Rethinking the Role of the Landscape in Historic Interpretation: A Constructivist Design Approach to Interpreting Slavery in Appalachian Virginia

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Virginia Tech


This thesis explores how the landscape, or the physical environment in general, can play a more active, meaningful role in historical site interpretation for the public. It asserts that the landscape can serve not merely as a passive backdrop or stage set for interpretation but as an active tool for communicating important understandings about history. To accomplish this, a constructivist approach to design—one that emphasizes the direct interaction between the individual visitor and the physical site as the origin of meaning—is presented. The Constructivist Design Approach (CDA) emphasizes the manipulation of form, scale, materials, and path to facilitate visitors' physical, psychological, and emotional immersion in their environment. The CDA was developed from three research areas: an epistemological grounding in constructivism, ritual theory, and case studies of built works that promote the interaction of visitor and site.

Application of the CDA to historical site interpretation is explored through a conceptual design proposal for an Appalachian slavery interpretive complex in Southwestern Virginia, which interprets mountain slavery from the slaves' perspective. Through direct interaction with the landscape of the participatory living history complex, visitors deepen their understanding of how mountain slaves perceived, moved through, and appropriated the landscape for their survival.

The design project indicates that the CDA can enhance the effectiveness of interpretive programs. It also reveals the importance of ongoing collaboration between landscape architects and historians throughout project development in order to achieve a physical site design that effectively incorporates and reflects interpretive content and objectives.



slavery, landscape architecture, constructivism, historical interpretation, experiential design