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A Strange Exhibit

July 30, 2007

I am in Virginia. Yesterday, I visited the site of the first English settlement in North America at Jamestown. English settlers established Jamestown in 1607 before the mosquitoes from the nearby swamp got too much for them and they moved their main base to nearby Williamsburg.

Jamestown is a strange place to visit in the 21st century. The 400th year anniverary, which was officially celebrated in May, brought with it a new archeaology pavilion and an indoor exhibit featuring artifacts discovered during digs at the site over the last 100 years or so, a huge timeline, and lots of brightly colored panels inscribed with information about the history of the site.

The experience of walking outside the exhibition centers into the actual settlement area is strange, particularly for someone like me who grew up around European archeological digs and museums. For 90% of what remains of the buildings that made up Jamestown are buried underground and the piles of bricks that can be seen strewn about the grass around the site are reproductions of those ruins rather than the ruins themselves.

This seems very peculiar to me, despite the fact that a panel near one pile of bricks clearly explains why the real remains of Jamestown have been buried and replaced by mock-ups of those remains. The archeologists are simply frightened that the ruins, if left exposed, would eventually erode away to nothingness. But here's what puzzles me: If you're going to go to the trouble of creating "fake" ruins, then why not go all out and rebuild the entire buildings as they would have looked in the early 17th century? There's something lovely about having an unobstructed view of trees, fields and the James River as you stroll around what was once the birthplace of the U.S., but this way of presenting historical artifacts seems rather half-hearted.

If it were left to me, I don't think I'd have recreated Jamestown from the ground up. You can visit Busch Gardens for that kind of experience. But I think scattering piles of bricks about the place doesn't quite work either. To my mind, the best solution to the problem of how to make the Jamestown site come alive for visitors beyond the confines of the indoor exhibition centers would be to treat the fields like a farmer would rotate crops on a farm: Expose ruins on some parts of the site for a season, then cover them up and expose others for a while. And, of course, do away with the piles of fake bricks entirely.


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