I love plaques. I always stop or make slight detours to read the interesting tidbits of information about the place through which I’m walking. I’ve always done it and though I don’t know where this habit started, it’s one I highly recommend. Reading a plaque is a simple way to better understand a place. The community has deemed this person or moment or location important enough to record in bronze.
However, I have had some complaints about the meandering and sometimes time-consuming process required to read these plaques. I offer a rationale for Always Reading the Plaque. To support the relaxed and informative walk, I give to you my three arguments:
“Place-based education promotes learning that is rooted in what is local—the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place.” – Wikipedia (of course)
I was first introduced to this clever concept when I was studying in a small town in New Brunswick. Natalie, a brilliant friend of mine, was interested in environmental education and she fell upon this idea of place-based education. Often in a university setting, students can be physically in a community without ever becoming part of that community. There is an obvious missed opportunity where both the residents and the students can learn from each other and create a strong community together.
This approach can be applied to all travels and communities. I’m no longer a student, but as a Millennial (whatever that means), I’m often transplanting into new neighbourhoods. It’s important to me to not just live in a city, but to become part of it. The first step is to learn about the place – the history, the culture, the current affairs …and the plaques. By reading the emblazoned text, you gain a particular understanding of that place and that background is the springboard to dive in and engage, whether for a week or for a year.
And these stories can be the best stories. As a Cape Bretoner, I appreciate them; well-told stories are a work of art. The stories plaques tell are ones of glory, of history, of comedy and of tragedy. It is striking to read about the first business that opened in the Capital after the Siege of Budapest while standing in front of a now even more impressive building.
An organization that first coined the phrase ‘Always Read the Plaque’ (in my consciousness) is 99% Invisible. 99pi is one my favourite podcasts as it covers everything design. From airport carpet to barbed wire, there’s a design story well told within this podcast. They have a project called Read the Plaque where you can search or submit the most intriguing, strange and surprising stories taken from plaques across the world. My current favourite is the accidental atomic bomb. I encourage you to dive in and be inspired. Perhaps you’ll even submit your own as you can get to know a city for its background and for its quirks!
Taking a Moment
If you have not yet convinced your walking companion of the importance of the plaque, then here’s my final reason. This one, of course, rests on simplicity. By stopping to read a plaque, you stop. Stop. Pause. Breathe. The brief story allows you to take a moment and take it in. These plaques are most often in pretty lovely locations; it’s worth taking in the view. There might even be some roses to smell. Really.
Whether running errands or navigating new avenues, we’re often in a rush to check off the next item on the ever-growing mental list. (At least that’s how my mind buzzes along.) A time-and-again plaque perusal can slow down your psychological pace by slowing down your physical one. Letting you breathe while you learn something new that will make you appreciate your space and likely make you smile.
I must admit that in Budapest, I haven’t been reading the plaques as much as I normally do. Many of them are in Hungarian and my mastery of the language is a long way off. It was the fact that I was passing by these plaques that brought me to realize what I was missing. I write this to remind myself that an extra translation step is worth doing to better understand this city.
What about you, dear reader, do you Always Read the plaque? Do you have a favourite already? Or will you start looking for a plaque on your next walk?