Monday, 21 December 2009

Kitchens, smokehouses, and privies

[My review of Michael Olmert's Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies is published in the current TLS (Christmas double issue). The opening lines are below; full text is printed in the TLS (No. 5568/69). Cite this paper as Hicks, D. 2009. The Smallest Rooms. Times Literary Supplement 5568/5569: 35]

Michael Olmert 2009. Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: outbuildings and the architecture of daily life in the eighteenth-century mid-Atlantic. Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801447914 (cloth).

Since the late 19th century, a deeply canonical strand of architectural thinking has shaped how the historic environment is understood and debated in the eastern United States. The enactment of this idea of a canon of historic places and buildings is nowhere clearer than at Williamsburg, Virginia. From 1926 the Rockefeller-funded restoration programme pulled down 19th- and 20th-century buildings, reconstructing 18th-century structures on archaeological ‘footprints’. This landscape of freshly-cut timber and repointed brickwork came to operate not only as a Historic District and a theme park for ‘living history’ tourism and costumed interpretation, but also, like the adjacent self-consciously ‘historic campus’ of the College of William and Mary, as a place for envisioning America’s past and its English cultural pedigree.

In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Colonial Williamsburg became an iconic space for the weighing of celebratory narratives of great men and great houses against the new social histories of slavery and everyday material culture. To paraphrase Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s study of A New History in the Old Museum, 1930s historic reconstructionism created a place for 1980s historical constructionism.

Twelve years on from Handler and Gable’s book, Michael Olmert’s popular overview of the 18th-century outbuildings of the Chesapeake Tidewater already sits on display alongside his Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg in the Local Interest section of the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Duke of Gloucester Street, where Starbucks coffee is served beneath reproduction 1920s light fittings. But insofar as Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies represents an update on the scholarly after-effects of 20th-century preservationism, it highlights issues of much more than local concern....

[the rest of the review, in its edited form, is in the Christmas issue of the TLS]

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