Saturday, November 14, 2009

the Everyday as Artifact - 'Motel of the Mysteries'

"In 1985 a cataclysmic coincidence of previously unknown proportion extinguished virtually all forms of life on the North American Continent.
" In spite of the number of significant clues, however, the picture of these fascinating people (the 'Yanks' of the Usa)remained disturbingly incomplete until forty years ago (4022), when Howard Carsons startling discovery at the Motel of the Mysteries.
" The mysterious burial customs of the late twentieth-century North American were finally (and as it turned out, magnificently) to be revealed."

All from 'Motel of the Mysteries' by David Macaulay

Long time readers here know that the way surviving artifacts can (or can not) define the past is of great interest to me. (see an earlier article "Aunt Martha's and Damthings")

'Motel of the Mysteries' is both insightful - and delightful. Macaulay takes a world with which we are familiar (the strip-mall motel of the late 1970's), and transposes it through the imagined viewpoint of future civilization (still much like Victorian England). The presentation is as an exhibit catalogue, complete with background on the 'find', short 'interpretations' of the featured 'artifacts' and even details on the available 'replicas and reproductions' from the gift shop.

I had used the book as a text when I taught the 'Interpreting the Viking Age' college level course in 2000. It is a wonderful example of how our present day bias shapes our view of the past. Although admittedly this volume is primarily an entertaining read, it also certainly illustrates how misconceptions build on wild ass guesses to often create a vision of the past - that is just plain dead wrong.

The first book I had seen (back in the late 1970's) with this type of stance was called (something like) 'The Age of Aquarians'. As with 'Motel', this book was presented as a future exhibit catalogue, only this case (mis)interpreting objects common to the late 1960's. I never did have my own copy of that volume, and a fast web search this morning did not find any references to it. (??)

Curiously - in a case of Life Imitating Art, I did come across this article:
Former commune is site of archaeological dig
Too weird!

I certainly highly recommend that anyone seriously involved in living history, or museum work, acquire and read Macauly's 'Motel of the Mysteries'.

The single page scan from 'Motel of Mysteries' is used without permission in this review. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979 - ISBN 0-395-28425-2
The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from Houghton Mifflin.

1 comment:

Hayden said...

Thanks for this tip. I'll pick it up.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

COPYRIGHT NOTICE - All posted text and images @ Darrell Markewitz.
No duplication, in whole or in part, is permitted without the author's expressed written permission.
For a detailed copyright statement : go HERE