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.
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 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…