I wrote a bit in a previous post about my brief spontaneous stop-off in Havre de Grace, Maryland while I was on a road trip up to my latest internship. I had always wanted to go to Havre de Grace because, well, what a kick-butt name for a town! It just makes you want to stop and see what’s there. Also, after interning at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum one summer, I developed a special place in my heart for towns on the Bay and their unique culture.
Havre de Grace turned out to be worth stopping at; sumptuous Victorian homes line the neighborhood streets. A mural celebrating the town’s maritime heritage coats the inside of a bridge underpass entering town (I’m a sucker for murals.) The main street borders the water and also features one big line of fun, eclectic, mostly nineteenth and early twentieth-century architecture, which I will drool over any day of the week.
I parked my car and walked down a block and a half of the Main Street, snapping photos of interesting buildings, strolled down a pier to look at the water, and then headed back to my car. I’m normally a speedwalker, but when my camera is in tow, I take forever to make it a few yards. Plus it was hot and I wanted to get back on the road.
As I was making my way back to my car, I made eye contact with an older African American gentleman seated outside a storefront on one of those cool walkers with the fold-down seats that I always wish I have when I’m on museum tours. The man had been there when I arrived, talking to a lady who had since left. He asked me how I was and, being the soul that I am, I felt I had to stop and talked with him a bit.
He asked me if I was a photography student and I said no, that I just studied history and liked old buildings. So he asked me if I had taken a photo of the building next to him. No, I hadn’t, actually. I had taken one of the store with the turret at the end of the street, but the building he was indicating was simple, even shabby, and hadn’t caught my eye.
He told me I should take a photo of it and explained that it was where he lived. He explained the floor plan to me and told me about how he liked living there and it was paid for for him. Then he talked about an event the town has from time to time where bands play live jazz music and shops set up tables to sell things in the streets. I’m not necessarily gifted at connecting with people, and I’m especially bad at initiating conversation, so I enjoy when someone crosses those walls we put up and talks to you even though they don’t know you. It’s humbling and it makes me feel more connected to the world.
After I said my good-byes and got back in my car, I was struck by the realization that historic preservation isn’t just about the beautiful exteriors, it’s about the stories that have been lived out inside a place. We tend to gravitate to the beautiful, the magnificent, even the bizarre, but sometimes the humble, the plain, and even the ramshackle buildings are the ones whose walls hold the key to stories that need to live on. The building the man had pointed out to be has no doubt seen dozens, if not more, of lives lived out, probably more relatable to most people than the lavish lifestyles of the Vanderbilts & company of the world whose unobtainable mansions tend to be the ones we save. Those lives may not be famous, but they represent a snapshot of a subset of people.
I remember once my public history professor, an avid building-lover and historic preservation advocate, told us about two buildings in downtown Baltimore that were in danger of being destroyed. One of them was a sparkling example of Art Deco architecture that my professor has been fighting to preserve as an incredible example of that era’s aesthetics. The other was a plain storefront that had been recycled many times and, if I recall correctly, was sitting vacant at the time, but that had been the site of one of the first civil rights-era sit-ins in Baltimore. It was a striking lesson in how maybe the “ugly” building was the one that should be saved even if the pretty one at first glance seemed like the one “worth saving.”
I realized my own bias when it comes to telling visual stories through photography and through history. I like pretty things. I like interesting things. I like things that I can relate to and that fit with my preferred style and taste. But those aren’t always the things that need to be photographed or the stories that need to be uncovered and told. Sometimes we have to put our own biases aside and paint the whole picture. Sometimes we need to listen more than we talk. Sometimes we need to talk to the random person on the street about what they want to be preserved or what story they want to read in a museum.
I’m sometimes struck after I spend lots of time with other museum professionals how insular we can accidentally become; we develop ideas of what we think the public ought to know and form opinions on what is worthy of being exhibited in a museum space. Some of us even scoff at things we think aren’t worthy of that space. Generally – and I am guilty of this too – as much as we at heart want to educate the public, we also develop a disdain for them as well and can come to view ourselves as the purveyors of taste and the experts struggling to get through to the unwashed masses.
I don’t mean to be unkind as I know it’s easy to get burnt out in the museum field and many workers are doing the best they can to tell new stories and reach the public. And I speak as much to myself as to anyone else. But occasionally – not often enough, probably – I’m reminded that it’s the public we’re meant to serve and tell the story of, and sometimes even with, not dictate information to. If we get too lost in our own interests and tastes, we can sometimes lose sight of some of the stories of average people and average places that need to be given consideration as well.