What’s Past Is Prologue

The Museum of London worked poems into its displays. Two I particularly enjoyed. One argued that the past is in every aspect of the modern world, especially in buildings. The author emphasized structures as the past shaping the present. Path dependency appears in many disciplines by highlighting how important influences on an eventual outcome can be exerted by temporally remote events, even chance elements. The effect is captured nicely by Tolstoy: “The very action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history.”

Buildings, then, are not subtle about their influence. Roman walls shaped the city of London. How appropriate it was that a Church from the eleventh century sat next to the museum, where services continue to this day. How many people has it caused to walk those streets and sit in those confines over the course of a thousand years?

So these buildings affect the society that grows around them, but as times change so must they. The iconic red telephone booths throughout London have been repurposed to wifi hotspots. The Westminster Abbey, too, has changed its role over time. Originally intended to be a royal burial house, the site has moved through royal coronations to cathedral services to tourism. But even graves are impermanent, as Tom explained, for some monuments are cut out to make room for others. This act of changing a building’s function over time led Jeremy to point out an interesting phenomenon in religious studies: spiritual tourism. The intersection of tourism and religion repurposes the underlying structure. In the Abbey, plaques commemorating the dead are side by side plaques detailing which number tourists should hit play on their audio guides.

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