The Plaque Effect
I recently made a presentation at the University of Mary Washington and in the course of discussing what architectural historians do, I mentioned the role we play in evaluating the historical significance of buildings. I pointed to the 6th Savannah Symposium that we hosted that looked at World Heritage and National Registers and the impact on how we view history whenever we place a plaque on a building. A comparison came to mind that had not occurred to me before: to put a plaque on a building is like putting an object into an art gallery, much like Marcel Duchamp’s notorious “Fountain”. In other words, does a plaque invest a building with immediate historical credibility that would otherwise go unappreciated in the same way an object gains artistic credibility the moment it is displayed in an art gallery? In the context of the current mania for placing plaques everywhere, are we setting up a situation where only through the presence of a plaque might the general public recognize “history,” leaving anything without a plaque, regardless of age or historical significance, to be deemed insignificant and consequently ignored?