Mary Beard on the Canonisation of monuments

I missed this first time around: bldgblog interviewed Mary Beard, author of The Roman Triumph, back in 2007.

On editing the Wonders of the World series of books:

How much thought goes into choosing the actual sites?

Quite a lot. This started off by me wanting to write about the Parthenon… we want to range from the absolutely bog-standard, normative greatest hits that would be on anybody’s idea of a Wonder of the World, while, at the same time, we want to increase the range of those Wonders. There’s a trade off there, between not wanting to be boringly predictable, and, on the other hand, not wanting to be maverickly odd. …But I don’t know how far you can go down that line of being subversive. …One of the things that I’ve often said is: I wonder what happens if you do Auschwitz? Can you do sites of horror? Can you turn wonder around in that way? It would be hard to know how to do that in the series in a way that isn’t mawkish or that, in some way, makes the monument tawdry. It’s hard to know.

…I want these books to open up culture and history, as well as dissent about culture and history, through the contested life stories of individual monuments and wonders – real or imaginary. I think it’s about using a single object – a single monument, a single wonder – as a kind of window onto not just culture and history but also the controversies of culture and history.

Do you see the series going on to include non-European sites?

We have got the Forbidden City coming up, and the Taj Mahal, too – but there’s a striking lacuna… America, North or South… I’m also interested in natural wonders: the Grand Canyon is only made a natural wonder by cultural re-appropriation. Without that, it’s just a canyon.

…but, in the end, if all you did was invest in the margins, without re-looking – and I think it is a radical re-looking – at some of the things which seem more familiar, it would be a bit of a waste.

On choosing authors:

…I think the key is the kind of marriage you make between the writer and the monument – how you can make it work by getting the pairing right… it’s about being a kind of dating agency.

who the books are for. …I call them the intelligent ignorant.

Part 2

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