What Time Is This Place?

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I recently had the opportunity to guest lecture in Dr. Carol Grove’s American Garden History class in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, about my community outreach work with small Missouri communities as part of the Governor’s DREAM Initiative. To begin our conversation about the role of historic preservation in civic renewal, we discussed how students felt about the many changes taking place in their hometowns. Some found the changes very disquieting, others exciting and beneficial, but a clear consensus emerged during the discussion that the amount and pace of change definitely affected them personally. What applies to individuals such as these thoughtful students also extends to communities at large: Changes in the heritage of our built environment strongly affect our senses of personal and cultural identity, and that process of change clearly relates to our educational mission at the Museum to conserve, curate, and communicate our cultural heritage.

American Garden History class

As a premier teaching museum, the Museum of Art & Archaeology offers many thought-provoking if sometimes overlooked artifacts of this key relationship between cultures and their built environments. Enter the Museum from Francis Quadrangle and to your left above the door to the Cast Gallery you will view a copy of a fragment of the Parthenon, symbol of the classical Greek polis that sought to balance nature and culture. Turn around to face the door behind you and your gaze will drift heavenward tracing the outlines of the tympanum of Chartres Cathedral, a morality tale in brick and stone depicting the natural order of the cosmos for medieval pilgrims and peasants. Look in the middle of the lobby at the copy of an enormous flagpole stand from Renaissance Venice, then imagine flags flapping in the piazza (or plaza, or plata, or platz, or place, in other cultures) to celebrate the vibrant (and sometimes violent) civic life of that bustling mercantile city-state on the Adriatic.

Pickard Hall postcardPickard Hall itself dwells on Francis Quadrangle in the shadows of the famous Columns that symbolize the Novus Ordo Seclorum (New Order for the Ages; check out the back of a dollar bill) envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and given form by the first public university west of the Mississippi River. Public outcry led university Curators to preserve The Columns of Old Academic Hall after the devastating 1895 fire destroyed the rest of the building, and the symbolism of The Columns has only deepened over time for many generations of Mizzou students. From another urban design perspective, the visual dialogue between The Columns and those down Eighth Street at the Boone County Courthouse speaks of the hopeful relationship between the academic and civic communities now being explored in the Columbia visioning process.

Ernest Trova’s large abstract outdoor sculpture (Abstract Variation No. 5) just outside the Museum entrance suggests the increasing complexity, perhaps even inevitable incoherence, of our battered civic life. Civic landscapes such as these (and that’s a lot of symbolic landscapes in a fairly small urban space!) depict the evolution of our cultural heritage, but they have become an increasingly threatened species as our communities scramble frantically to cope with enormous development pressures now sweeping through them like firestorms.

Students in Dr. Grove’s seminar class also achieved a key insight that civic leaders and community officials I work with in the DREAM workshops have also discovered. Change (or metamorphosis, as Ovid reminds us) is indeed the natural order of things, but by means of education and civic dialogue we can transform our built environments into landscapes (or gardens, with a nod to Dr. Grove) where our cultural heritage still engages in a meaningful dialogue with the natural world and the needs of the future as well as the present. Fostering such a civic dialogue seems to me like a valuable role for a university museum…

Pickard Hall

One Response to “What Time Is This Place?”

  1. Carol Grove says:

    The commencement of classes prompted me to reread Arthur Merhrhoff’s insightful comments made here after presenting to my American garden history class last semester. There are many students in the department who have not been initiated into the (somewhat new) field of landscape studies, either by taking one of my courses on the subject or by hearing Dr. Merhroff’s observations. In class, he provided students with clear examples of the link between nature and culture and how changing context affects the communities we live in.
    Whether studying Parisian modern life as depicted in Impressionism or Hellenistic sculpture or American art pottery, more often than one might expect, landscape relates. It is an important element in the study of art history and archaeology because it serves as the context for the specifics we as students and scholars seek to understand. If art is about a specific people, place and time landscape anchors these; it is the “glue.”
    As a way to prompt thinking about the subject, particularly in those who have never really done so before, I’d like to make the following 2 comments.

    First, in this field of study, the terms “landscape” and “garden” have distinct and different definitions. As one might expect, landscape is the broader, umbrella-like term and its study often includes a greater focus on theory. Garden, which falls beneath this umbrella, has a smaller compass which deals with specifics of place. (Think of the relationship of 19th century Romanticism and Neo-Classicism as a comparison).
    Gardens are no less valid than landscapes but they too often get a bad rap because people perceive them as inherently sentimental and nostalgic, places of “simple-minded, innocent joy,” as described by Tim Richardson in A Gardener’s Year, (2008). Not so, as Richardson observes “gardening is not quite the innocent and morally elevated pastime of popular myth. It is true there is simple pleasure to be had from the enjoyment of plants and flowers, but at the same time our relationships with gardens…tend to be complex and intensely meaningful.” His comments address the “myriad threads of experience, emotion and memory” that weave together to make gardens important to us. He reminds the reader of the concept of “sense of place,” often referred to in the field as genius loci, defined in classical antiquity, revived and debated in the 18th century and still relevant to us today as a marker of the “profound interaction between humanity and nature.”
    The moral of this first comment: even garden history can help broaden a student’s thinking as it relates to her / his specific studies. Take not only landscape but gardens seriously.
    Secondly, the study of landscape, and its design, not only focuses on history but on the future. Finding creative new uses for existing landscapes represents the most original thinking on the subject in some time. Adaptive use–the reusing of historic buildings stripped of their original purposes–has been an element of historic preservation for decades. Now, similar thinking is being applied to landscapes–often urban, more often industrial–and contaminated spaces referred to as “brownfields.” These post-industrial sites are now being considered prime places for the newest park type to date: recycled public spaces put to use not because of their scenic value but because economy places a premium on space and demands the use of such space to maintain a healthy urban fabric. Converting defunct factories, warehouses, landfills and river fronts to useable space for active recreation and civic use provides the public with new found space and prevents future deterioration of a given site. Transforming such sites often demands grappling with contamination and toxic waste. However, the result is a cleaning up, a greening of place, hence the intersection of landscape design and ecology. Today’s new approach to park making (and park thinking) is seen in New York City’s High Line project, which transformed the defunct elevated railroad through Manhattan’s west side into a park-like linear landscape. An example here in Columbia is Flat Branch Park, east of Providence Road at Locust Street. This “space in between”– a vacant quasi-creek (more precisely a drainage ditch) and trash strewn escape for vagrants– was transformed into a useful and refreshing public space.
    The moral of comment number two: the study of landscape, and its design, is not limited to the past. As Dr. Merhhoff points out, for landscapes to remain meaningful we must maintain a “dialogue with the natural world and the needs of the future.”

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