This post has absolutely nothing to do with admissions. My apologies to the people who may be annoyed by that (you've now been warned though!). Between long bouts of fretting and scouring GradCafe for information, I occassionally read for my classes. As a result of some recent reading I've been doing for a historical methods class, I've been doing some pondering on reconstructions and such (of the town and building variety), which got me thinking about restored towns, good, bad, and ugly.
Off the bat, I'm one of those people who enjoys things non-restored. I see medieval masonry being plastered over and cry inside (why? why would you do that?!) It saddens me to know that Historic Williamsburg came into being after the destruction of 720 buildings constructed post 1800, leaving 82 standing structures (Colonial Philadelphia- you are guilty of this as well!). A full 341 buildings were built from scratch in order to complete Historical Williamsburg. All that being said, Historical Williamsburg and Colonial Philadelphia are lovely, enjoyable places to visit- but whatever happened to "first, do no harm"? (Yeah, I know that's a physician thing, not a historian thing. And the motto of archaeology is "digging is destruction".)
Some places get it right (in my completely non-professional, highly subjective opinion). Among these are Dover Castle, which manages to showcase structures from a number of historic periods: WWII-era tunnels, a Roman lighthouse, and Anglo-Saxon/18th century church, and the stunning 11th century central tower). The central tower is restored, but not in a gross or heavy-handed manner (see below for Rakvere), and is decorated with wall hanging and furniture. The furniture, although designed to model 11th century furniture, isn't made to look old- it isn't making an attempt to fake you out. Like a good restoration of say, Bronze Age Pottery, you can tell what's original and what's restoration.
Website for site here: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/dover-castle/
Another place I really enjoyed was Bannack, a Montana ghost town and National Park Historic Site. The buildings were basically abandoned in the late 19th century, after the local supply of gold and silver ran dry. In the 1950s/60s, the site was taken over by the US national Park Service. Unlike nearby Virginia City/Nevada City, which have been tarted up for the tourists, Bannack is decidedly quiet. The pamphlet says that the aim for the site overseers is "arrested decay", which apparently involved a one-time project to stabilize the buildings (so they wouldn't do harm to themselves...or to the tourists?). Beyond stabilization, they aren't doing anything to the town site besides trimming the occassional shrubbery. No fresh coast of paint, no safety rails for visitors, no informative signposts or kitschy old-timey stores (if you're looking for that, head on down to Virginia City!). I haven't completely worked out what I think the best methods for preservation and restoration are yet, but I'm pretty sure that I support the way things are being done at Bannack.
Website here: http://www.bannack.org/photo_tour.htm
As the undisputed champion of how it shouldn't be done, I vote for Rakvere Castle in Estonia. How it made it onto the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I have absolutely no idea (do they not have standards for how you're allowed to "restore" things?! I wish I had a website to show you all the horrors they've done to this medieval castle (12-14th centuries, if memory serves me). My biggest problem with this place is that they're "restored" it with absolutely no thought to history (or maybe accuracy or genuiness wasn't their intent?). Maybe it just bothers me a lot because I'm a medievalist? Maybe I'm also that annoying person who points out anachronisms in movies, and that's why it bothers me? They's built up a hokey seige machine playground (why on earth would there be a seige machine on the inside of a fortress?! Besides, what good is a seige machine doing to do you on a hill fortress?), and have an archaery range inside the walls of the castle (5 Euros and you too can be a medieval warrior!). Go ahead an eat lunch there, you can have some "medieval beverage" (watered-down cranberry juice, don't ask me the reasoning there) and "medieval food" (pita bread and parsnips? You can do better, I know you can.). Unable to escape, I was forced on a tour with a monk (I wonder how he rocks the tonsure when he heads home at night?), who led the wide-eyed tour group to the "torture chamber". This is when I died a little inside. This windowless room was likely a cellar back in the day, but some crazed person had rigged up red lights, strewn plastic rats all over the floor, hung plastic skeletons everywhere, and was piping in screams/creepy music. In the cellar next door, we were told about the horrible outbreak of the plague and how all the dead bodies were kept in her (First, its a cellar. Second, it barely fits our tour group of 8, I doubt it could possibly fit hundreds of dead bodies. Third, plague dead get buried outside the walls! Argh.) The next room was decorated in painted styrofoam to look like Dante's Hell (there was even a sign to let us know, and pop-up ghouls to scare the youngins), but I was already too dead inside to care about this room. All I could think about was "what have you done to this perfectly wonderful castle?! You've ruined it!" Argh! Pain. Despair!
Kudos to anyone who's held on through this much of my rant. I do want to open up the question (not just to the historians/art historians/museum studiers)- what do you think about historic preservations and restorations and that type thing? Are there any places that you think have handled the issu particularly well or particularly poorly? Do you think I'm a total nut/jerk/snob? Penny for your thoughts. And hey, maybe it will take your mind off of admissions for a bit. Thanks for enduring my whole long, ranty, non-admissions-related post! Happy second work week of February!
May the odds be ever in your favor!