It’s All Part of the Process

I enjoyed Frank Matero’s piece on Cesare Brandi which examines how the way in which we choose to preserve, interpret, and convey meaning through preservation of historic fabric is, in and of itself, a meaningful layer of history. The notion of letting the artifact’s treatment be “readable” by the viewer complements approaches to material conservation today. But I wondered, are there cases in which we could apply a similar approach to making visible the layers of preservation theory to a specific site? I know there are some cases where this is intrinsic to the site itself (reconstructed ruins sites in the southwest like Wupatki, for example), but what about when the alterations to the visitor’s experience of the site have been more subtle and their impact on the resource is more indirect? These layers can be equally interesting and can arguably be just as telling of our history as the resource itself.

Because I have in-depth knowledge of the site, the adobe mission church at Tumacacori National Historical Monument came to mind. The mission was designated a National Monument through the Antiquities Act in 1908 and in 1916 the National Park Service took over management. Its roof was replaced to protect the exposed adobe walls, but for the most part, it was left as a stabilized ruin and has since been treated with the specific intention of making fairly clear to the visitor what is has been replaced over time and what fabric remains original. During the New Deal Era, the park director, Frank Pinkley, gathered funding and a labor force to construct adobe walls around the site, put in a parking lot, and design and build a visitor center and garden through which guests would enter the park. The visitor center design was based on a research-gathering expedition comprised of a group of professional architects, engineers, and photographers who traveled to various mission sites in Northern Mexico (all via various forms of New Deal funding, because Pinkley was creative like that). The team recorded architectural details and features from various mission sites and incorporated them, often outright copied, into the revival design. This was a novel approach for its time and completely re-shaped the visitor’s experience of the site while leaving the resource itself more or less unaltered.

Though this history isn’t concealed, it’s not really emphasized to visitors of the park either. I had a similar thought while visiting Independence Mall, another layered site that, if you can read it, tells not only what resources were valued, but how we felt they should be framed and appreciated at different points in time. The re-framing of the “important” resources through clearance programs and the creation of the mall was about presenting them in a way that conveyed their significance. The same is true of Tumacácori.

A visitor to either of these sites who is unaware of the ways in which they’ve changed over time is missing out on a fascinating layer of history that can really help build a comprehensive understanding of the site. I think we often assume that the motives that shape and direct visitors through an effective site are best kept to officials and professionals, with the objective that the emphasis and the experience remain focused on the artifact. But what if, as we accumulate layers, we start to view the process as part of the heritage?

Tuma Framed

The mission framed, literally, by the visitor center just as Frank Pinkley envisioned.

Tuma feature

Shell motif detail from the Tumacacori visitor center, inspired by details found at Cocospera in Mexico.

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