March 6, 2009

Model Histories

Last week I went to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, which is always an interesting place to look at the intersection between history and tourism. I have been to this mission dozens of times in my life, but every time I go there seems to be something new that I find. During this most recent visit I was struck by a fairly innocuous diorama that is located in a small hallway along the corridors. It is, literally, history reconstructed. What was especially fascinating were some of the comments that I overheard as I was taking a few photographs of individual scenes. Here are just a couple*:

"If you want to see how it really was, then look at these."

"Wow, it looks like the Indians really needed the Mission."

"Look, they're teaching the Indians."

The local Native people are depicted in spartan, if not simplistic terms. The Spanish, in contrast, have the books, the power, and the ideas. The construction of the mission is depicted as a natural progression from the first scene to the last. The hallway in which the diorama is located is on the narrow side, so people pass through it quickly and a little awkwardly. They really do not spend too much time looking--at least when I was there people basically passed through quickly.

The models, in a sense, become passive substitutes for the actualities of history. The question is how much quaint little models like these actually influence how people think about the past. do they just pass by, take little notice, and move on? Or do such displays add to their collective understanding of the histories of places such as the Capistrano mission? I was also wondering who made the diorama, and what their original intentions were. What sources did they use to create these historical scenes?

Here is the point that I think sometimes gets missed as tourists pass by displays like this: Somebody made this diorama, for specific reasons, to convey particular messages about history and the past. Politics infuse even those most seemingly benign aspects of tourist/history sites. Or, maybe I'm just reading too much into it all...

*These quotes are not exact, but pretty close to what I overheard that day, since I did not have a notepad with me. Do you believe me?


Conor said...

ahhh look how cute. The missionaries are teaching the savages to read. Theyre even starting to work harder. Those Indians have such good work ethic!

do i sound like a tourist?

R.A. said...

such a tourist, such a tourist. the old town stuff has really gotten to you, hasn't it?

Ben Hernandez said...

I like the picture of the friar and the soldier discussing what is to be done with these heathens.

I'm just glad the Indians helped them out by volunteering to make bricks and build the mission for them.

I think people do both: They pass right on by because it's too much effort to find the real story and some stop and take the "real" story at face value. But the mission historians should be the ones to correct this stuff.

Colleen said...

Notice how all of the Indians are the same guy. Crazy.

R.A. said...


ha. that's right. weird. I do think there was ONE that looked a little different, but you're right, all of the rest have surprising little variation. I suppose whoever made it felt that was enough to represent them. The old "well they all look the same after all" mentality? Or just sculptural laziness?