Driven to the Past: History in a Changing Climate
Keynote address at "With Power for All: Energy and Social Change in Massachusetts"
Mass. History Conference
June 8, 2009
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
PART I: BEEPING
PART II: DRIVING IN TWO DIRECTIONS AT ONCE
PART III: IMPLICATIONS
The place I want to talk about is along the side of Interstate 89 in Sharon, Vermont, just north of White River Junction. Originally this was a generic highway rest stop, the kind of place that Marc Augé has called a "non-place." Non-places are the largely interchangeable spaces that pop up throughout the mobile, globalized world--airport lounges, automatic teller lobbies, shopping malls, gas stations, and so on. This particular non-place had a somewhat counter-intuitive layer of meaning attached to it in 1982, when a group of veterans erected one of the earliest (if not the earliest) state memorials to Vietnam veterans, in the form of a granite column in the parking lot. In the mid-1990s, there was a move to close this rest area, in large part because it was situated on a rock ledge which made dealing with sewage extremely difficult. Veterans protested, claiming that the meaning they had attached to the site should not be erased, and their arguments about the sacredness and importance of the memorial made it politically difficult for the state to proceed with the closing. Instead, the state took up the veterans' challenge in spades, and created a place that has gone from being a non-place with a layer of local meaning attached to it to a kind of hyper-place that is saturated with overlapping layers of meaning. This striking new facility opened in the fall of 2005.
There are four highly integrated components to the new welcome center. It has the usual rest area functions, including free WiFi and Green Mountain coffee. It's also a well-equipped tourist information center, with videos, brochures, seasonal updates on ski and foliage conditions, and a collection of Vermont crafts. The memorial aspect of the space has been greatly expanded, with an outdoor sculpture garden in native granite and marble, a tall central column inscribed with veterans' names in the center of the main building, and a sizeable panel exhibit about the Vietnam War. And finally, it's a "green" building, heated and cooled by geothermal wells, which even manages to turn its biggest shortcoming--the problem with sewage processing--into an asset by putting its own state-of-the-art waste treatment facility on display. The greenhouse dome covers a "living machine" where tropical plants and microorganisms process the waste and produce recycled, useable water. (The water is actually likely to be one of the first things people notice about the place when they come in, since it greets them-- dyed avocado-green and explained by informational plaques--in the toilets). Every aspect of the site--educational, promotional, commemorative, and functional--reinforces the others. Together they add up to a tightly cohesive message about Vermont's "greenness," its natural beauty, its creativity and ingenuity--in short, the patented Vermont "brand."
[For additional images of the Sharon Welcome Center, visit my Sept. 2007 blog post about the site.]
This isn't a historic site per se, but there is a certain amount of "pastness" implied in the Vermont brand, which is linked in many people's imaginations with town greens and town meetings, farmhouses, maple-sugaring, and the like. Of course, this past is far from finished, which is a large part of its appeal. But there's no doubt that much of what's on display in Vermont has been shaped precisely in order to appeal to outsiders, and the Sharon Welcome Center participates energetically in that ongoing process of shaping. History is part of the mix here, and this hybrid historical presence is becoming more and more common as contemporary culture produces more of these branded or themed spaces in heritage areas, downtown arts and historic districts, themed retail environments, and so on. In some ways, this is a kind of futuristic vision of where museum-style display may be headed. In a highly communicative environment like this one, where even the water in the toilets is interpreted for visitors, it's hard to say exactly where the historical ingredients begin and end. But it's certainly a place that seems to encourage contemplation and reflection. Every time I've been there, I've been struck by how much time people spend pondering the wall exhibit about the Vietnam War and the scientific explanations of the "living machine." For that reason alone, historians are wise to pay close attention to what's happening in these hybrid exhibitionary places, and to think about what role their work might play there.
But in other ways, the exhibitionary richness of the Welcome Center is a kind of trick or mask that distracts the eye from its main function, which is of course as a pit stop on the northbound ride up the Interstate. This is where shifting our gaze can raise a new set of questions about the relationship of historical--and cultural and promotional--practices to everyday habits of energy use. This is a site that exists solely in relationship to the Interstate. You can't reach it any other way. It doesn't connect to a town or any other road or any kind of space of everyday life. But it works very hard to hide that fact, and it succeeds so well that it's actually possible to forget about the Interstate altogether when you're there. It's beautiful, it's clean, it's green, it's even surprisingly quiet. Unlike the old rest area, which looked directly out to the highway, the new one sits back up on the hill, and you have to go out of your way to catch a glimpse of the big road. But this stunningly "green" site really only exists to smooth the path of vehicle travel over long distances and to support the tourism that has been a vital ingredient in Vermont's economic survival for a long time.
The Sharon Welcome Center gives us lots of things to think about, but what always jumps out at me about it is that it shows how it's possible to reinforce the assumptions and behaviors of automobility even as we seem to be turning our attention to green technologies and solutions. This is a fairly extreme example of promoting hyper-greenness on the one hand while enabling (or at least not challenging) hyper-mobility on the other, but it reflects a larger pattern that I've seen a lot in working on energy-related projects in my own community over the past few years, and that I'm starting to see at historic sites as they become more involved in public conversations about energy production and use. People tend to be easily drawn to the "gee-whiz" factor of new energy-producing or energy-saving technologies or the rediscovery of old ones, but they're often far less ready to try to undo the everyday behaviors that are really what add up to create our petroleum-dependent, resource-intensive way of life.
And some of the stubbornest behaviors seem to be the ones that center around the car, probably because we like our cars, at least most of the time. No matter how often we find ourselves stuck in traffic, circling a block looking for a parking space, or staggered by an unexpected repair bill, we also love what cars give us--the freedom, the privacy, the comfort, the ability to listen to the music we like and sing along without anybody hearing us, the convenience of going from Point A to Point B in what John Urry has referred to as "seamless travel." Even during hard times, Americans have clung to their cars. Passenger vehicle registrations actually increased by 20% over the decade of the Depression, while the total number of miles traveled went up more than 50% and 60% more gasoline was consumed. Later in the century, Americans were not particularly stoical about the OPEC oil embargo and new limitations on driving. "You know how I feel about the environmental situation?" one man told a New York Times reporter. "If we're all going to hell, we might as well drive there." I love driving my car; in a busy week, it's often the only time I have to myself to think about things. I know that the real problem is caused by being too busy and too rushed and by the lack of good alternatives to car travel in my part of the state. But there are days when I just need (or want) to go somewhere and I don't have the mental energy to engage with all of that. It's short-sighted and irresponsible and I do it anyway; most of us do. For many people, it's easier (and a lot more fun) to think about putting solar panels on the roof than to try to figure out lasting ways to use our cars less. It's that kind of deep-seated contradiction that the Sharon Welcome Center reflects and reinforces.
PART I: BEEPING
PART III: IMPLICATIONS
 Augé, Marc, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995).(Return to text)
 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has written about the processes by which heritage display produces "pastness" and "hereness" in order to convert places into destinations. See Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 7, 150. (Return to text)
 For more on the creation of a Vermont image designed for tourists and outsiders, see Jan Albers, Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), Allen F. Davis, Postcards from Vermont: A Social History, 1905-1945 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002), and Blake Harrison, The View from Vermont: Tourism and the Making of an American Rural Landscape (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2006). (Return to text)
 Urry, John, "Automobility, Car Culture and Weightless Travel: A Discussion Paper, published by the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University (Lancaster LA1 4YN, UK), p. 8. (Return to text)
 McCarthy, Tom, Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 96.(Return to text)
 McCarthy, Auto Mania, p. 204.(Return to text)