Idealog - April 2007
The Promenade Plantee, Paris
A three-mile railway viaduct used to take goods trains into Paris, to a freight yard close to the Place de la Bastille. By the 1990s it was no longer in use and was a decaying eyesore. The City Council began a project to turn it into the Promenade Plantee, a linear park planted with trees and shrubs and set out with varying design features from trellised arbours to hard-surface spaces where games like giant chess could be played. The arches have been turned into smart shops and workshops. It's a remarkable achievement which is likely to inspire city planners elsewhere. The designers of the landscaping were Philippe Mathieu and Jacques Vergely; the architects of the modern treatment of the viaduct were Patrick Begrer and Jamine Galiano.
The Jardin des Plantes
Botanical gardens attract many visitors, but were founded not as tourist attractions but educational centres. Italian universities in the sixteenth century developed them as collections of plants for tainee apothecaries to study. Pisa is reckoned to have been the first in 1544 and other Italian, Dutch, Spanish and French versions followed. Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast of France was begun in 1593. Britain's first was in Oxford in 1621, the USA beginning one around 1842.
The French capital got its first in 1626, at first as a training garden but open to the public from 1640. Over the years a menagerie and a zoological museum were added. The French Natural History Museum occupies a traditional beaux artes building but inside is very modern with steel-frame and polished-wood floors and a theatrical use of lighting.
Leading from the main entrance gates up to the Natural History building are formal walks and flower beds, but off to one side are more naturalistic landscapes including an alpine garden. At the lower end of this is the zoo in which a series of enclosures contain a number of animals ranging from orang-utans to zebra. This collection added animals to the plant collection from 1794. It helped inspire London Zoo (1828) which itself led to the formation of others around the world. The Jardin des Plantes collection is always called a menagerie, the main zoo being in the Bois de Vincennes in the eastern part of the city. The older, and smaller centre is going through a period of transition like so many animal collections, some buildings being closed for further work. It is interesting that the zoological museum with its skeletons and stuffed animals looks much more attractive and gives an effective presentation of wild life and conservation issues than does the menagerie.
In the top-right photo is a gloriously lively dragon made from recycled materials, including old plastic bags which represent the flames blowing from his mouth.
Sense of Place, Sense of Time
Gloria Friedmann's sculpture group in one of the courts of the Louvre Museum attracts the fascinated gaze of tourists. Paris is above all a city of symbols, unique in the case of the Eiffel Tower or the monument to the 1830 revolution which stands in the Place de la Bastille. More commonplace are the many street cafes and bistros which help make the city known as a superlative place to eat and drink while the world passes by.
The Louvre once symbolised the French monarchy; now it symbolises the French appreciation of art - and also, perhaps, its centuries of state acquisition of art. From the ancient history of Egypt to the French impressionsts of the nineteenth century, the galleries of the Louvre help to create the senses of place and time of many eras.
Friedmann's work here is in contrast with the colourful depictive and decorative art of the main exhibitions. Placed in one of the sculpture courts - 'outdoors' but for protective glass roofing - among more classical white forms, this group seems to represent ourselves rather than distant mythical figures. Each standing form is different, has its own character, even personality. Yet the group is unreal, in colour, immobility and action - or lack of it. These people have a mythical quality. They hold clocks faces for us to see instead of their own faces. They are individuals, but their clocks show the same times - real time as all of them are running.
When I viewed the figures recently there were many visitors looking at, and being photographed by their friends with, the figures. This was a popular addition to the show. No-one was reading the panel on the wall nearby which described Friedmann's work. I looked, read a few words but turned back to the sculpture itself. It always seems more productive to let the viewer put their own interpretation on art, and if it is essential to know what the artist intended, then the message needs to stand out big and bold.
Eiffel's Tower and the Colonne de Juillet used the industrial mode of steel and the classical language of bronze to state their messages. Each age puts its own interpretation on the statement. Gloria Friedmann's installation makes its own statements of time and place for the visitor to play with themselves.
15 and 26.04.07
Environmental Data Elements
The ideas of what were termed 'vectors' and 'data sets' in connection with landscapes has been discussed in previous postings. In proposing the elements for a new theoretical approach to tourists and places, some others need to be introduced here. Later, further discussion of these will be added.
'Vectors' were described as elements within a visitor's environment that provide cues about time, place and culture. This is one idea which will be expanded upon. Some other postings have already begun to look at the idea of 'showcases' - additions made within a place to show off particular ideas and beliefs. Taking the view that buildings or landscapes are always produced for reasons of immediate utility and more general communication of ideas, a whole spectrum of features can be placed under this heading. A castle was a means of defence and government, and it did these things by being hard to attack and also by making a statement within the landscape, aboutwho had power and influence. A religious building did - still does - the same, expressing ideas of philosophy and artistic expression as well as being a place in which to gather for the purposes of ritual. In many ways, every addition to a landscape has some level of showcase element - the garden gnome means something (just what is an interesting point!) as does the colouring of woodwork or the layout of a garden.
(Work in progress - more to follow!)
A Victorian Beauty Spot Rediscovered
The author Rudyard Kipling is known the world over as the writer of The Jungle Book, the Just So Stories and The Man Who Would Be King. Few people might stop to wonder at his unusual christian name, Rudyard. It came from a spot liked by many Victorians: Rudyard Lake in North Staffordshire, where his parents, John Lockwood Kipling and Alice MacDonald, had courted.
The lake is really a two and a half miles-long reservoir occupying the narrow valley of a tributary of the River Churnet and thence the River Trent. It was built in 1800 to supply water to the Trent and Mersey Canal. Some of the water it contains is diverted in from the River Dane which flows west off the Pennines and into the River Dee near Chester. The water which is turned into the reservoir will finish up going east through the canal system into the North Sea.
Rudyard Lake gained a branch line of the North Staffordshire Railway between Uttoxeter and North Rode, linking each way into the national system. People would travel by train from the Potteries and nearby silk towns like Congleton, Macclesfield and Leek, and spent the day boating or enjoying a small fun fair which stretched out across the reservoir's dam. Two hotels and some tea rooms added to the village's status as a tiny tourist destination.
Today the railway has gone but a narrow-guage steam railway runs along part of the former railway trackbed by the lake. An information centre in a former boat house projects into the water. There is a newly-built cafe. One hotel still exists, the other is planned to be converted into apartments. Restoration and improvements have been carried out which continue the attractiveness of the area for family days out.
Stories We Are Told
The site of the original settlement is now referred to as Historic Jamestowne (with a final 'e') while the reconstruction project nearby by is called the Jamestown Festival Park. The main effort at historic interpretation is channelled through the Festival site apart from a few interpretation panels and the costumed interpreter mentioned earlier, plus a new exhibition area called the Archaearium. This exhibition contains artefacts and interpretation of the site in more detail and was opened in 2006.
Historic Jamestown has two statues, of historic figures well known in the media. One is of Captain John Smith, the English popular hero who led the settlers and so has due claim as one of the founding fathers.
The other is the native American known as Pocahontas, another popular - English - hero. Of course she was not English. She was a daughter of the chief of the Powhatan tribe, Wahunsunacock, known generally as Chief Powhatan. Her own more formal names were Matoaka Amonute, 'Pocahontas' being a nickname for 'frolicsome'.
Not much of her early story is known for certain but her later life has become the stuff of myth and legend. This is in sharp contrast to her siblings and half-siblings. The reason is given in an account by John Smith of what happened when, in the erly days of the settlement, he was captured by the Powhatan and about to be executed by having his head crushed as it lay on a stone. Pocahontas threw herself across his body and said she would die, too, if he were executed. Smith's life was spared. Later, Pocahontas was to marry one of the settlers, John Rolfe, and travelled with him to London. She was presented to King James. portraits were painted showing her as an anglicized woman wearing fashionable clothing. Indeed, on her marriage she had been christened as "Lady Rebecca" Rolfe, so that she was being absorbed into English popular culture. After a short stay in London of several weeks the Rolfes took ship from the city for Virginia, but Pocahontas took ill, was taken off the ship at Gravesend, and died there in March 1617. Another life-size statue commemorates her where she is buried in a local church.
Many books, plays and films have been made of episodes in her life. Her name has been given to railway trains, ships, roads and towns, and even apparently by the miners of West Virginia to a rich seam of coal. The Disney film is probably best-known worldwide, and she appears in a more realistic interpretation in Terence Malick's 2006 film "The New World".
Captain John Smith might have captured a settlement on the edge of the American continent. Pocahontas has captured the hearts and minds of the public over almost four centuries. Why? Undoubtedly because of her lively character and place in the story of Jamestown. Almost certainly, too, the struggles of the early settlers needed to be masked in Britain and later in the American colonies by a popular presentation of a romantic hero who died tragically young having exchanged native, "heathen" ways for European civilisation. Whoever she really was, her story was shaped by the mass media of her age and then of ours to fulfill particular needs. The tourists visiting Jamestown for the four hundredth anniversary celebrations will be celebrating and offshoot of a European story as much as a North American one.
Historic Jamestown: Archaeology and Interpretation
After the end of the eighteenth century Jamestown was abandonned with its inhabitants moving inland to Williamsburg. Farming continued but many traces of the settlement disappeared. Then in the late nineteenth century the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities took an increasing interest in the site. In 1893 the owners of the farm in which it lay gave just over 22 acres containing the remains of a church Jamestown tower of 1636 and whatever else the land was hiding for historic preservation. A sea wall was built to protect it from erosion by the James River, though it was long thought that the remains of the fort had been washed away.
In 1994 the APVA began to excavate the area and in 1996 discovered that only one corner of the triangular settlement had gone. Work continues, as seen in two of the photos above. Interpetive panels have been placed carefully on the site and stockade fencing erected. The church has been partially restored. A museum shows some of the many thousands of archaeological finds discovered over the last decade and more. Costumed interpreters meet visitors and describe the settlement's remains. It is working archaeological project still, however, with only a few additions such as the section of stockade to illustrate a little of the physical history. Much more of the story can be seen at the Jamestown Festival Park a short shuttle-bus ride away.
The Jamestown Celebrations, 2007
On 13 May the United States will celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the first permanent European settlement in what was to become the USA. People have lived on the North American continent for far longer, of course: Europeans were johnny-come-latelies compared with the ancient civilisations of native Americans. The 'Mayflower' settlers near Cape Cod did not arrive until 1620. Spanish and French colonies were created in 1565 (Florida)and 1599 (now Quebec) respectively, but these did not grow into the grouping of colonies that was to become the United States of America. An earlier English attempt at Roanoke (modern North Carolina) in 1585 failed, the colonists disappearing with little trace after a few years.
And so Jamestown, named for the English monarch at the time, is regarded as the first US settlement.
In 1607 three ships, the 'Susan Constant', the 'Godspeed' and the 'Discovery' arrived with 71 male settlers. The colony that they founded survived only thanks to the native Americans living nearby and the determination of the settlers. A fort was established. The men hunted for food and slowly established farm land, again with help from the native people. Relationships were tenuous however. Conflicting attitudes led to fighting, resentment and antagonism although more peaceful approaches helped the colony to get itself onto a self-sustaining footing. Sadly, conflicting attitudes were to be a hallmark of European settlements here as in other parts of the world.
In 1907 the three-hundredth anniversary of the settlement was celebrated, though with a focus on a different part of what had become Virginia. Then in 1957 the 350th anniversary was marked by a Jamestown Festival of events which included the building of replicas of the original colonisers' ships. These are permanently moored at the Festival site a short distance from the archaeologically-sensitive location of the original fort. A reconstruction of the Jamestown settlement now occupies part of the Festival Park, along with a large Visitor Centre. The 2007 celebrations will be major events, including a planned visit by Queen Elizabeth II who had toured the 1957 Festival and the replica ships with the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Anglers' Country Park, Wakefield
Wakefield Metropolitan District has a number of country parks developed in former mining areas. Fairburn Ings, an RSPB Reserve and the subject of an earlier posting, occupies a similar kind of landscape. Pugneys, Newmillerdam and the Heronry and Anglers Country Parks lie close together to the south east of the city.
The Anglers Country Park, to give it its shorter name, has a 30-hectare lake as its centrepiece and the other two parks have their own lakes. There are other reservoirs and lakes in the area, one of which includes Walton Hall, the former home of the naturalist pioneering naturalist Charles Waterton. The Hall is now a hotel, standing on a small island connected to the bank of the lake by a bridge.
Getting to Anglers Park proved confusing. White-on-brown signs give directions to each of the parks, but not always by individual name. A sign pointing to the "Waterton Discovery Centre" was worth following, but the next required turn in the route only had "Anglers Park" shown. As this appeared to be a different location we sped straight on, found Walton Hall, failed to get in because of an electric gate demanding a token to get out, and so backtracked to the previous road sign. After a meandering run between some more lakes we finally arrived at a spacious car park, but still needed to go to check that we were in the right place.
The park is an attractive place with a couple of smaller lakes, one good for pond-dipping, the other, with a hide, for peaceful bird watching. The main lake has a path all the way round, though a distance back from the water and not very well equipped with seats. It has the feel of a municipal urban park, with broad grassed areas and a lake set out for people to walk around. Arriving at a visitor centre for cups of tea meant that it was turned 4pm when we found the Discovery Centre entrance - steel roller doors firmly closed down at four o'clock. There was little visitor interpretation outside - does the lack of panels and the existence of those steel doors point to a vandalism problem? A large interpretive panel near the car park was illegible, not because some tyke had felt-tipped penned it, but because it had faded beyond use in the sunlight.
The nice things about the place was the relaxed atmosphere - it was less crowded than Pugneys or Newmillerdam - thanks to the families having a quiet afternoon there, some pleasant staff in the tea room, and the permanent inhabitants swimming and waddling round the lake.
Timeline - Children's Museums
The previous posting describes early American museums designed specifically for children. In addition to the Brooklyn Children's Museum and similar elsewhere there were more general museums such as the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry which made sure there were children-friendly displays, even including one of a complex doll's house.
A French example in the Grand Palais was begun in the late 1930s. It was in 1986 that the major Cites des Sciences was opened as part of the development of the Parc de la Villette out of a vast slaughterhouse complex. Two influential science centres, one in Toronto and one in San Francisco, were opened in 1969. Britain's first interactive science centre for children was the Exploratory in Bristol, 'road-tested' from 1984 and a permanent centre between 1987 and 1999. After closure in 1999 it was replaced by the Explore-At-Bristol the following year. Halifax's EUREKA! opened it doors for the first time in 1992.
5 April 07
It is over a century since the first museum dedicated to helping children to learn about their world by doing was opened. It was the Brooklyn Museum in 1899 that introduced the idea of the "hands on" experience in the modern phrase. To Europeans these museums might seem a modern invention, but Brooklyn was followed by others in Boston, Detroit, Indianapolis and more, all before World War II. Britain did not get its first example until 1981, the Bristol Exploratory, and it was not until 1987 that this project turned from temporary exhibitions into a permanent showcase. The Exploratory finally closed in September 1999 and the next year a different centre, called Explore-At-Bristol, opened. By then many other centres were operating from the Glasgow Science Centre to the Observatory Science Centre in East sussex. These, however, are science centres and the original in Brooklyn was much wider in scope. It includes exhibits on 'Work and Play in the Nineteenth Century' and 'Journey to Africa'.
Children's Museums, like their multifarious adult counterparts, are educational resource centres for whole regions or communities. Yet they also have to operate as tourist attractions competing with other attractions for the attentions of families planning a day out. They have pressures on fund-raising, marketing, operations and resource management as well as their core activity which - education. They are often run by charities or other public bodies and again, like so many tourist attractions, are not commercial entities with shareholders. So they are driven by educational objectives rather than profit motives, which means they have to have a different set of development and marketing approaches.
Three examples are shown above. The two pictures on the left are of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The centre pictures show EUREKA! in Halifax, UK - not a science centre as such but what might be called an exploration of the children's world from human physiology to shopping. On the right is NEMO, a science centre again which is the dock area of Amsterdam. As the poster (and I'm not sure why it's in English) shows, it moves from science to society in tackling some issues like sex.
All these centres try to educate by entertaining as all the best education will do. 'Finding out' is attractive to children when 'learning' sounds as though it is not. Hands-on activity is a matter of play: and after all, each of the examples above are certainly about fun and games.
Fairburn Ings Reserve
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds cares for a large number of wildlife reserves around Britain. With the popularity of TV shows such as Birdwatch the number of people taking an interest in birds is growing, even though many might only use their own back gardens as viewing areas. Discovering bird life through the media and travel has been a long and symbiotic relationship. During the twentieth century bird books, radio programmes (like Nature Parliament) and TV presenters from Johnny Morris to David Attenborough made the subject interesting and excursions and holidays were made to see the real thing.
Fairburn Ings, near Castleford in West Yorkshire, occupies 286 hectares of mainly ex-mining land in which subsidence led to flooding and the creation of extensive water areas. Indeed, the name 'ings' comes from an Old Norse word for a frequently-flooded, marshy ground. The reserve opened in 1968.
The complex is free to the public with a good car park, small visitor centre and shop and a number of hides. Footpaths lead around the lakes and ponds with interpretation panels at key places. Kingfishers, Green Sandpipers, Reed Warblers and Little Ringed Plovers can be seen as well as the swans shown above and a range of plants, shrubs and trees. Its a big area, so that while the section near the visitor centre and car park have the most visitors, there are plenty of pathways where quiet bird-watching can be enjoyed. You might not get Bill Oddy and Kate Humble, but you will find friendly and helpful RSPB staff to discuss the wildlife on show.