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After numerous doses of history…

Posted by astamatt on July 23, 2007

The East Coast of the United States, in general,  is much more enthusiastic about history then the other regions of the country that I have been to. In the few short months that I have been here for my internship, I have visited the Jamestown, Williamsburg, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Atlantic Fisheries Musuem in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and yesterday I visited Mystic Seaport. It seems that every place in the East has an abundance of museums and old historic districts in the towns and cities.  

 Mystic Seaport was a worthwhile visit. If at least to see the Joseph Conrad – the ship which apparantly was the beginning point for the entire concept of sail training. It reminded me a lot of Picton Castle – a steel hulled ship with three masts. It was a bit smaller and laid out differently, but it still felt familiar even though I’d never been on board before. The highlight of the museum is the Charles W. Morgan – the last of the wooden whaling ships. It is amazing how old that ship is and the upkeep it takes to keep a wooden structure that sits perpetually in water from disintegrating. The Morgan, unlike the Conrad, was a very different ship in comparison to the familiar Picton Castle. It had high sides, and a mess of internal structures designed to “factory” the creation of whale oil. Certainly a different kind of ship altogether then what the Joseph Conrad and Picton Castle were. Outside of the ship, Mystic Seaport had some excellent exhibitions. My favorite object that I saw was a model of British Ship of the Line created by a French prisoner of war during the Napoloeonic Era. The ship was created entirely from beef bone – immaculately detailed to the point that it was eerie. Its pale ivory color making it look almost ghostly in its case. Amazing to consider how much skill it took to create. It must have been considerable because prisoners typically do not have access to good equipment to build things. I can’t even draw a ship of that type on paper and get its dimensions correct. He must have been making it to get a pardon, or at least better treatment. I hope he did, he certainly deserved it.

It is interesting to me to consider how many things I have seen in the past few months here in America that are historical and can be seen, touched and interacted with. To the people living here I would guess that it is normal to them to be regularly living and working in and among concrete historical places and artifacts. It is not normal for me. Chicago does not have historical roots as deep as the cities out East, and much of the city that would have been “historical” was reduced to ashes in the Great Fire. Until this summer, I had only been out East to visit Maine and North Carolina. Then, I spent a semester abroad in Wales, a place that is very historical (very obviously).  After seeing the historic districts of the UK, I was surprised to see how much the East Coast of the US does, in places, resemble the historic UK districts. This was most noticable in places like Newport, Charleston, South Carolina and Lunenburg. I had previously been under the impression that such places did not really exist in the US. Now I know better. North America has more of a “concrete” (namely buildings, objects – things you can see) history than I previously imagined – you just have to go to the right places, namely the Eastern Seaboard. “Concrete” history like the ships and places that I have seen in the past few months are very rare back in my hometown area. People proudly put signs on their businesses proclaiming its age if it is only ten years old. Anything from the 1950’s is spoken of in the same manner that people in the UK use when referring to a place that is hundreds of years old!

It is good to see that there are such places in the United States and that people actively go to them for work, fun and retaining bits of the past. The midwest had left me with the impression that any structure older than ten years old will always be torn down and replaced with another structure that is even more pre-fabricated and obviously cheaper and more utilitarian in construction then its predecessor. When you have lived your life in a massive business district of strictly utilitarian (aka – inexpensive) buildings surrounded by “cookie cutter” residential districts while simultaneously watching Travel Channel programs about Europe it is easy to get the impression that historic places are rare in America and that it is populated by cheap construction not intended to last more than a few years – structures designed to please pocketbooks, not eyes.

That was my impression of America in relation to “concrete” history – until this summer and this internship which has, in one way, given me a grand tour of the Eastern Seaboard.  I know better now. 

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