Maintaining Utopia: Old Economy Village & Preparing for Eternity
2020-05-15T15:31:34Z (GMT) by
From 2017–2018, I spent six months at Old Economy Village (OEV) to learn more about historic maintenance. Located along 18 miles northwest of Pittsburgh OEV “preserves and presents the life, thought, and material culture of the Harmony Society,” a religious, utopian, and socialist separatist community that settled in Pennsylvania in 1805.
This paper examines the turbulent creation of the National Historic Landmark in 1916 and the site’s contemporary preservation practices as a larger meditation on the logic and challenges of historicization.
Focusing on a humorous self-portrait of John Duss, the final Harmonist trustee, this thesis presents Duss’s story as a central figure in the creation of the historic site and the memory of the Harmonists. Duss’s narrative serves as a reminder of the flawed nature of museums at large and the politicized role of the State in constructing history and national mythology.
Through site-specific fieldwork, the paper develops the term “accidental parody” to describe moments in the OEV collection, such as Duss’s portrait, that are productive for challenging dominant systems of power and categorization. Such moments reveal how historical narratives are constructed and make visible the holes, breaks of character, and collapsing myths. Accidental parody can highlight the failures and impossibility of reproduction, existence of deterioration and decay within preservation, and the inadequacies of the systems we live in to do what they proclaim.
Ultimately, the paper argues for the necessity of a politic of care and social responsibility within historic preservation. Environmental and ideological conditioning collapse within practices of preservation. National mythology is naturalized and propped up by places demarcated as worth the labor of remembering. Care advocates for a more critical and flexible system of historic preservation that forefronts the ability to adapt and accounts for change, incongruity, and bias. This ethic of care realizes the impossibility of replicating the world that was, and utilizes history to speak to the past in relationship to the world that is.