Over the last ten years I have shared—on or around January 1st—a vision for my future. These have never been ordinary resolutions. Instead I wrote mantras, hopes, and wishes for what I want my life to stand for, what I want it to mean. More often than not I talked about taking risks and leaps, harnessing optimism, searching for kindness, and in some of our tougher years, encouraged myself to dig deep for a well of defiance.
Earlier this week, as I continued to think about how to approach this piece, I saw a suggestion (by an old high school friend) to not look to resolutions, but rather to make a list of things you were proud of in 2021. So here’s my list:
We all know it wasn’t an easy year, but unlike 2020 it had moments of brightness made possible by the COVID-19 vaccine. I know taking a vaccine is an odd thing to list as an accomplishment, but when belief in our ability as humans to take care of each other feels like a challenge, taking the three shots in 2021 felt like something I could do not only for myself, but for others. More selfishly, taking the vaccine allowed me to hug family, and friends, and to fly across the country to meet my new nephew just days after he was born.
On August 14, I am marking not only 15 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also 15 years as a public historian. In the intervening years, a lot has changed—teams, expectations, job roles, and the organization itself—and I find myself reflecting on how those changes have changed me.
Consider the words at the start of this piece: Thankful. Grateful. Two words that I have been hearing a lot about, at a time when the intersecting and overlapping nature of work has shifted due to a virus that fundamentally altered how we see our lives. For many, this past year revealed that organizations and companies do not owe their employees anything. Whatever loyalty and commitment we have, it may not be reciprocated—an attitude I commiserate with—particularly in light of the series of layoffs within the museum and history field due to the pandemic.
Five years ago, I wrote about how important it was for me to be working in a field that I love—that if most of my life was spent at an office, I would rather work with passion, than with indifference.
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.
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”→
I had intended for this to go up in the waning days of last year but found myself wanting to spend my vacation away from my computer rather than in front of it. So here we are, with some final thoughts on the other side of the new year.
A final post, one last time, on Hamilton: An American Musical.
This piece will mark my sixth and final blog post on my unabashed love for this genius historical musical. I swear.
In a lot of ways, this year has been the year of Hamilton for me. On some level it allowed some respite from the real world, while opening the floodgates on an already complex conversation about art, diversity, and our American past.
In 2016 I have been privileged to see the show on Broadway and like so many others devoured the Hamilton Mixtape, finished the Hamilton: The Revolution (henceforth the Hamiltome, the book about the making of the musical – with annotations!), and watched Hamilton’s America – the incredible PBS documentary that put the musical in its historical context. Continue reading “Hamilton: One Last Time”→
Who says you can’t write about summer vacations in October? At the end of July I traveled to Colorado Springs for an epic family reunion. Naturally I couldn’t make a trip to a different state and not play tourist for a little while. I wrote about one part of my trip, a visit to Hotel de Paris in Georgetown for Saving Places. The piece, which I had a lot of fun writing, is about the hotel’s proprietor, Louis Dupuy, a man who was a fugitive, journalist, and an infamous chef.
In addition to Georgetown I also spent a few hours in Denver, checking out the state capitol, the Emerson School (home of the National Trust Denver Field Office), and the Molly Brown House. The latter site is pretty great, mostly because it does what most historic houses do, but flips the perspective, telling us about Molly Brown’s legacy rather than just the male inhabitants. Continue reading “Summer in October: Photos from Colorado”→
August 14, 2006. This story begins in a stately building on the corner of 18th and Massachusetts in Dupont Circle. On this particular humid day, typical of a Washington August, a young twenty-three year old woman walked into her first day at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the specifics of her emotions are lost to time, they are likely tinged with a combination of relief (she has a job!) and excitement (she has a job in her field!).
That was then. This is now.
I have always been a big believer in loving what you do. Every day we get out of bed and head to a workplace to spend a third of our weekly waking hours as means to support ourselves. In these hours we have a choice – to let our work become rote, a black hole of time filled with disengagement, or to find work that stimulates our mind, bringing passion and joy along for the ride. It is a luxury, perhaps, but something that I feel is essential.
A few weeks ago I wrote two separate pieces on a unique art installation at the Dupont Underground in Washington, DC. The exhibit took the plastic balls from National Building Museum’s “Beach” exhibition and turned it into an interactive work that looked at the building and re-building of structures.
As I’ve read his series it has brought back my own thoughts on memory and memorializing–where stone structures on a battlefield or ever-living trees bear witness to the past. At this intersection of memory-place-monument these objects of remembrance serve as a physical manifestation and encapsulation of a collective connection to the past.
Old places provide a tangible reminder that something happened–that humans stood in this exact spot and did something. That we interacted, enacted change, or fought for a cause.
Preservationists say “no.” House Museums are “behind the velvet ropes.” Historians live within an “ivory tower.”
Does this sound familiar?
Historians serve as stewards of the past, disseminating history to a variety of different publics. However, segments of that public view historians and preservationists as obstacles–individuals who set up barriers, keep research confined within the academy, or prevent progress. Despite our efforts, this is how they perceive the work of history professionals. Of course, those of us who work in the field know that history professionals are working to broaden outreach in museums (albeit with increasingly limited budgets), to spread literature and research, and to present a more open and accessible past by saving places across the country.
This past week I staffed the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis. While I didn’t get a chance to fully attend sessions, I observed a discipline actively working to remove barriers. Sessions sought to think past restrictions and standards and focused on aligning the needs of preservationists with the needs of community.
A metaphor I often use when talking about the past is that of a puzzle. Getting to know the whole picture of place means fitting together a number of disparate pieces that when snapped together give you a single picture — a snapshot in time that is one in a series that make up the past.
I also approach visiting new cities through this lens. A few weeks ago as a prelude to my visit to Spokane for the National Preservation Conference, I went to Seattle to visit with some friends and family. What I ended up doing was not just visiting to a popular tourist destination but also getting a sense of the place itself.