I am spending the summer as an artist in residence at Old Economy Village (OEV), a historic site and museum located in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission OEV "preserves and presents the life, thought, and material culture of the Harmony Society, a highly successful and entrepreneurial 19th century religious community." The separatist community fled persecution in Germany and settled in Old Economy in 1824 after earlier stints in Pennsylvania Indiana. The community was communist and communal in its inward structure while simultaneously capitalist in its outward economic relationships – embracing and investing in the Industrial Revolution and other entrepreneurial tactics to sustain the society and future goals. The Harmonists' experience speaks to the complexities and history of American settlement, industrialization, and Westward expansion. The Harmonists were fairly radical and non-hierarchical compared to many of their European-American contemporaries. However, the Harmonists (and how they are portrayed) embody and bolster ideas of independence, freedom (economic and religious) and capitalism that have long been embedded and naturalized in American (self)consciousness – ideas which are often mobilized in service of nationalism, political ideology, colonialism, and the entrenchment of power hierarchies. I am writing this section of the post (6/1, though post stamped 5/24/17) in the wake of Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and other "America First" policies and nationalistic rhetoric. It's important to consider what American heritage sites (in general) emphasize and what they ignore, what they deem worth remembering.
As I'm writing this, I think to myself: what are the intersections between ideological, historic maintenance and physical, practical and literal historic maintenance?
OEV administers six acres including original buildings and recreated gardens. The collection is home to roughly 16,000 objects ranging from original furniture and paintings to store ledgers, mail correspondence and the coded traces of practicing alchemists.
While I find the history on site interesting, I am drawn to examining historicity more generally: how histories and historic sites are archived, interpreted, recreated, and represented to the public. During my first two weeks at OEV, I will shadow as many staff members and volunteers as possible in a type of Living History of Historic Maintenance. Over this time, I hope to get to know staff and the site better. These two weeks will be an introduction to OEV as I consider what composes and is required for historic maintenance before I fully jump into the residency in July and August,