Imaging Labor History and Worker Spaces at Industrial Heritage Sites

By Sarah Rovang posted 05-22-2019 17:03


Preservation Leadership Forum is presenting a series of posts by Sarah Rovang, the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. The fellowship allows its recipients—recent graduates with advanced degrees or emerging scholars—to study by travel for one year, providing them with opportunities to see and experience architecture and landscapes firsthand; think about their profession deeply; and acquire knowledge that will be useful for their future work, for contributions to their field, and for contributions to society. For Preservation Leadership Forum, Rovang will examine the many facets of storytelling at industrial heritage sites across the world. For more about Rovang's work, read her posts on the SAH Blog, listen to her podcast, and follow her on Instagram @sarahmoderne.

High in the foothills of the Chilean Andes lies the abandoned company town of Sewell. This UNESCO-inscribed mining town is only accessible through a certified tour, as it is located near an active mine owned by CODELCO, the nationalized copper mining company. Established in 1905 by North American mining interests and occupied until the 1970s, when workers and their families were relocated, Sewell was nicknamed the Ciudad des Escaleras—City of Stairs—because its central staircase functions as a spine connecting its main buildings. When I visited in early November, clouds blanketed the mountain, compounding the surreality of this town perched on a precipitous mountain slope. Alongside several dozen Chilean tourists and a few fellow Norteamericanos, I trailed our guide through former worker housing and industrial buildings.

Sewell, Chile | Credit: Sarah Rovang

One of the many brightly painted reinforced concrete buildings we visited displayed an approximately 8-by-16-foot mural depicting the 1945 mine accident known as “El Humo”the Smoke. This tragedy, which released fatal amounts of toxic carbon monoxide into the mine, killing 355 people, is still the deadliest metallurgic mine accident in Chile’s history. Created in the tradition of Latin American muralism, the painting is perhaps most heavily indebted to Picasso’s “Guernica” in its unflinching portrayal of human suffering—the contorted bodies of dead and dying workers, their wives and children crying out in misery.

The “El Humo” mural | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Interpreting Labor History at Industrial Heritage Sites

The Sewell mural’s portrayal of the human toll of industrialized mining has stayed with me. Over six months of exploring industrial heritage sites in South Africa, Japan, and Chile, I’ve encountered interpretive approaches that variously reveal or conceal, celebrate or suppress the role of human labor in industrial processes. I’ve seen what happens when curators and historians forget that industrial heritage sites were fundamentally human spaces—spaces of work, domestic routine, recreation, discipline, resistance, and sometimes tragedy. So many industrial heritage sites, particularly those that are still active factories or mines, tend to conflate industrialization with progress, elevating the engineer and deifying the machine. The dark tourism and simultaneous whitewashing of history on the Japanese island of Hashima both reflect the neglect of labor—fetishizing ruins or glorifying community building rather than acknowledging the human and environmental costs of undersea coal mining. But, while there have been plenty of Hashimas on this trip, I’ve also encountered many sites that embrace labor narratives to enrich and complicate interpretation.

The intensity and quality of labor interpretation at industrial heritage sites are highly cultural, often most developed where organized labor has been historically strong and where the idea of a working class is deeply ingrained in the national identity. In Japan, where organized labor never gained a strong foothold, most of the sites I visited focused instead on industrial elites: owners, engineers, and managers.


Saigō Takamori, left, and Yoshida Shoin are credited with the rise of Japan as a modern technological superpower. As a result, they have become hometown heroes—Takamori in Kagoshima and Shoin in Hagi—and are frequently represented as affable cartoons, stuffed toys, and figurines. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Even interpretations that focus on workers and labor movements frequently overlook the fact that all laborers or labor sympathizers were not necessarily allied or working toward the same causes. For instance, in South Africa, segregated white unions historically campaigned to keep black union workers out of skilled and semi-skilled positions. In Chile, numerous politicians who ran on pro-worker, populist platforms went on to violently suppress labor movements and/or foment anti-immigration xenophobia—and these facts are frequently neglected in museum storytelling.

Valorizing the worker at the expense of a broader working class is another common pitfall. Laborers are frequently depicted as relatively young, ethnically normative men engaged in whatever mining or factory work is represented by the site. Women; children; and men occupying other positions, such as canteen chefs or shopkeepers, are often left out—as are disabled or elderly workers.


The new museum at Maria Elena in Chile includes a life-sized stock image of an early-20th-century nitrate miner. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

In general, the sites where I observed the most effective and inclusive representations of labor and working-class culture were those where the architectural fabric of workers’ lives had been well preserved. The Worker’s Museum in Johannesburg contextualizes non-digital text panels and reproductions of archival material by engaging the architectural remnants of the site—an original black workers’ compound dating to 1913, one of the very few preserved worker compounds in South Africa. Similarly, Humberstone, a salitrera—nitrate mine and company town—in northern Chile, includes extensive preserved examples of worker housing at all levels, from shared housing for unmarried workers all the way up to the family homes of mine administrators. The stratification of worker life is reflected in the architecture of the site’s main interpretive center—a former pulperia, or general store, now populated with lifelike resin models that depict shopkeepers, seamstresses, bakers, and middle management, in addition to the miners themselves.

Life-sized models at the interpretive center at Humberstone nitrate mine in northern Chile add diversity and complexity to the perceived experience of worker life. Men in the pulperia’s bakery are shown making bread (top), and a woman sells fabric from a small storefront within the same complex. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Accurately portraying labor history in the interpretation of an industrial heritage site depends not only on its architectural makeup and available artifacts but also on curatorial choices. For example, while the period furnishings and artifacts in the restored worker housing at Sewell create a sense of how these spaces might have looked when occupied, the cheery interiors belie difficult living conditions. Many family members were often squeezed into small, two-bedroom apartments, and dozens of people shared communal toilets. Without our guide and the interpretive signage, we would not have known about those crowded conditions. Material culture and architecture rarely tell the full story on their own; interpretation is vital to relating the cultural specifics, nuances, and heterogeneity of worker life.


This restored worker apartment at Sewell is part of the guided tour. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Diverse Approaches to Materializing Labor History

The industrial heritage sites I’ve visited represent and materialize labor in various ways—some are the results of curatorial decisions, others structural artifacts of the historic sites themselves.

Abandoned Architecture

Credit: Sarah Rovang

The nitrate mining of Pedro de Valdivia, Chile, was abandoned in the 1990s. Although the site has been declared a national monument, it features virtually no interpretation, likely due to its remote location and the active mining nearby. However, families who lived there have spray-painted their names, along with dates and messages, on many of the houses. The relatively intact architectural environment and the unencumbered freedom to roam through it foster a direct connection to the people who lived and worked there.

Artifacts, Clothing, or Furnished Spaces

Credit: Sarah Rovang

At Gold Reef City—a mine turned theme park in Johannesburg—a re-creation of a worker’s bunkhouse displays the typical belongings of miners, including clothing and other wares.

Anonymized Mannequins

Credit: Sarah Rovang

At the Higashida Blast Furnace in Kagoshima, Japan, monochromatic mannequins depict workers in the process of forging steel. Androgynous, muted grey figures stand in for distinct individuals.

Realistic, Life-Sized Figures

Credit: Sarah Rovang

The open-air museum at Hokkaido Historic Village explores the collision of traditional Japanese lifeways and industrialized processes imported from Europe and the United States. It covers not only shifts in Japanese manufacturing and craft but also the Westernization of many other aspects of life on Hokkaido, such as going to the dentist. Realistic figures and audio re-enactments help bring the scenes to life.

Visual Art

Credit: Sarah Rovang
Credit: Sarah Rovang

The Huanchaca Ruins Museum—also known as the Museum of the Atacama Desert—is embedded into the hillside beneath the stone ruins of a 19th-century silver foundry in Antofagasta, Chile. The museum was designed by architects Ramon Coz Rosenfeld, Marco Polidura Alvarez, Eugenia Soto Cellino, and Ignacio Volante Negueruela in 2009. From certain angles, murals featuring 19th-century workers painted onto the new building animate the ruins visible above.


Credit: Sarah Rovang

At the Yakusugi Museum on Yakushima, Japan, visitors engage with the history of logging on the island through a variety of interactive displays. For example, one of the exhibits invites visitors to lift a chainsaw from the mid-20th century, to feel its weight and off-kilter balance. This tool proved untenable compared to traditional hand-cutting methods, which explains how most of the area’s ancient forest remained intact until preservation measures were put in place.

Active Sites

Credit: Sarah Rovang

The Premier Mine in Cullinan, South Africa, dates to the early 20th century but is still active today, as excavation has revealed diamonds at deep levels that had not previously been reachable. Conducting underground mine tours on workdays allows visitors to interact with miners on the job. Though mining conditions have changed significantly since the 1900s, the presence of the workers provides a vivid connection to the mine’s long history.

By exploring the spaces that historical workers occupied, visitors can viscerally empathize with their diverse experiences and those of their families. To that end, scholars and curators should incorporate labor into public history interpretations of industrial spaces. Smart storytelling can bring to life the tension between the anonymizing forces of industrialization and the countervailing forces of individuality and diversity, but the narrative is never more vivid than at sites where architectural fabric remains largely intact. Thus, preserving diverse worker spaces everywhere—nor just at industrial or mining sites—is paramount to truly understanding labor history.

Sarah Rovang is an architectural historian, curator, and educator specializing in 20th-century American architecture with particular attention to technology, modernization, and the rural landscape.


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