The Essence of a Place

How does your institution convey the essence of place or time? Is it through preserving a building or a complex of buildings on a site? Is it by presenting collections of artifacts? Do documentaries or public programs allow visitors and participants to understand what is or was really important about the community your institution represents?

After a visit to the Junaluska Memorial and Museum in 2010, North Carolina author David Cecelski wrote, “It’s so hard for a museum to capture anything truly profound about a people or a community, so much of what’s essential is usually so far beneath the surface of things. But here in Robbinsville, I had a different feeling. This little walking trail made me feel as if I actually glimpsed something important about the Snowbird Cherokee, and it made me feel, too, that I was on sacred ground.”

Artifacts can function as portals to understanding what the past was like. Use them, then, as a salient means to reach the essence of what is important about your site. However, they can remain too distant inside the confines of exhibit cases—with visitors separated from their weights, textures, and smells. As Cecelski points out, objects are not the only means to convey something “truly profound.” Consider other aspects of your interpretive topic. Music, the accent and cadence of local speech, landscape, and stories can all be part of the essence of a community.

As much of Cecelski’s current writing acknowledges, food is both an intimate and broadly social aspect of cultural heritage, and traditional dishes are a wonderful resource for cultural heritage institutions. Some museums, like the Eva Way collection at the Belhaven Memorial Museum, attempt to preserve traditional foods. This jar of possum preserves dates from the 1930s and is one of Belhaven’s many examples of home canned goods. Other institutions preserve food containers, recipes, and cooking implements in order to interpret foodways and to avoid the pest and deterioration problems involved in long-term food storage. Although food is nearly impossible to preserve in a cultural heritage collection, foodways are usually replicable, and traditional recipes fundamentally connect audiences to the land and seasons.

How does your site incorporate local food traditions into its public programming or even its collection? What other non-artifactual elements of cultural heritage does your institution present in order to convey the essence of your site or community?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on June 22, 2012, in Exhibitions, historic sites, museums, public programs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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