The cultural resource management realm is a strangely siloed one, where historians, biologists, archeologists, landscape architects, and other professionals cross paths but don't necessarily work together over time, something that probably contributes in an indirect way to the struggle that many historic sites have in building close relationships with working farms. We all have our specialized languages and methods, and although we're often talking about the same things, we don't often talk with each other, let alone with people who may actually be working and using the land we're studying. Movement is often centripetal, continually focusing our attention inward to our own disciplines and professions rather than outward in more expansive and inclusive ways.
Ethan Carr (left), a professor in the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Ethan's students have been working on new design ideas for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, on which my recent Ethnographic Landscape Study (about to be released imminently, I hope!) was focused. The students' plans centered largely (although not entirely) around agriculture, particularly on the need for structures, paths, views, and interpretive facilities that will enable the park to tell a broader story about farming at this site, perhaps in partnership with Roxbury Farm, the large CSA farm now cultivating the fields.
Like me, Ethan's students benefited from the unusually cohesive body of existing scholarship commissioned by this park, particularly the two previous cultural landscape reports. Unlike me, though, they had only a very short time--a single semester--to get to know the site. Based on what they were able to glean from a handful of site visits and some familiarity with the earlier studies, they produced proposals for various ways to re-narrativize the landscape and enable visitors to come into closer physical and interpretive contact with past and present farming here.
The subtler plans left a different kind of blank space--a dialogic one that made room for visitors to ponder the existing farm operations in a more open-ended way. The most effective designs made room for the kind of looking and listening that might--for attentive visitors--foster greater depth of awareness and understanding of what was around them in both space and time. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the simplest proposals that looked as though they would do that best--a classic case of "less is more."