In my last blog, I wrote about amusement parks in Maryland. In that strange way serendipity works, I was inspired to write about a similar theme this week. On a recent commute, I was listening to a “Stuff You Missed in History” podcast about the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland. I had no idea the building that served as the inspiration for the Haunted Mansion was the Evergreen House on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. A quick Google Image search on both buildings confirmed the similarities between them (Figures 1 and 2).
The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland is set in New Orleans Square, an area within the theme park based on 19th-century New Orleans. Designers of the haunted house searched to no avail in that city and throughout the Deep South for architectural inspiration for the Haunted Mansion. The inspiration came instead from a mid-19th century Gilded Age mansion in Baltimore, once home to the railroad magnate Garrett family and now a 48-room museum and library. The museum’s website describes the facility as “an intimate collection of fine and decorative arts, rare books and manuscripts assembled by two generations of the philanthropic Garrett family, and a vibrant, inspirational venue for contemporary artists” (Evergreen 2014).
Interestingly enough (and fortuitously for me!), the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab has a number of archaeological artifacts that once formed part of the Evergreen House collection. While some of these artifacts are from Maryland, many of them are from other parts of the world and include arrow points and other stone tools from the American West, as well as items from Europe. The object I have chosen for this week’s blog is a Neolithic period stone tool identified in the collection notes as a Danish hammer or ax (Figure 3). This artifact was from the collections of Alfred Marshall Mayer, born in Baltimore in 1836 (Figure 4). Mayer studied and published broadly in several fields of science and was a collector of all manner of natural history specimens. During the 1880s, he was particularly interested in Stone Age Europe and it is likely that the hammer became part of his collection at this time (Mayer and Woodward 1915:257). Mayer’s connection to the Evergreen House almost certainly came through his father, Charles Frederick Mayer. Senator Mayer served as an attorney for the B & O Railroad, which at the time was owned by the Garrett family.
Now, this Danish ax has nothing directly to do with Maryland history, other than being an object of study for a noted Maryland scientist and scholar. So the larger theme of this week’s blog is about how portions of the past – both material objects and less tangible factors like ideas and styles are sometimes removed from their original contexts to serve other purposes. We have Mayer’s notes about his lithic collection, but they contain little information about how and where individual objects were obtained. In archaeology, context is everything; this Danish tool is an interesting object, but tells us less about the past than it could if it were part of an assemblage of artifacts from a known site. Thus, modern scholars are left to contrive more or less accurate (depending on one’s knowledge of the Danish Neolithic) stories about it. My knowledge of the European Neolithic could fit in a thimble, so I am left asking questions like: Is it even an ax or hammer like Mayer concluded?[i] Or is it possible that it was an atlatl weight or even some household object? When was it discarded? Was it originally found with other objects that could have shed light on its past? Because it has been removed from its archaeological context and came to us alongside chunkey stones from the Midwest, pitted stones from Ireland, and ground stone axes from the United States, we will probably never know.
The same disconnect holds true for the Disneyland attraction. While the Evergreen House was clearly the inspiration for the Haunted Mansion, the Disney version diverged from the original, as Disneyland designers physically placed their notions of an appropriate past on this structure. Most obviously, it has been ornamented with first and second story porches and New Orleans-style wrought iron railings. While the large trees and sweeping walkway in front of the house ooze southern charm, the illusion of being in a nineteenth-century city is surely hard to maintain with the sight (and sounds) of Thunder Mountain looming up, clearly visible in the distance. The present intrudes on the past, more obviously in some instances than in others. Similarly, archaeologists and historians have difficulty avoiding letting their own experience of the world affect the ways they interpret the past. This idea is not a new one – scholars have penned miles of ink on this topic.
So, where I am going with all of this? I did not start out to pen such a philosophical blog, but perhaps the fact that I am headed to Capitol Hill this week to lobby for historic preservation has factored into my mental musings. The very fact that Disney would choose to re-create an antebellum mansion for its haunted house speaks to the importance of the past – the allure of past times, the thrill of ghosts (and artifacts) from the past reaching out to touch us today.
Evergreen 2014 Evergreen Museum and Library. Website http://www.museums.jhu.edu/evergreen.php accessed 2-24-2014.
Fjellman, Stephen M. 1992 Vinyl Leaves; Walt Disney World and America. Westview Press.
Mayer, Woodward 1915 Biographical Memoir of Alfred Marshall Mayer, 1836-1896. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Biographical Memoirs, Part of Volume VIII. Available at http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/mayer-alfred.pdf. Accessed 2-25-2015.
[i] My trusty colleague, Ed Chaney, did some internet research to confirm that these objects are described as battle axes (probably more ceremonial than functional), and are even used to define a Late Neolithic European culture.