Behind the abandoned arena from the 1964 World’s Fair New York State Pavilion is a squat granite cylinder. It reads:
THE TIME CAPSULES
SEPTEMBER 23, 1938
OCTOBER 16, 1965
WESTINGHOUSE ELECTRIC CORPORATION
AS A RECORD OF
TWENTIETH CENTURY CIVILIZATION
TO ENDURE FOR 5,000 YEARS
Carefully constructed not to degrade for five millennia they contain everything from Beatles records and Sears catalogues to tobacco seeds and a guest book signed by visitors. To help locate the time capsules in five thousand years, copies of a “Book of Record” were dispersed to libraries around the world.
Five thousand years is an awfully long time. Did they really believe it would work? Earlier time capsules have been opened to reveal rotted-out contents, “wet crud“. Look on the internet and you’ll find places telling you what to put into a time capsule so they can endure for “thousands of years“. There’s no predicting the next five years, let alone the next five thousand. We look around us at what feels to be a stable world. But we are insects. The languages we speak, the countries we live in, the names we have for cities: none of these existed five thousand years ago.
What are these time capsules trying to say? What will a Beatles record or Dick Tracy comic mean to people in 6939? They are the ephemera of ants. They seem important from the perspective of an ant. The end product of a civilisation, they tell us nothing of the method of production or of the people who produced them.
Should we then ban Dick Tracy and The Beatles from time capsules? What would be the point?
It all depends on what the time capsule is trying to say and who its talking to. Writers of history tell the history they want others to read. And they talk about the things that interest them. For instance, I doubt very much that the 1938 time capsule dwells for long on how the west was doing nothing to help the Jews in central Europe. And I doubt there’s a mention of the 1964 fighting between the Greeks and Turks in Crete in the latter capsule.
History can be so parochial, can’t it?
Around 311BC, Thucydides wrote a highly parochial history of the war between Sparta and Athens, claiming it to be the most important conflict of all time. It looks so small now, doesn’t it? But he did make a good point: that “human nature, being what it is, these events will repeat themselves” in one form or another throughout history.
Thucydides filtered his whole history around this. He attempted to objectively analyse the human psyche. He failed—of course—but it’s a fascinating read.
These time capsules are just bundles of paraphernalia. There’s no “why” behind them. If the artefacts in here are truly important, why deny access to them for five thousand years? Won’t that just hurt five thousand years of historical studies?
At the time of Alexander the Great, received wisdom was that there were five great Athenian playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander. By the Renaissance we only had access to a few works by the first four. Menander remained a mystery beyond a few quotations. As modern scholarship grew, our understanding of Athenian theatre was stymied by Menander’s absence.
Then in 1882, we started digging in the rubbish dumps outside the ancient town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Guess what we found? Plays by Menander. Our understanding of ancient theatre was transformed.
I am so grateful for the rubbish dumps of the ancients. They served as an inadvertent time capsule. It’s a shame we had to wait so long, but it had to be this way. But now we know better. Preservation and continued access are key and what we should strive for. Preservation through denial however, represents failure. As an attempt at being historically helpful, the whole idea behind a time capsule is misguided.
But I’ve made an assumption, haven’t I? I’ve assumed that the 1938 and 1964 World’s Fair time capsules were designed to say something meaningful to people of the future. As I researched this post, I realised that they weren’t. They were the idea of George Edward Pendray (he even coined the term “time capsule” to describe them). He was in charge of Westinghouse Electric’s publicity during the 1938 World’s Fair.
There you have it. They were a publicity stunt. These time capsules weren’t designed to help or inform mankind five thousand years from now. They were a celebration of the trash and ephemera of contemporary life. By bottling it up and sealing them off, that disposable pack of cigarettes and that Mickey Mouse comic become elevated. The mindless nothings of everyday life are celebrated. The endless days of the drudgery of millions are made to seem important by sweeping that drudgery under the carpet and focusing on what could be bought with the money earned. Rather than help anyone, these time capsules wallow in the lives of us ants and do nothing to inspire and nothing to help and are merely a gimmick to publicise the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
The two time capsules are a meaningless curiosity, a weird advertisement that has long outlasted the company that put them there.
The Westinghouse Time Capsules, 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs
Address: Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, New York City, behind the 1964 New York State Pavillion
Visible: Park hours
This is one in a series of linked posts on the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. Follow this link to see the others.