Public history and Baudrillard

Just stumbled across the incredible news that a $100 million dollar 35,000-sq ft vistitor center will be built next to the Vietnam memorial in Washington - at ten times the original cost of the monument itself.

A totally unnecessary, gratuitous project is born. Or is it gratuitous?

Journalist Steven Knipp has a very interesting take on this: these are remedial learning centers. He gets support from a planner who says
"What's going to happen in two generations when we have a whole society of people for whom the wall is just a list of names?" she asks. "Without knowing their personal sacrifices … it's just a wall with names on it."
May already be that.

The thing that intrigues me is that the government doesn't just inform, it seeks to stimulate interest in an existing historical site with a visitor center. The Center provides the rationale for why you stopped. It reinforces the "buy decision," to use an old marketing meme. Moreover, the visit can mean nothing to the kinds of numbers sites seek to attract without a center.

One difference, however, between a war memorial and say Mount Vernon is that the visitor's center at a memorial won't just inform, it is going to cue the emotional reaction of the visitor. It's going to help the tourist simulate "appropriately." The confused tourist will feel twinges of artificial grief.

Baudrillard could have had visitor centers in mind when he wrote: "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory." The map here is the visitor center - a map that brings forth the experience of the memorial (or battlefield).

If I can augment a quote from Felluga Dino's Baudrillard page: "There is no longer any distinction between reality [battlefield, monument] and its representation [visitor center experience/information]."

As for other kinds of representation preceding the reality, Knipp quotes a teen visitor to the National Mall: "This is where they made that Forrest Gump movie!"