I’ve worked through a lot of ideas about history and heritage in the past dozen or so years, but the car part is new. Here’s my basic position on how history and heritage get produced (and this is far from original, by the way—it’s built on the thinking of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Dean MacCannell , and many others):
* We can never make a simple or straightforward retrieval of anything from the past—there are always present-day mechanisms of collection and interpretation that shape what we know about the past.
* We give this knowledge different names—“history” and “heritage” are two of the main ones—depending on who is doing the retrieving and interpreting, and why.
*We usually want the mechanisms for creating knowledge about the past, like the mechanisms for producing tourist experiences, to be somewhat if not completely invisible. Modern humans have a huge thirst for “authentic” or unmediated experiences, and we’ve developed immensely complex infrastructures to provide them for us!
Those mechanisms, which have been studied in increasing detail over the past couple of decades, include museums, folklife displays, tourist attractions of all kinds, reenactments, parks and preserves, monuments and memorials. One component of all this that remains largely invisible, though, is the role of the internal combustion engine in shaping the contemporary landscape of heritage production. (The Centre for Mobilities Research—CeMoRe to its friends—is beginning to address this question, among others. This isn’t surprising, as this is the home base on British sociologist and influential tourism theorist John Urry. Click here for a paper by him on cars and other kinds of what he calls “weightless mobilities”).
I actually started out looking for ways to study the role of the car in American culture more directly, rather than thinking about it in relation to heritage production. I wanted to do some kind of engaged social scientific research that would contribute some useable knowledge to the current widespread attempt to unplug from our petroleum-powered economy and society. And on the list of things we would need to change radically in order to accomplish that unplugging, it has seemed to me that our use of cars is among the most intractable items. So much of our physical world and so many of our behavioral patterns are shaped by the car, particularly in North America. Remaking these landscapes and behaviors feels like one of the more overwhelming tasks on a long list of overwhelming tasks. Faced with what feels overwhelming or baffling, my typically egg-headed response is usually to design a research project about it.
So this blog represents a first step toward bringing together the intractable social/spatial question of how to shift our car culture for a post-carbon world with the ever-intriguing (well, to me, anyway) set of questions about how we construct our knowledge about the past. How many historic and heritage sites wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the automobile? How does the creation of a North American heritage infrastructure relate to the construction of a car culture, and to the development of various national, regional, and local identities? How do we display and memorialize car culture itself? How is all of this changing (or is it changing?) as the environmental, social, and economic consequences of our reliance on cheap, abundant petroleum become clearer and clearer to us? Is there any way to mobilize heritage display itself to help make the changes that we’re going to need to make?
Those are the kinds of things this blog will address, in the context of looking at some specific roadside attractions. (Note: This isn’t the only “History on Wheels” project – this one is a military vehicle museum in the U.K., and this is a vintage motorcycle club in India, while there are several that are more straightforward projects taking history “on the road” in some way. To my knowledge, though, this is the only “History on Wheels” project looking at the automobility and heritage production combo.)
It’s a new adventure for me to be putting out my field- and research-notes in a more or less public format like this one. But it seems to me that understanding and changing our automobility is a mammoth challenge that demands collective effort and pooled resources on many levels. So I’m putting my thoughts-in-progress into the mix, for whatever they’re worth. I hope to hear others’ in response!