A Better Past Through Technology: World War II Warplanes as Cultural Heritage

Wayland, Kent Allen, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

The restoration of World War II warplanes offers the chance to explore technology and history as cultural constructs in American culture. Beginning in the 1960's, several different groups began to collect these planes, called "warbirds," and to fly them at airshows and public commemorations as a form of cultural heritage. This investigation merges actor network theory from the field of science & technology studies with anthropological work on cultural invention to examine how these warbird afficionados use their airplanes to invent a usable past. The past they invoke allows them not only to attract veterans who share their emotional stories of the war, but also to imagine the United States during the "Good War" as an ideal, militarized nation which should serve as a model for the present. This cultural invention occurs both at airshows, where the warbirds perform for the public, and in restoration and maintenance hangars, where both professionals and volunteers engage in craft labor. Both the sublime experience of the planes' operation and the obsolete skills required for their maintenance evoke a better, simpler past for these afficionados. Such interactions with the aircraft foster an Industrial Romanticism which manages to embrace the discourse of technological progress as necessary while at the same time preserving a wistful sense that the passing of these piston-engined aircraft meant the loss of their own ability to understand and work on machines. This labor, then, provides for a performance of masculine competence which now escapes them in their daily life.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
world war II airplanes, cultural heritage, cultural invention
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