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The High Line

January 16, 2013

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Museums have a tendency to classify history; objects are collected, accessioned, stored and some will be used as part of a narrative to frame a larger story, one which is usually topped and tailed by the nature of the interpretation process.  These objects are transformed in this context and acquire something of an aura.  This is something of an academic process and it’s part of what makes museums such places of high culture.

The built environment is much more difficult to classify in this way.  This sort of heritage has a multiplicity of uses over time, it can’t be accessioned, and their physical size makes it much more difficult to place it in a museum context.  Because these buildings need a great deal more upkeep than your average object, they have a tendency to be opened to the public as a nice day out rather than a serious academic study.  Built heritage is awkward like that.

But just as museum objects are re-interpreted from generation to generation, buildings are too, though for the built environment this may often be out of a museum context. As the western world has de-industrialised we’ve seen a variety of industrial buildings re-purposed.  Tate Modern, for example, was once Bankside power station and it is a comment on Britain’s relationship to its own history that such a building has been repurposed for the cultural industry.

In New York City a similar situation has occurred with the high rise train track that once brought food and manufactured goods into the city.  Called the High Line, it fell out of use as the New York economy changed and it wasn’t long before it became something of an eyesore.  Sections of it were destroyed and the rest fell into disrepair and was marked for demolition as the re-gentrification of the area gathered pace toward the end of the 20th century.  Some interested parties wanted to save it, however, including the rail company itself.

The noted photographer Joel Sternfeld was given permission to photograph along its route and created a wonderful collection of images about the past and present of the High Line.  Here’s a short clip about it in which Sternfeld speaks quite eloquently about a disused rail track.  As the photographer says, ‘every inch is absolutely authentic’.

Over time the battle for the High Line was won by the conservationists and over a few years the disused rail was transformed into a hugely successful urban park that now has over three million visitors a year.  The High Line is a triumph of how the built environment has been transformed from its original function of hard industry through urban wilderness and now to parkland.  If it had been possible to put it in a museum this never could have occurred, those sorts of interventions don’t happen to objects in a museum for obvious reasons.  it’ part of the remarkable nature of the built environment.

You can read more about the High Line on their official website here and you can see more of Sternfeld’s images here.  There’s also a 14 minute movie and more about the history of the High Line here.

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