This past summer, my family visited Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site in Maine. Situated where one of northern New England’s earliest communities once stood, this historic site includes a small museum, a replica of the 1692 fort, a restored 18th-century home, stone foundations of earlier buildings, and a small burial ground.
On arrival, we scattered, with children heading to the museum and fort, some of us pausing to read the interpretive markers at the archeological sites, and others just content to gaze at the view of the ocean and fishing boats.
We all enjoyed and learned something from our visit. In the museum, a small-scale model of the 17th-century settlement helped my 11- year-old nephew understand what the site might have looked like. A display of artifacts -- from musket balls to fishing hooks -- uncovered by recent archeological excavations helped my son comprehend the range of activities that took place on the peninsula. peninsula. The ongoing work in the archeology lab, located in the Fort House, can be observed by visitors, and all of us watched as museum staff cleaned and cataloged various artifacts. The view from the stone fort, which is a replica built in 1907 on the site of two previous forts, helped us imagine what it might have been like in the 17th century to guard the waters to the Pemaquid River and beyond.
How authentic was our experience? As is often the case at many historic sites it was a mixed bag of restoration, reconstruction, rehabilitation, artifacts on exhibit, interpretive signs, and so on. The “new” fort is almost 100 years old, but is only a replica of a much earlier fort. The model of the pioneer settlement is just conjecture. The china plates and fishing hooks in the museum were certainly real enough but removed from reality by being put on display. The stone foundations give the location and size of earlier structures and interpretive signs suggest what the buildings might have looked like. And the view toward the ocean, with granite shores and circling seabirds, hasn’t changed much in 300 years.
Making a historic site real or authentic for visitors is not always simple. As the following articles will show, there are many ways of providing an authentic experience for visitors. Complete restoration of a site may be the right thing to do in some circumstances, while in others reconstruction is the correct approach. Conservation or stabilization of existing historic fabric is yet another course of action. In his article about Lincoln Cottage, National Trust architect William Dupont explains how the Trust is thinking through all of these options as it considers the best approach to preserving this national landmark.
New technologies allow architects and archeologists to discover things that they might not have been able to detect using earlier research methods, thus filling in information gaps or even rendering a prior interpretation out of date. Mark Wenger and Myron Stachiw explain how an intensive year-long investigation of Montpelier incorporated state-of- the-art technology to develop a comprehensive picture of the home of James Madison. No investigation of this type has ever been completed with such thoroughness in such a short amount of time with the research team providing unprecedented levels of intensity and concentrated brainpower.
The archeological record is often the most accurate document of a site, yet as Esther White points out in her article on Mount Vernon, this authentic information is sometimes subject to compromises and simplification in order to help the public understand and learn from a historic place.
For some cultures, the concept of authenticity goes further than restoring or rehabilitating buildings. Dennis Playdon describes how the preservation efforts at the Pueblo at Acoma are tied to enabling the Acoma people to preserve and practice their own cultural traditions of building, visual thinking, and language.
How we decide to care for and interpret historic sites is an important component in teaching the public about our heritage. And, according to recent tourism studies, visitors to historic places look for an authentic experience. As Cheryl Hargrove explains in her article on heritage tourism, when authenticity is compromised, cultural heritage tourism loses credibility.
Whatever the approach, visitors should feel a sense of wonder and a connectedness with the past as they explore the rich heritage that this country’s historic sites have to offer. It’s what William Dupont describes as a “shiver.” We know what he means; we’ve all felt it. It’s what enables us to not only learn about the past but to be touched and moved by it -- as our family was at Pemaquid.
Publication Date: Fall 2003