The Layered Past, Italian Style

It’s difficult to describe the way Italy inspires. Perhaps it is the unchecked eating of pasta and gelato, or the way we learned to appreciate beautiful vistas amidst ungodly heat (heat wave code name: Lucifer).

Whatever it is, my feet hate me, but my heart is soaring. There is a lot to tell from this trip so far, but I’ll start with one pertinent to my storytelling project.

From the outset of this project my first lesson about studying the past sketched out the rough edge of my frame of reference. More specifically, that in addition to written chronicles, one of our primary sources of evidence comes from the stratigraphic layers written in the earth.

I grew up comparing the work of archaeologists to time traveling, where each layer took us further back through the ages, revealing how each era built and settled upon the times before.

Continue reading “The Layered Past, Italian Style”

From Europe, With Love

And so it begins. Over the last two months I have been interviewing friends, strangers, and colleagues about my project on interdisciplinary storytelling. Their words have been thoughtful, engaging, and challenged the way I think about my work. While I will do more interviews when I return I am now leaving for a month long European adventure – for inspiration and wonder. While I will conduct more interviews in September for now I am going to digest what I’ve heard so far and see where I go. In the meantime, if you consider yourself a storyteller make sure to fill out my survey and tell me about your art.

Ciao, for now.

(Seven) With or Without You

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The Joshua Tree

In 2001 I attended one of my first big rock concerts at what was the MCI Center in Washington, DC. While a great band with an amazing repertoire I was (at the time) a really a big fan of their most recent album. It was a great concert. I had a lot of fun.

Five months later I went back for more. This time, we were a little further north at the Baltimore Arena and unlike the first concert which was an enjoyable experience, this night filled an emotional need, converting me for life. The band, of course, was U2 and that second concert was one month and eight days after the horror of 9/11. I didn’t realize it until I walked out of the Arena but those two hours helped make sense of a month of chaos and insanity. Continue reading “(Seven) With or Without You”

Visual Storytelling: Tone, Texture, and Scale in Westeros

In a few weeks fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will embark on the second to last season of a show that redefined how we imagine new worlds on television. While we’ve long known about the different cultures in Westeros through the written word, seeing these stories on the screen has resulted in an entirely new visual experience.

A view of Cave 16 at the Ellora Caves in India. Circa 8th Century. This served as one of the artistic influences for the Hall of Faces in the House of Black and White. | Credit: Santanu Sen on Flickr via Creative Commons

One of my favorite things about the show has always been the intricate sets and staging which was the subject last week of a presentation at the National Museum of the American Indian with Game of Thrones Art Director Deborah Riley. Continue reading “Visual Storytelling: Tone, Texture, and Scale in Westeros”

Beyond the Written Word: Historical Storytelling in an Interdisciplinary World

Update 8/2/2017: Do you consider yourself a storyteller (a dancer, a musician, an artist, a writer)? Make sure to fill out my survey!

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here. —Sue Monk Kidd in the Secret Life of Bees

As a public historian and preservationist, I have always seen our work as inherently interdisciplinary, recognizing that in the increasingly digital world we live in, the need to use audio, video, and text to communicate our mission has become paramount.

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Now, nearly, eleven years into my career at the National Trust for Historic Preservation I plan on jumping in feet first into the world of storytelling and engage with digital (and in person) storytellers across a variety of disciplines and fields. In doing so I hope to gain a sense of best practices and tools that can help connect the public to the histories of all Americans.

This project is part of a two month sabbatical from the National Trust that will take place this coming August and September (see timeline below). The hope is to not just look at storytelling in the history field – but also the wider field of humanities and beyond.  At the end I hope to have gained a sense of how to construct a story that is richer, broader, and meaningful – without creating a cacophony that overwhelms the senses. Continue reading “Beyond the Written Word: Historical Storytelling in an Interdisciplinary World”

Dear William Shakespeare

April 24, 2017

Dear William,

When I first decided to write you a letter, I figured I would craft it in your favorite meter. After all, if you are writing a love letter to William Shakespeare, iambic pentameter feels like the right choice to make.

But here’s a reality check: I am terrible at it, though I will admit I really like saying the phrase because it sounds like something out of the Jabberwocky — familiar, yet completely made up.

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A staging of Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare Theatre Company involved an on stage intermission of live music with the audience.

(Jabberwocky is an amazing poem, the things you miss when you die in 1616.)

Anyway.

Happy birthday (a day late)! For being just over 450 years old you’re still breaking hearts, causing drama, and encouraging laughter around the world. As we wrap up marking the 400th year of your death (sorry!) I wanted to tell you how I felt.

Whew. I’m a little nervous, as I’ve never expressed my love to a dead playwright before. Continue reading “Dear William Shakespeare”

Journey to the Past: Timeless & the History Film Forum

Many fans of fantasy and sci-fi fall into two different camps: those who love time travel and those who don’t. For those who love it, suspension of belief is sufficient to get through the paradoxes that these narratives develop over time. The inverse is true for those who abhor stories that change the past, because repercussions from the butterfly effect leads to stories that are convoluted and messy.

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I thought about this the other day when watching Rogue One, last year’s Star Wars movie about a group of rebels plotting to retrieve the plans for the first Death Star.  While thrilling in its own right it is only through the final minutes (the final, last ditch, effort to escape Darth Vader) where we see the connective tissue between this film and 1977’s A New Hope.

In some ways it feels like a historical document. A primary source that fills in a missing piece — why everyone fears Darth Vader, just how desperate Princess Leia was to get the plans away from her ship, the absolute critical nature of C3PO and R2D2’s mission. It puts things into perspective and provides insight into a story that captured my imagination for the past twenty years. Continue reading “Journey to the Past: Timeless & the History Film Forum”

75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066

Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. – Excerpt from Executive Order 9066. Signed February 19, 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When I was in graduate school I was assigned Only What We Could Carry for a course on visual and material culture. This text used objects, poetry, photography, and art to reveal the wide ranging experiences of Japanese Americans (and permanent residents) that were forced, seventy-five years ago, from their homes into internment camps.

Members of the Mochida FAmily awaiting evacuation. | National Archives
Members of the Mochida Family awaiting evacuation. | Dorothea Lange via/ National Archives
One of the first artifacts photographed is an evacuation tag. At first glance looks like a label you would place on an inanimate object with basic reference information. For the evacuees forced to leave their homes, this tag removed identities paring individuals down to a name, family number, and a time and a place to report.
Continue reading “75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066”

Twenty-Seventeen

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A quotation from the walls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I am
afraid. Folded in by the weight
of postcards and calls
links and 140 characters.
Always thinking about the invisible scales of equality  
between the unborn, the refugee, the immigrant, and those not living in privilege.

I am
certain that I have fingers
toes, a heart with blood pumping
slowly through my veins
as do you,
and them,
and us, but those that lead find
different ways to say
You Don’t Belong.

I question
my ability
my strength for this
test.
Yet I know that one cannot expect miracles
And God cannot do all the work

And so

Although I am afraid, I am certain. Although I question, I am ready.
I can be brave. I must be brave. I will be brave.


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Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr put up this panel during his talk for the Arlington County Library. I wrote about that talk here.

Whenever I begin writing my annual New Year’s post I take a look at what I wrote the year before. Here is what I said in January 2016:

Continue reading “Twenty-Seventeen”

Dream Gardens: Talking Number the Stars with Jody Mott

I’m sure everyone is on the edge of their seats waiting for my annual New Year’s Post.

This isn’t it.

I’m struggling a bit this year – trying to find a way to stay optimistic and see the promise of the future in a world that feels like it’s gone a little bit crazy. And then there was my two-week cold that pretty much demanded a lack of productivity.

All that being said I did one thing in the early part of this month that was interesting and new. As many of you know in January of last year I published a children’s book called The Heart of the River. When I did that I also joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It’s a great organization that supports its members by providing resources and marketing through events like the Book Blast (here’s my page which will be live for another week or so).

number-the-stars Continue reading “Dream Gardens: Talking Number the Stars with Jody Mott”