Something that always strikes me when I am in other countries is how much history and the present live side by side. I have always been a little jealous of people who get to live their daily lives where the signs say “established 1300” or “offering hospitality since 1411” (the picture below shows one of those signs from when I was in Salisbury, England). To preserve the past keeps it from becoming something you only read about in textbook, if even that. It would be irresponsible of us to erase the past from our daily lives, especially considering that it is because of the past that we are here.
Having a physical reminder of our history can also give us a greater appreciation for how people lived in the past (think hardwood, backless, benches instead of a reclining La-Z-Boy, or a communal bench toilet a la Pompeii versus individual bathroom stalls today with hot running water). Keeping history alive in the present can also help make the past more real, or relatable. If you walk through Pompeii you can see ancient graffiti for or against some gladiators…people still communicate via graffiti today.
Yes, in America we have a history, and in many places parts of it are preserved (like in Philadelphia and Boston), but more frequently the impetus is on being new and modern. This is all within reason of course. After the San Francisco earthquake, the city naturally had to be rebuilt. After 9/11 there was a lengthy discussion about what to do at Ground Zero and ultimately the decision to rebuild was made. As new technologies and safety standards emerge, much of the time they should be integrated into daily life (think 1905 tenements versus today’s apartment buildings, or using electric lights instead of candles in a printshop). However, there is definitely a time and place to preserve history and to keep it alive.
So how can we keep history alive? Don’t tear it down and don’t build over it. Don’t act like it doesn’t matter just because it’s in the past, and don’t act like it didn’t happen even if it is a sensitive topic/event. Teach it in school. Understand how it relates to us, and affects us, in the present. In Rwanada, some buildings still bear the scars of the genocide as a memorial to victims. Fragments of the Berlin Wall remain; in London the outer walls of some museums still have the damage caused by bombs dropped during WW2 (as seen in the pictures above and below I took while studying abroad in London); Auschwitz still stands as a stark reminder of what people have done to each other and what we are capable of surviving.
Sometimes you need appreciate the dichotomy of standing in front of an 80-story skyscraper which is next to a bakery that has been operating for 150 years while retaining as much of its history and authenticity as possible. It’s nice to have that reminder of how far we’ve come, yet how similar we are to our historical counterparts–who doesn’t like a cinnamon roll, whether in 1780 or 2016 🙂 It’s also nice to think that if we put a little effort into preserving even just a bit of history, and keeping a bit of the past alive, future generations might do the same for us.