We all know heritage is important. We all know that the past has treasures that must be preserved, displayed, and appreciated. We all know what a Greek column, or Buddhist temple looks like. We can picture the ruins in Machu Pichu even if we haven’t been there. Cultural landmarks become kinds of celebrities. Everyone knows at least something about some of them.
But my question is what if we want to go farther than knowing just something? What if we want more in depth content? And, what if we want to get that deep content on the spot, at the archeological site? How can we know it all, or at least begin the journey of knowing it all, as we are seeing cultural heritage in the flesh?
Let’s take the example of my weekend adventure in Chaina, Crete that happened about three weeks ago. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was looking at my calendar thinking: what can I do this weekend that would be interesting and new? I google around to see top things to do in Greece, I remember a few conversations I had had with my Greek friends, and I decide: I am going to Crete. I heard that it was another world in terms of contemporary culture, and I knew from my art history classes that it was a dreamland for anyone interested in Minoan culture. I was sold. I would fly into Chania, explore the museums and harbor area that was known as “Little Venice” and then take a bus to Iraklion to see the Palace of Knossos. And so I went. I had a nice time and all, but I felt guilty after my trip to see the Palace of Knossos. Why did I feel that seeing the site of the Palace was a bit of a let-down?
When we had arrived to the entrance of the site, there were various groups offering tours at a discounted rate, and you could bargain with them to get an even cheaper rate. There was no brochure or map that outlined the size of the site, or how one circulates through the site. I stopped to ask the tour guides if there was any kind of booklet, or if there were placards in the site that would explain what I was looking at. I didn’t want to enter to find that there were no descriptions about the various parts of the Palace, and its history (this happened to me at a site in Santorini! After seeing the site I had to google about it to learn what its historical relevance was). They responded saying that there were placards inside but that they were few, gave limited information, and that in order to have a full experience one needed a tour guide. But as I looked around, I seemed to be one of the only ones who was even considering the tour. So I took my chances, and kept my fingers crossed that once I got inside there would be placards to help guide my learning at least a little bit. Turns out there were placards which outlined how the site was uncovered, and what the various sections of the site used to be. All of this was great, but I still felt like I wasn’t learning that much. While I am a strong believer that even just increasing ones visual vocabulary is incredibly important, information that contextualizes what you see is also quite essential to real learning. So I got to thinking, what would I have liked to have had during my time at the Palace?
With this question in mind I thought of this little booklet I had found in the corner of a souvenir shop by the Temple of Posiden in Sounion weeks earlier. The booklet showed pictures of the many ruins in Greece. Each ruin had two pages dedicated to it. The first page was a transparent page while the second page was opaque. When viewed together, they created an image of the ruin as it would have been viewed when it was constructed all that time ago (colors were included too!). When you flipped just the transparent page, you would be left with the page that was an image of what the ruins look like today. Honestly, viewing the ruins like this was such a breath of fresh air! While maybe the depictions were not entirely correct (it was a booklet in a souvenir shop anyway, we are not talking academic journals here…) I finally felt like I could have a more complete visual cue to better understand how these ruins were used when they were functioning structures. There is a magic that gets lost when the visual history of an object is incomplete. The whole picture needs to be communicated. Ruins mark time, but they do not capture the magic of what they used to be. So, maybe this little booklet had something going for it. Even in just offering a suggestion of what the ruins would have looked like in their day, my mind was captivated, and asking more questions. Upon seeing a complete picture of what a monument potentially looked like, I became invested in the details of what that picture was suggesting. It’s funny how having more information didn’t make me feel like I was being restricted into accepting it as fact. Instead, having more information allowed me to ask targeted questions about the ruins that actually led to a memorable learning process.
I don’t think one should ever be afraid to physically reconstruct the past in order to display, and share it because when presented as a complete picture (granted this presentation should be honest in its nature as a reconstruction, not replication), one’s mind has more to observe, question, and make their own. Now, I don’t know how one can present a massive archeological site in a way that gives one the sense of what it was originally. But, I do think that simple placards are no longer cutting it. Especially in todays globalized world, knowing the surface of another culture is not enough. We must delve deep, and take the time to learn the reasons why history has decided to capture these monuments.