Sunday, May 30, 2010

Commemorating Richmond: The Impact of Markers on a Historical Landscape

While touring Richmond with the Town Manager from the Richmond Swale Valley Community Initiative (RSVCI), it became difficult not to notice the miscellaneous markers occupying both vertical and horizontal spaces. Some of these markers can be attributed to the RSVCI, while others surely point to individuals, the town counsel, and perhaps even English Heritage, the organization charged with caring for Richmond Castle.

Markers can be useful. When used considerately, they bring to life aspects of a past long forgotten and unconsidered by many visitors. This holds particularly true for foreign visitors to Britain, as many have a rather vague notion of history, often both supplemented and impeded by the various literary and cinematic vehicles via which they receive it. However, the misplacement or overabundance of commemorative markers can ultimately detract from the historical landscape.

In Richmond, Trinity Church is surrounded by twelve benches, each commemorating one century of the city. Here is the 13th century marker and bench.


(1258 The Friary was founded by Ralph Fitz Randulph, Lord of Middleham, for Franciscan or Grey friars.
The friars were intellectual scholars who went out on preaching missions to the inhabitants of Richmond and beyond.)

I understand RSVCI’s intentions in installing these benches around the church. Their placement provides a place to rest and enjoy the newly revitalized* outer bailey of Richmond Castle, and the corresponding markers attempt to provide glimpses into the history of Richmond. But when considering these markers from a historical perspective, they fall short of their purpose. They tend to commemorate either a site located elsewhere in Richmond, such as the one above, or an event wholly unrelated and subsequently more anachronistic. The markers do not inform visitors of much of anything; nor do they assist in creating continuity. Perhaps the above marker would have found more meaning by the Friary Tower, shown below. A different, more appropriate location would greater serve the public, by tying vanished or vanishing sites to what the visitor is experiencing now. Indeed, in looking forward, the fact that these markers serve no purpose in commemorating Trinity Church may only prove to be confusing to future generations.

I also tend to agree with Lowenthal’s assessment that, “if some signposts save history, others drown it in trivia.”[1] Some of Richmond’s markers tend to lean towards the latter. For example, here is another one of the twelve markers surrounding Trinity Church:

(1789 The ballad of the Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill was written by Leonard MacNally for his young wife, local girl Frances I'Anson.
The identity of the 'Lass' has been the subject of controversial claims for many years.)

In giving this event one of the 12 markers, Richmond is encouraging the assumption that this is the most important thing to happen in Richmond in the 18th century. Surely a more significant event occurred that is more worthy of commemoration.

Here is another example, a marker I came across on Frenchgate:


While this rather obscure bit of trivia is part of the historical fabric of Richmond, does this specific site need to be commemorated? Where should the guardians of the history of Richmond draw the line? Do these types of markers undermine attempts to recognize more important relics and sites in Richmond?

We use markers to commemorate many events and historical sites in America as well, and there are examples of their proliferation at certain historical places. As Public Historians, we should take care that these markers do not subsequently overreach their purpose, thereby turning a place into nothing more than a pile of miscellaneous facts, each one more historically impotent than the last.

-Katharine Thompson

*I used the word revitalized instead of restored, as I feel they are using the term “restoration” as a vehicle to promote a certain aesthetic not entirely in keeping with what is historically accurate, but rather what is economically advantageous.

1. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 268.

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