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