Christina J. Hodge, MA, PhD, RPA
Senior Curatorial Assistant, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Boston University
The Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines time as a “space” or “extent of existence” and “the interval between two successive events or acts.” Timelines exemplify this definition. Entrenched methods of representing time’s passage, they assign social meaning as “history.” When we come across one in a book, exhibit, or presentation, we comprehend its string of dated moments and selective illustrations. Timelines are interdisciplinary and ubiquitous. Their superficial simplicity makes them a popular method of mediating engagement with the past and distilling complex processes for public consumption. Even when authorship is unclear, authority is implicit and strong. Imagining the between spaces, the elided events and edited convolutions, takes some effort. Or an intervention.
A timeline of city history is part of the décor of my home subway station, Davis Square on the Red Line in Somerville, Massachusetts. The station was completed in 1984, and most of its interior dates from that time. Structural elements are raw concrete, sheet aluminum, and dark purple-brown brick. The public art program at the station is conspicuously disjointed. Drawings by elementary school children have been transformed into ceramic wall tiles. Casabianca by Elizabeth Bishop is carved discreetly into the bricks of the platform floor. A collection of giant geometric shapes, splashed in now-murky primary colors, stretches above the inbound platform. The collage may or may not spell out “Davis.”
Figure 1. Interior of Davis Square Station, photograph by the author.
Text and art are enameled onto the gray metal sheath of a freestanding elevator shaft, spot lit within an arch of opposing escalators and an overhead walkway. This installation presents Davis Square’s history as a bustling commuter neighborhood while emphasizing the popularity of the still-thriving Somerville Theatre. A few historic photographs have been reproduced in large scale: the Davis Square intersection ca. 1900 is 10 feet tall; Tallulah Bankhead is roughly 4 feet, 11 inches. On the back of the shaft is a timeline.
13,500 BC Glacier formed “esker” hills
1620 Pilgrims landed at Plimoth
1630 John Winthrop lived on 600 acre farm in Somerville
1692 Witchcraft trials in Salem (now Danvers)
1775 Paul Revere and William Dawes rode to warn of British attack…
We learn that the first notable event of local history was perpetrated by a glacier; the BC date and focus on land making bring a biblical flavor to this commencement. Then, nothing, until the Pilgrims arrived, launching relevant human history. The 19th- and 20th-century events relate more specifically to Somerville’s commercial and commuting developments. This timeline ends in 1984 with the Red Line extension into the Davis Square.
I am a historical archaeologist and museum professional. I deal with materiality, representation, and public engagement every day. I work on the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project, an undergraduate course aiming to reveal forgotten aspects of local pasts. I admit, however, that I never paid much attention to the Davis installation until several months ago. On 15 December 2007, a friend pointed out some new graffiti on the Davis Square timeline.
Figure 2. Davis Square Station timeline, with graffiti (left) and after its removal (right), photographs by the author.
A concerned citizen had taken a black marker and changed local history. The title became “White Time Line.” A conversational entry was added between the glacier and the Pilgrims: “Um, Native Americans, wholly mammoths made an appearance.” A helpful editor emphatically corrected the spelling here to “WOOLY” (though I like “wholly mammoths” as a neologism for the irreducible nature of a certain iconic mega fauna). Someone else wrote “El Salvador #1” at about the same time, but this opinion was stricken and is not directly relevant to this discussion.
Of course: where were the Native Americans? More specifically, the Pawtucket and Massachusett people, within whose homelands Somerville is located. The easy equation of indigenous peoples with an extinct animal undermines the force of the critique, though perhaps its glibness is meant as sarcasm. At least someone recognized something vital was missing from this timeline and did something about it. Who he or she is, and what specific knowledge or experience was offended, we cannot know. For a while, however, the author reinserted Native Americans into our list of important Somerville moments.
This writing was not graffiti art, sensu the Graffiti Archaeology Project or Banksy. It reminded me of a contested Wikipedia entry—flagged as biased content by an outraged user, edited for accuracy and inclusiveness. Another member came along and edited for spelling, rather than content. What these writings do have in common with other graffiti, however, is their quasi-illicit nature. However public the walls of the MBTA, they are not intended as a public forum. The Davis errata were expunged a few weeks after they appeared. Faint, vestigial scratches of even earlier graffiti name tags are visible on the panel in a raking light, however, making the spot a palimpsest for the foreseeable future.
What use is graffiti? Studies suggest that, wherever and for as long as you had people, they were writing and drawing informally (and more or less appropriately) on architecture and things. Writing and drawing are used by those marginalized by social circumstance (for example the young, the imprisoned, the disenfranchised). Graffiti marks ownership, expresses opinions, and enacts rebellion and autonomy. It can be overtly or covertly about galvanizing political change, and it can appropriate and subvert popular cultural norms. As in Davis Square, graffiti transforms public spaces from didactic to discursive. Sites of graffiti embody spatial politics and poetics. Graffiti studies are not new. A range of theoretical positions has developed, all of which will sound familiar to archaeologists: Marxist analysis, identifying graffiti as “symbolic resistance” to hegemonic ideology; a contextual approach, focusing on authors, audiences, and situations; a literary approach that considers messages foremost as texts susceptible to critical analysis; and poststructuralist approaches that acknowledge multiplicity, situating productions of meaning within audiences as much as authors (Best 2003:829–830).
The uses of graffiti in Davis station were that it: 1) revealed the timeline’s pre-existing role as a history maker/signifier/authority; 2) undercut that authority; 3) compounded its agency, made it multi-vocal, so the timeline at once presented and questioned its historical representations. The insertion of an unofficial entry created a dialectic, where licit and illicit expressions drew meaning from each other. Viewers were involved in the imbroglio and engaged in the historical narrative itself. Bourdieu’s (1996) description of doxic change also comes to mind: naturalized and unacknowledged doxic beliefs were challenged (human history started at Plimoth), producing an instance of heterodoxy (“what about the Native Americans?”); the hegemonic view was then reinstated as orthodoxy (the original timeline was restored).
The timeline invites a consideration of anonymity and authority. The “History on the Line” project, which created the Davis timeline and similar installations in other Red Line stations, is named. Yet it comprises abstract and unstable institutions (the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology, primary designer, is a long defunct arm of the museum where I work). Institutional identities can obscure authority and subvert critique and dialogue. Graffiti—though broadly associated with name-marking—is also often anonymous. In this case, it was created by an unknown individual standing in for an equally faceless public, who called out the omission of another poorly qualified collective, “Native Americans.” We’re conditioned to accept timelines and other exhibit texts as authoritative (even in subway stations). Graffiti usually carries a different weight. In Davis Square station, however, the authors of sanctioned and unsanctioned texts were commensurate in both authoritative posturing and anonymity.
The Davis Square timeline’s longevity is secure, while the marker used to amend it was permanent only in name. Any apparent fixity within the official timeline—and of the past itself—was nevertheless revealed as susceptible to challenge and change. More than rewriting history, the Davis Square perpetrator overwrote it. The layering of this instance rings strongly with an archaeological sensibility. Whether this discursive battle has had any corrective effect remains to be seen; the MBTA’s signage program seems overall to be shifting in the wake of the Big Dig and its archaeological results.
A timeline is a pedagogical prop, rationalizing a history through an apparently linear, knowable, and inevitable series of moments. Elision, ambiguity, multiplicity are all sublimated. A timeline is an effective technique for communicating condensed information. It may embody necessary fictions, but are there other options for presenting the past? Who decides what/who is/is not there? Can any static representation of ongoing historical processes be satisfactory?
Figure 3. Davis Square Subway Station, in action; photograph by the author.
My gaze tended to slide over the Davis timeline because it was static, familiar, of the background; dangerous and powerful qualities (Miller 2005:5). I did not engage actively with it until after it was graffitied. I acknowledge the graffiti authors for bringing my attention to the installation and for amending it. They inspired me to bring professional agendas more critically to bear on everyday praxis. Whether we recognize it or not, we all engage in a physically- and textually-mediated dialogues with the writing on the wall.
2003. ‘Reading graffiti in the Caribbean context,’ Journal of Popular Culture, 36, 828–853.
1986. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste, translated by R. Nice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
2005. ‘Materiality: An Introduction.’ In Materiality, edited by D. Miller, Durham: Duke University Press, 1-50.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2008. ‘Time’ (accessed February 2008: http://dictionary.oed.com.ezp1.harvard.edu/cgi/entry/50252879).