Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fake vacation?

Do you plan to go to any “real” places on your summer vacation?

I just returned from 5 days in what many historic preservation enthusiasts might consider a destination with the Devil – Las Vegas. After all, what other vacation spot offers the chance to purchase DVD’s of multiple building implosions as a souvenir? It must certainly be the least likely place for visitors to gain an appreciation of architecture or history.

And yet – I witnessed many visitors from across our country oohing and ahhhing over the architectural wonders in Vegas. They marveled at the many columns, pilasters, heavily ornamented pediments and porticos of Caesars Palace. They gasped at the faithful recreation of St Marks Square, the Doge’s Palace, and the campanile tower at The Venetian. They snapped many photos of the Arc de Triomphe and rode to the top of the Eiffel Tower at Paris. They strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge and paid tribute to the fallen heros of 9/11 in front of the Statue of Liberty at NYNY.

What about history? Although “Elvis has left the building” (and this worldly existence) he has not left Las Vegas. Numerous Elvis tribute artists offer performances in shows across town. You can also enjoy a recreation of The Rat Pack with performances by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop; meet Caesar and Cleopatra, and tour Mobster Vegas with one of Bugsy Siegel’s “associates.” Vegas visitors actively seek out the opportunity to re-live other eras.

Does it matter that they are fake? The columns’ capitals may be carved from foam, the Elvis impersonator has glued on sideburns? Can an appreciation for the real stuff grow from the fake?

In some ways, I think that Las Vegas’ “fake” environments are more honest than an historic house museum or village environment. No one at The Venetian Casino and Hotel thinks they are really in Venice, no matter how convincing the Grand Canal. But what do visitors think when they visit Colonial Williamsburg – or Monticello – or the Stone-Tolan House Museum. Many of them believe they are seeing things “as they really were in the old days.” Of course those buildings are “real” – and we strive to make interpretation as accurate as possible. But until a time machine is invented, we can never really know how accurate –or real – our portrayal of the past is at these sites. We must make compromises for our current time and place (ie a nice lawn at Stone-Tolan in suburban Brighton, fire extinguishers and burglar alarms in our house museums, etc.)

I’m sure some are shocked that someone like me, working in the historic preservation/history field, chooses to visit Las Vegas. Yes, I actually go there of my own free will! But I see much in common between the Las Vegas experiences and historic site experiences. They are both designed experiences, with a goal of eliciting responses from the visitor. They are both authentic, within their own parameters. And both can be enjoyable and educational ways to spend your vacation time

What are your vacation plans? Will you be seeking out “real” experiences? What does a “real” experience mean to you?

posted by Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education


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5 comments:

Blonde4ever said...

"Can an appreciation for the real stuff grow from the fake?"
I think it can, or, at the very least your interest can be piqued! In all likelihood, I will never make to Paris or Venice but I certainly enjoyed the small taste of it I got in Las Vegas.
Fascinating article! Thanks!

Blonde4ever said...

"Can an appreciation for the real stuff grow from the fake?"
I think it can, or, at the very least your interest can be piqued! In all likelihood, I will never make to Paris or Venice but I certainly enjoyed the small taste of it I got in Las Vegas.
Fascinating article! Thanks!

Kate said...

What a great post! I'm always an advocate for furthering education through what may seen as uneducated means - for example, watching Jane Austen movies eventually led me to Jane Austen books (I admit it.) I've no doubt that the majority of the tourists in Las Vegas ooh and aah over The Venetian and go home and never give it a second thought, but there's always a few who will be inspired.

The Landmark Society of Western New York said...

Thanks, Kate - I agree. I think of it as "stealth education."
Or you might call it the Mary Poppins approach - A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

I know some professionals speak disparagingly of "edu-tainment" but I think our field is learning we are not immune from having to meet the needs of the market. And our audiences have exponentially increasing sources of information, entertainment, and leisure activities.

As long as we are true to research, true to content, and true to our audience - we don't have to worry about turning our cultural sites into Disney. Or Vegas.

comment posted by Cindy Boyer

Jenny said...

Thanks for the thoughts Cindy! I believe that what Vegas offers, as marketing-guru Seth Godin would say, is a 'purple cow' - that thing that makes people ohh and ahh and, most importantly, return home and tell their friends about it.

At my new job I am always thinking about what makes us remarkable. But the most important thing is not that I realize it, but that I also get our community and guests to remark on it as well.

I think when people make the choice to visit a historic site they are, of course, interested in authenticity, but perhaps even more important is to find out what they are talking about after they leave...