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”

What Would Dolly Do? Public History in Music City

Gate at the Hatch Show Print shop and workspace. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

This past April I was in a small exhibit space at the Country Music Hall of Fame learning the history of country music through the years. There were CMA awards and costumes, record covers and photographs. In front of me was a screen cycling through the songs of the featured artist. As it shifted to a new song first my foot began to tap, then my head began to bob, and though I was dutifully avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room I knew I wasn’t the only one.

And then we just started to sing:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Because when The Gambler comes on, you can’t help but surrender and smile.  Likewise coming to Nashville means settling in and embracing the music. Continue reading “What Would Dolly Do? Public History in Music City”

Line of Sight Part Deux

When I was in graduate school I spent a lot of time reading about the technological sublime. That feeling of overwhelming fullness, sensory overload, you get when standing beneath awe-inspiring feats of human engineering. Crafted and designed by human hands these structures stand as a counterpart to the natural sublime that comes when beholding formations like the Grand Canyon and Chimney Rock.

When I stand at the edge of a city, I perform the same action, over, and over again. I close my eyes, open them and let my gaze sweep along the horizon, pinpointing the tallest structure I can see.

Then click. Snap. I take a picture.

Continue reading “Line of Sight Part Deux”

Prepping for Paris

Note: Check out the PreservationNation Blog later this week for a piece on what I am calling “The Return“.

writingWhen this post goes live you’ll find me thousands of feet in the air flying toward a week in Paris.

Paris. It sounds incredible right? I honestly think when we first booked our tickets all I could think about was food. Crepes, chocolate, pastries. Mmm. Mmm.

But then the historian (the imaginary angel that sits on my shoulder) shook me out of my mental sugar high. She reminded me that I wanted to do this trip right, to land already knowing a little about what I was about to see.

To take advantage of this visit to explore, experience, and to defy expectation.

So I prepped like I was prepping for a marathon (well a 5K) and in a month was able to read three memoirs, one history book and skim two additional titles on myth and architecture in Paris.

Continue reading “Prepping for Paris”

2012: Turning, Turning, Turning Through the Years

writingWhen I started this blog in 2009 I had intended for it to serve as an outlet for these words I constantly have churning in my head. Words floating around after I step out into the world, asking–begging to be written down. These words are more than just a way to express myself, they are a way for me to paint a picture, tell a story, form a narrative. They are letters that form sentences that lead to ideas.

So when I look back at my words this year, I realize that 2012 was filled with milestones. When this blog goes live it will be my 108th post*, and the nineteen posts that made up this year have a few common themes. Some were labors of love (the history of Jim Crow, and my piece on public history, the American Revolution, and 1865) while others looked to my travels from Wisconsin to Washington State. I also attended some gorgeously produced theatre productions that pushed storytelling to the next level (not to mention the big Disney buys Lucasfilm news). With every word I put down I tried to embrace the connections between what we read, see, and watch and what we think following these experiences.

Continue reading “2012: Turning, Turning, Turning Through the Years”

Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle

Cross posted at PreservationNation.


Dale Chihuly Gardens of Glass Exhibition.

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.

Continue reading “Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle”

You Can’t Take the Sky from Me: Reflections on Travel in Albuquerque

Re-posted from the PreservationNation.org blog.

If I had to sum up my last week in Albuquerque, New Mexico in two words it would be this: the sky. During the day it was a brilliant shade of blue, at dusk a deep shade of pink, and there were moments this past week where I thought all I had to do was reach up and capture some of it in my hand.

It was everywhere — along main roads, soaring forward when we drove around town completing errands; along the Turquoise Trail on my birthday as we made stops at ghost towns on the way to Sante Fe; and at a rehearsal dinner located high on a hill where we could see all of Albuquerque spread out before us.

While the purpose of the trip was to celebrate the nuptials of an old high school friend, it was not devoid of the all-important historical wanderings. As suggested by some of PreservationNation’s readers, I had dinner in Nob Hill, a local main street with shops and restaurants, and walked past the numerous murals that illustrate Central Avenue downtown. Continue reading “You Can’t Take the Sky from Me: Reflections on Travel in Albuquerque”

Milwaukee’s Best: The 2012 NCPH/OAH Annual Conference

Many of my posts on this blog are often connected more often than not to my thoughts about the past through books, movies, exhibits, and travel. Seeing the reflection of the past in the “stuff” we consume, produce, and leave behind.

However, sometimes I like to look past the “why” and to the “how,” to the practice of public historians — what we do well, what we should be doing, and how I can engage in this broader conversation.

This year’s annual conference for the National Council on Public History involved a convergence and a merging of ideas with the Organization of American Historians. As expected the five days in Wisconsin were filled with networking and sessions which integrated your typical academic style paper(s) with the more hands on, interpretive style of the public historian presentations.

So I thought that I would use this, my first of three [the second will come in a few days, the third on food will post in June] posts on my trips to talk about methodology — providing examples of different (or not so different) conversations through the lens of the meetings and sessions I attended.

Continue reading “Milwaukee’s Best: The 2012 NCPH/OAH Annual Conference”

Smelling the Flowers and Taking in Tech in Milwaukee

The Mitchell Park Conservatory

Earlier yesterday, this post went up on the PreservationNation.org blog.

In the next two weeks I will find myself in Milwaukee, WI (where I am right now) and Ft. Worth Texas. Both trips are professional in focus, the first for my annual pilgrimage to a new US city for the National Council on Public History. This is a conference that every year introduces me to new people and new conversations.

Mentally, the historian in me battles with my inner foodie and urbanist. I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what to see, what to eat, and what makes these cities tick.

We hit the ground running here in Milwaukee. Not only did I get to stay at the historic Ambassador Hotel the first night, I also got to visit the Domes, three modernist greenhouses that are a part of the Marshall Park Conservatory. If you think the exterior looks cool, check out the inside….the three domes had flowers and plants from a tropical ecosystem, a desert ecosystem, and the final one, which demonstrated the human effect on landscapes and flowers.

Then we had the second annual THATCamp NCPH. If you remember from last year this is an unconference, an informal learning experience having to do with digital and new media in the humanities. The sessions I attended had to do with the future of blogging, the issues surrounding bringing scholarly publications to the digital realm, and a closer examination of branding and promotion for organizations and projects. I walked away, as usual, with a plethora of really cool websites and links.

I’m hoping to do a more analytical post about content at the end of the conference but I wanted to emphasize my goal for the next two weeks as I experience Milwaukee and travel to Texas:

I’m feeling the pull — that urge to make sure that I don’t miss a minute, a site, or a story, and to walk away from both these places seeing them as more than just a meeting room space.

Guest Post: Coming Home for the First Time

Note from Priya: From time to time I like to open my blog up to friends who have had great experiences with public history. One of the most common ways that we connect with the past is through our family. Here is one story of making that connection.

By William Blake

When I was young, I asked my dad where I got my name from. He explained to me that I was not, in fact, named after the poet. I was named after my ninth-great-grandfather who left England and settled in Boston in the 1630s. His son, James, built a house in Dorchester, just outside the city, that still stands to this day. One year for Thanksgiving, my dad took me and my brother to Boston, where we had the chance to see the Blake House and visit a nearby cemetery containing Blakes from many generations ago.

My dad did not know much about the Blake family in England, but that didn’t bother me. For any young American interested in history, that is an amazing enough story. Many of my friends cannot trace their origins back more than one century. In the last year, I have discovered I can trace my origins back eight centuries, back to the days of Magna Carta. Along the way, I have found connections to a coat of arms, members of parliament, the poet (who is likely a 12th cousin), and a cousin nicknamed the “Father of the Royal Navy,” who is buried at Westminster Abbey.

When my then-fiancée suggested that we spend our honeymoon in England over Christmas, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. After we got married, I spent my summer studying for my grad school comprehensive exams. I broke up the monotony of studying by doing genealogical research (if you have not tried ancestry.com, you should!). I connected with a distant relative in Australia who has been researching the Blake family for years. He opened my eyes to a great deal of information about the early Blakes in England.

I now have a more precise answer as to where my name comes from. Blake is the old English word for black, and years ago I read speculation that the name was applied to an ancestor with black hair or dark skin. Surnames were often adopted to tell two people with the same first name apart. This was not the case with our family. About two hours west of London lies the county of Wiltshire. In 1194, Richard I established the parish of what is known today as Blacklands just outside the market town of Calne in Wiltshire. The parish contains only about 500 acres, and it name refers to the dark forest that once existed there.

The original name of the parish, however, was Blakeland (or Blakelonde). It was a common practice for Norman nobles to adopt surnames based on the location of land they owned – given to them by a Norman king. DNA tests of other Blake descendants reveal Norwegian markers, which could also indicate Norman ancestry. As far as I can tell (and this is a rough estimate), my 24th-great-grandfather was John de Blakeland, born ca. 1200.

Just to the west of Blacklands is Pinhills Farm, a house that dates back to the mid-17th century. It was built, in part, out of materials from a much older manor house that was burned during the English Civil War. The old manor house is listed as the possession of one of Alfred the Great’s grandsons in the 10th century. The Blake family acquired Pinhills sometime in the 14th century and lived there for about four centuries. The Blake family supported Parliament during the Civil War, and Pinhills stood as a garrison for Cromwell’s forces in Wiltshire, and a moat was added to protect the manor. Unfortunately, that area of Wiltshire fell to Royalist forces on December 28, 1643, and Prince Rupert ordered Pinhills to be destroyed.

I was able to get in contact with the current residents of Pinhills Farm, and they graciously gave us permission to visit on our trip. On December 27, we rented a car and set off from London for Wiltshire. It was difficult restraining my excitement, but I had to in order to navigate the hazards of driving on the wrong side of the road. The English countryside was more beautiful than I could imagine, and I think could England could be described as the Emerald Isle just as easily as Ireland. We exited the highway, drove through the town of Calne, and onto Pinhills.

The family currently living at Pinhills could not have been kinder to us. They gave us an expert tour, allowed us to take plenty of photographs, and then invited us in for a proper English tea – complete with China and homemade cake. We had a nice chat about history and politics. Although we did not take pictures inside the house, I did have the chance to touch some very old ceiling beams, which likely were part of the materials salvaged from the original manor house. It was truly awe inspiring to have such a physical connection with a place that has so much history, especially so much history connected with my family.

The grounds of Pinhills have been kept in immaculate condition, including the moat. When originally constructed, the moat was about 15 ft. deep. As a result of erosion, it is only about 5 ft. deep. The area inside the moat, where the original manor house once stood, has been converted into a beautiful garden. I felt such an incredible sense of inner peace being there. Our hosts pointed out one old tree under which George Prothero, an English historian, wrote one of his manuscripts. My reaction was that I would be so much happier to write my dissertation under that same tree than anywhere else on Earth.

As if the family connections on our trip could not get any more enjoyable, the next day we drove back to London and I went to Westminster Abbey. At first it looked like I was not going to be able to go in, as I arrived close to time from the last admission. I told a marshal that there are memorials to two of my cousins in the Abbey – the poet and Admiral Robert Blake. The marshal called her boss, the head marshal, and when he heard my name, I got VIP treatment. I was whisked inside without waiting in line or paying admission. I got to see parts of the Abbey usually out-of-bounds to tourists, which was a good thing because the memorial to Robert Blake is located just off the tourist route.

All-in-all it was a truly magical trip, but I already have a long list of genealogical and historical things I want to do on the next trip.