La Torre del Tweet

I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of monuments and historic places. I’ve been to quite a few of them after all, being somewhat of a history buff. But I recently became fascinated by the ways in which historic sites and monuments can tell us some startling truths about the identity and culture of a people in our current times. Even though we as tourists go to a monument to “look at history”, the place we are visiting is never exactly like the original site, even taking into account the normal process of decay. We don’t like to admit this fact – visitors tend to think of historic places as frozen in time somewhat. That is, this place that we are visiting, it is exactly what and how the original builders meant it to be, and any restorations are in the spirit of the original construction. When we encounter evidence to the contrary it’s a bit jarring; for example, my sister came to visit me in my town here in the US and during our tour of the historic district, we learned that many of the houses and buildings had been moved from their original sites, which left us with a vague sense of disappointment. We wanted to see THE early American town, after all, not a reconstructed replica. Visitors to other historical sites are no different. When you visit Guernica, in the Basque Country of Spain, you want to see the actual, original Tree of Guernica, which no longer exists, by the way. The original tree is long since dead, and the second tree is a trunk sitting in a little gazebo. The third and current tree which is planted behind the house of government is genetically related to the Tree of Guernica . . . but it is a modern version by necessity. When you visit Toledo, you want to see the original Cristo de la Luz Mosque, although the name alone should tell you that the site did not remain in stasis. The building is still there, but the site was quickly appropriated for use as a church after the Reconquest.

Even the existence of the sites themselves reveal a modern bias and show what is currently important to a country and a culture. The things we save are the things we think are important enough TO save, after all. What we do with photographs and scrapbooks in our personal lives, countries do with their monuments, showcasing the important events of their histories. To take up the Guernica/Toledo example again, in Guernica my tourist map showed me which buildings were original and thus had survived the Civil War bombing, and which were reconstructed. It also highlighted the Basque government offices and a museum of Basque history. Toledo’s map, apart from being full of museums, pointed out the current or previous location of every synagogue and mosque within the old city walls. Now, are there mosques in the Basque Country? Definitely. Synagogues? Yes, although on the French side. Did Toledo suffer damage in the Civil War? Yup. But the focal point of each area’s history, the central identity of each town, is reflected in the sites that Guernica and Toledo found historically important.

The point is, although most tourists go to a site to learn about what is past, historic sites are not static and they refuse to remain in the past – instead they show the march of time as well as highlight current concerns and opinions at least as much as they showcase an area’s history. This has often been controversial – after all, how long has it taken to construct the Sagrada Familia? But I find it fascinating that sites that are quite old have so much to say about current cultural identity.

 

These thoughts have been rattling around in my head ever since I read a fascinating article called ¿Publicidad en la Alhambra? (no English version, sorry). The Alhambra is the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, and seriously, if you have never been there, you need to go. Anyway, recently Granada was host to the first ever Twitter conference, which took place June 20-21, 2013. Apart from being surprised that this was the first ever Twitter conference, I was also a little confused as to why Granada was chosen as the location for the inaugural event. After all, when most people think about Granada, they think of . . . the Alhambra. (Seriously, just go visit already). Not exactly part of the Twitter Generation.

Since Granada is a city so steeped in the past, it’s not too surprising that some eyebrows were raised at the projection of the Twitter logo onto the Torre de la Vela for the duration of the 48 hour conference. But I assumed that the eyebrows were due to the clash of old and new and the use of a historic monument for promoting, well, anything. I thought that the controversy stemmed from the view that historical monuments should be representations of a static past, the same issue that has plagued restorations and gift shops around the world.

Not so. The Alhambra has been host to numerous modern messages throughout the years, with the Torre de la Vela proudly displaying posters protesting the widespread eviction problem in Spain, calling people to a general strike, and even publicly disagreeing with administrative changes in a local art gallery. The real issue here is using the side of the Torre de la Vela to show ADVERTISING, to specifically disseminate a message intended to influence people to use a particular good or service. It seems that the intent of the message matters when it comes to putting it on a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The issue is not that the Alhambra must always remain the same as it was when Ferdinand and Isabella stormed the city in 1492. The issue is using a symbol of Moorish history and therefore Andalucian culture (very important) as a commercial for Twitter (not important), although it may be used to highlight other important causes, like worker’s rights and economic suffering. And I think this says something a bit deeper about the nature of the Alhambra’s importance, something that goes beyond “the history of Spain”. The Alhambra and its history belong to the people of Spain in the way popular movements do and the global economy does not. The debate over advertising on the Torre de la Vela throws into relief the importance of the Alhambra to Spanish culture, not because it is a thing that was built in the past, not because it was historically important, but because it represents a current, modern collective identity. Although it is a historic site, it allows for modern usage within certain boundaries, and those boundaries can deepen our understanding of Spanish culture today.

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