How I Spent my Summer Vacation…

I spent this summer working at George Washington’s Birthplace and living at Robert E. Lee’s Birthplace. For a while I was at a loss for how I should blog these places. I knew there had to be conclusions to draw. After all I was doing, living, and sleeping public history.

Doing Public History

Our goal was to reanalysis the archeological excavation records at the park. Our main focus was the feature called “Building X,” which I believe we renamed “Feature X.” This feature was found in the 1930 using exploratory trenches. Which means they (CCC workers at the

This is a Sindey King exhibit drawing of what people thought the feature formerly known as "Building X" looked like. Does that look like one building to you?

This is a Sindey King exhibit drawing of what people thought the feature formerly known as “Building X” looked like. Does that look like one building to you?

direction of Egyptologists, historians and architects) dug huge trenches hoping to find building foundations. They did not observe, or know to observe, the technique we use today that meticulously note findings, changes in soil ect ect. The record they left was extremely complicated.

In 1974 Norman Barka dug the site and left better, but still complicated records. In the 1990’s a massive shovel test project was conducted across the entire park. Both project produced a massive amount of small finds. For the first few weeks the student members of the group, myself included, made three uniform catalogues for these excavations. Then we doubled checked the ceramic identifications, the pipe stem identifications, the glass identifications, and all of them again. We made Surfer maps and smaller specified catalogues. We dug our hands in bags of glass, we licked ceramics, we yelled at computers, each other, and god.  In the end we are able to challenge some long held beliefs about Wakefield and George Washington lore and hopefully the interpretation of the park.

Living Public History

The titlesounds like we did reenactments –we didn’t. Living public history is about experiencing the politics that exist when working in public history. The first thing we “experienced” was the Federal Sequester. We lived in the Park Service house for one week, which was a l ovely 1930s house. It was full of (what I would deem friendly) spiders and apparently haunted by a plate stabbing Indian, but it was a nice place. The Sequester made it so that the house could only be used for the park’s main goals, reanalyzing their records was not a part of their main goal or main interest. We were sent to live in a rustic cabin at Robert E. Lee’s birthplace. This place was woodsy, complete with wolf spiders (who I consider unfriendly, because they do not adhere to common rules of decency like: stay away from me and all my things). It was certainly an experience.

Knobs! Noway. Door latches all the way.

Knobs! Noway. Door latches all the way.

Our second quintessentially public history experience was facing resistance. After all we set out to change narratives.

Sleeping Public History

I had dreams about program Surfer, catalogue numbers, and the site, all the time! And we were sleeping in a cabin built in the 1930s to look like cabin built in the 19th century.

What conclusions can I draw?

Public history is difficult. Working outside of academia presents different sets of difficulties. The most obvious is people’s sensitivity to change. Memories, or in this case traditional narratives, offer people a way to understand themselves and a way to define their actions. [1] When these stories are questioned or changed those who held on to them become agitated. One of the major difficulties in doing Public History is that people are invested in the narratives we play with. Thinking back to my last post, I can understand why some parts of the public are hostile to academics, we are taking apart what they see as important parts of their identity and that makes them uncomfortable. Questioning thoughts and looking at things differently is hard, especially when the new vision the public is face with comes from academics. In the beginning there is a feeling of hurt pride, “Why didn’t think of that?” or general offence “Why would they even questions this when we already knew the answer?” But after a while (years, months, weeks? Certainly not days) the new thought breeds more new thoughts.( After all, every academic started out in “the public.”) Some new thought might be blindly angry, but some of them productive. Once thought starts churning it can continue forever. A living, moving and growing story is better than a stale accepted narrative. In the academic field any news IS good news because news means people are thinking and writing. The more I work in public history the better I feel I understand academic history and why most academic historians do not venture into the public.


[1]Pierra Nora “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux De Memoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7-24. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory. Eric Hobsbawn,  “ Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” The Inventions of Traditions ed by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

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