Here is another brief brain jotting as I take a break from writing TrendsWatch 2015.
I’ve been vastly enjoying blog postsand tweets from Frank Vagnone, author of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums. I love the way he systematically challenges every assumption about what a house museum is and how they operate. He inspired me to set my imagination loose on reinventing the genre, and here’s my nugget of an idea for an historic house I would like to visit: the Museum of Alternative Histories.
Alt history is the imaginative fiction of “what if?” It starts by identifying a key event that shaped our current world, and asks how things may have played out had that event taken a different turn. (Here is a list of such “what if” questions and associated fiction.) Livy pioneered the genre in about 25 BC when he explored what might have happened had Alexander the Great marched his armies west instead of east, and gone to war with Rome. In 1836 Louis Geoffroy imagined what would have happened had Napoleon successfully invaded first Russia and then England. Given the wealth of (real) historical detail an author can draw on in crafting these scenarios, alt history is a useful exercise in how to explore the Cone of Plausibility, and develop skills for imagining the various ways history might play out from this time forward.
Enter the alt-historic house. I imagine a house, in Charleston, say, which reflects three histories of the United States: the one that actually occurred (at least in our timeline); one in which the Confederacy staved off the Union and the South became a sovereign nation; and one based on the premise of Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, which imagines a world in which John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry succeeded, leading to a full-scale slave revolt and the establishment of an independent black nation called Novo Africa.
[The daguerreotype above, for example, could depict Ms. Sarah, a slave belonging to the Harris family of Charleston, Ms. Sarah Harris, free woman of color, or Ms. Sarah Harris, personal secretary to the finance minister of Novo Africa.]
There are a number of ways the interpretation could play out:
The “house” could in fact be three adjacent row houses. The experience starts at a kiosk outdoors, where a visitor chooses the outcome of a key event, and then is directed to the house that reflects the consequence of that turn of fate. The interior of each house is a snapshot in time, as if the residents had just stepped out and might be back any minute. There might be a meal half-eaten at the table, dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, an unmade bed. By perusing the photographs on the walls, reading the correspondence lying on the desk, even peeking into the account book for the household, visitors are encouraged to deduce who lives there, and how their lives were affected by the key event. The three houses will be designed to echo each other in ways that play up both the similarities and difference between the timelines.
Alternately, there could be one house, almost empty (perhaps containing some basic furnishings). Visitors could trigger the interpretation for any of the three timelines through their smart phone (recordings, augmented reality overlays for the rooms, biographic notes on the residents).
Or, a la China Miéville’s The City and the City, evidence of all three timelines could exist physically in one house, at one time. The visitor would be challenged to untangle the clues, deducing which artifact, which bit of evidence, belonged to which version of history. As in the redoubtable Museum of Jurassic Technology, the contents of the house would be a combination of the absolutely true, the slightly warped, and inspired fictions, and it would take a bit of detective work for a visitor to unravel what fit into which category.
I love the way MJT keeps me on my mental toes. That little element of doubt makes me examine every label with extra care, and puts the responsibility for making a determination about “truth” back on my shoulders (where, in the end, it should always belong). An historic house with the same playful approach could encourage people to understand that history is not inevitable, but contingent. And that history that runs in the other direction (into the future) is contingent as well. That, in turn, might remind people that they are active players in determining the direction our timeline will take, and that they themselves are powerful agents of change. Well, I’m going back to writing TW15, now, but I’d love to hear your reactions to my idea for an alt-historic house, and also your best idea for re-envisioning that sector of the field.