memorials or curated museums do not?
What are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach to historical memory?
How is the visitor experience different in each case?
Is the experience of visiting ruins somehow more “authentic” than visiting a reconstruction?