Raise/Raze at the Dupont Underground

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.

Raise/Raze at the Dupont Underground.
Raise/Raze at the Dupont Underground.

Continue reading “Raise/Raze at the Dupont Underground”

What We Really Do: Changing Perceptions

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.

Credit: Peabody’s Lament

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.

Continue reading “What We Really Do: Changing Perceptions”

Welcome Back Howard Theatre

The Marquee of the Howard Theatre
Credit: Priya Chhaya

Just a quick post to share some pictures I took at the Howard Theatre (link to info on the restoration) re-opening this week. If you want to read a great account of the night, that included performances by Trombone Shorty and George Clinton check out this post at PreservationNation — complete with great interior shots that my basic digital camera could not take successfully.

As you can tell from my previous post I love the theatre/theater, and while I often talk about the plays, movies, or performances that occur inside these buildings, these performances are enhanced by the places where they occur. Ambiance, acoustics are often what takes a concert to the next level.

One of the places I saw the Hunger Games was in the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC. It’s an old, one screen theater–complete with a balcony. While the movie was the same (I had seen it a few days earlier) there was a sense of grandeur in seeing it again, something that you sometimes miss out at the cookie cutter, stadium seating theaters.

So when an old theatre or theater is rehabbed and brought back to life it’s a wonderful thing. Often these spaces are transformed from original use, but as was the case with the Howard Theatre there is still that origin story of its original place in the community. In this case the memories of performances by musicians of the present and days gone by are about to be added to by a new generation with performances by Savion Glover, Wanda Sykes, James Brown, the Roots and the like.

For more on historic theatre’s visit the League of Historic American Theatres.

Some more pics:

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

I’ve been angling for a reason to write about Downton Abbey on this blog, and an opportunity presented itself in this fun Friday post that went up today on the PreservationNation.org blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text below.

PS: I also use it as an excuse to mention other awesome shows like The West Wing, LOST, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Because what would each of these shows be without the familiar hallways of the White House, the forests of our favorite Island, and a spaceship serving as home for a drifting civilization (or in the case of Dr. Who, the ability to hop from place to place in time)?

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television


I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things — walking, cooking, and watching television.

Like many, many people, I’ve been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven’t seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.

What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women’s roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.

This isn’t necessarily something new. After all, the whole premise of the show Cheers is to tell the story of a group of bar patrons in a particular space. Then there are three of my favorites — The West Wing, LOST, and (nerd alert) Battlestar Galactica — which are incredibly place-centric, as ninety percent of each episode occurs within their respective main locations: The White House, an island, or a giant spaceship that serves as the only defender against the enemies of humanity (try saying that three times fast).

What other shows out there use place to tell their story? We know of course that there are plenty of serials and sitcoms that use cities as the backdrop to their storylines. The stories in Mad Men, for example, are integrally tied to their place in mid-century New York.

The point, perhaps, that I am trying to make is that as a preservationist and a historian, I’m drawn to shows that integrate where they are with the people whose lives intersect in those spaces. And it’s the same for the real world, since the places we save are often inherently important because of the mark of individuals or groups on them, or our own modern interactions or associations with them.

I recently watched an episode of Dr. Who (a show with a time-traveling theme) where the main character presents a theory that there are fixed points in time that can never change — that events will always happen in this time and this place no matter what tries to influence them. It’s a fanciful idea, one that appeals to me as a historian because of how we think about the “power of place” — that an important way that we can tell the story of our past and make it tangible is by recognizing the confluence of people, places, and events in time.

What do you think? Do you love a television show because it reminds you of history, place, or preservation? Sound off below!

Preservation and a Pressure Cooker (A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation)

The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story – to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real.

For work this week I wrote a piece reflecting on the stuff of preservation. I also managed to loop in a paper I wrote during my undergraduate coursework about a pressure cooker. Trust me, it makes sense.

I’m working on a few ideas for end of the year posts. So stay tuned!


I also wanted also wanted to point out to any Baltimorians who might be reading my blog that there is an Unconference going on in Baltimore today. You can see what they’re talking about here and on Twitter #bmorehistoric.

Bring it on Buffalo

It is October! Which means I have been spending a full week here in Buffalo, NY for the National Preservation Conference. Last night I made a decision that instead of trying to write a bunch of posts for each day I would wait until I came home to share my thoughts. It will be a little bit more focused with less summary and more interpretation/reflective than I usually do. So stay tuned!

In the meantime you can follow along with the events in a variety of ways online.

Live Streamed Sessions: www.preservationnation.org/conference
Twitter: #presconf, or follow just me (but where is the fun in that) at @pc_presnation
Flickr: Preservation Nation Flickr stream
Blog: Preservation Nation blog.
Facebook: National Trust Facebook page

And check back here next week for more observation and thoughts.

Preservation in Pop Culture: How I Met Your Mother

As I mention in the description of …and this is what comes next (and perhaps as can be evidenced by my inordinate love of the television show LOST) I am both a historian and a pop culture fanatic. This year one of my favorite shows, How I Met Your Mother had a long running story line about an old hotel and one woman’s fight to save it. There are lots of hijinks along the way, but in the end the way the storyline portrayed preservation wasn’t pretty.

In response, my friend Will (who works at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota) and I wrote this blog post over at the PreservationNation blog where we talked about the plot line and what it says about preservation in pop culture.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

“Even if You Do Everything Right….Without Time It Won’t Ring True”

….and we have lift off. Yesterday was the first day of the National Preservation Conference here in Austin, Texas. Last minute preparations, the dispatching of the first round of field sessions were just lead ins to the big event in the evening. The Opening Plenary.

There were many expected to speak—the Mayor of Austin, former first lady Laura W. Bush (who is the honorary co-chair of the conference) and, of course, Stephanie Meeks the new president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The City from the Long Center

Since I was conference staff I missed the first twenty minutes of the convening (which meant I missed the Mayor’s welcome, the musical interlude, and the voting in of new Trustees). However I was lucky enough to hear the band play in rehearsal—and it is something quite special Check them out on the video here.

Laura Bush spoke eloquently about growing up in Texas, and how important courthouses in the state are to daily community life. She made the case for preservation while also providing those in attendance with one Texan’s perspective.

Then came Stephanie Meeks—who did a great job introducing herself to the NTHP community with personal stories, hints at her experiences before and since coming on board, and issued a challenge for the next 5 years leading up to the 2016 anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. She asked that we look for ways to make preservation more accessible, visible, and fully funded. The challenge was in a word, ambitious—but with ideas that I think, with a lot of work, might be feasible. One of my favorite parts of the speech was when she introduced a group of middle schoolers who had won a commendation from a national design competition for the school of the future—their design was the only one not asking for new construction, instead they worked on a rehab for their historic school building in Tucson, Arizona.

Now for the main event: Paul Goldberger. I have to say that I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. I know he’s a pretty big name in the preservation community but my knowledge of his ideas and work was largely limited to what I read up on him in preparation for the conference. His talk had three main parts—the first to talk about Austin as the ideal place to have the conversation about the Next American City and Next American Landscape. He emphasized that the work we do is essential and that preservationists need to be the obvious choice i.e. that the other side has to make the argument to destroy and rebuild instead of us always having to make the argument of how historic landscapes and streetscapes provide more value to a community than anything else.

He also spent some time forcing us to think about the phrase: “In a city, time becomes visible”. He described how even if an area is built up to be walkable, sustainable, and beautiful—it rings false if not “covered in the patina of time”. That without the shared history, or experiences it feels false and disconcerting.

Austin in Reflection

Goldberger then talked about public space and the idea of how the Next American city is creating a new public realm in spaces like the High Line in New York City or Millenium Park in Chicago. That these are places where the Next American City and the Next American Landscape are meeting. If we take care of the cities, we are also preserving landscape through the prevention of sprawl etc.

In the end though, the most profound message Goldberger gave us that preservationists need to be honest. We approach preservation as a method of making our lives better right here right now, and that those who believe historic preservation is an excuse to ignore “progress” or the “present” don’t know what preservation is.

Tonight or tomorrow I”ll fill you in on “Next American City” day. Also you can follow me on Twitter at PC_PresNation. Check out pictures here. If you want to watch the opening plenary you can here.

We Are One: The National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum

Also posted on the PreservationNation.org Blog. I’m working on a post of some exhibits I recently attended but wanted to post this here as well.

We are one.

At the end of the first day of the Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum (APIAHPF) I found myself at a banquet hosted by Guam Preservation willingly participating in a group sing-a-long complete with traditional hand motions and live music. For those who attended the two and a half day conference this moment represented everything that the meeting had offered to attendees: camaraderie, energy, synergy and determination – all in a forum to encourage, educate and mobilize Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities that are working to preserve their American story.

About two years in the making, this conference served two distinct purposes. The first was to provide educational sessions that would give attendees basic preservation tools to save their historic communities. Context matters, so the fact that we were at the Kabuki Hotel in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown definitely added to the atmosphere. I moderated a session that gave an introduction to historic preservation, and quickly learned that all of the attendees who had gathered brought with them a particular story and vision for APIA preservation. One of the major components of this session was recognizing that preservation, especially in the case of Asian Americans, is more than just buildings and structures, but also includes the intangible heritage—the folklore, the language, the dance.

The second part of the Forum involved thinking organically as a group about what APIA historic preservation means and consequently what it needs in order to become a broader and successful movement. I mentioned synergy earlier and this is where all of our minds worked together to brainstorm. Every meal was a working meal and breakfast (both days) and lunch were reserved for the task of identifying what tools the APIA community needs to preserve their unique American past. Using the World Café format we looked at three central questions that served as jumping off point for what we as a group wanted for APIA preservation:

  • What inspires and motivates you personally to preserve APIA culture?
  • What does historic preservation mean in an APIA context? What changes?
  • What next steps would you like to see for API cultural preservation?

This allowed us, on the final morning, to develop a series of product-based next steps that ranged from developing a “basics” toolkit from existing materials, developing a social media strategy for the group that includes advocacy alerts and networking, and determining that the conversation needs to continue with others—especially with stake holders who were unable to attend the Forum.

Perhaps the most important piece of this Forum was the recognition that the APIA and historic preservation community needs to work together in order to be successful. That…

We are One
With the Earth
With the Sun
With the Sky
With the Sea
We are One

THATCamp: Digital Storytelling, Local History, Social Media

What is an un-conference? It is a participant-driven gathering based on a particular theme or purpose. On the weekend of May 22nd I attended THATCamp, an un-conference at the Center for History and New Media in Fairfax, VA.

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is a gathering of individuals who work in the humanities to talk about the issues, concerns, challenges, and products in the realm of digital humanities.  While much of our conversations happened in person, they continued with the group writ large on Twitter all weekend long (#thatcamp). I thought I would take this opportunity to post about three of the sessions I attended.

Digital Storytelling

History is in essence a story. A narrative of the past compiled from documents, objects, and visualizations. It is text, it is verbal, and it is a very integral part of human identity whether it be your personal history or history on the multi-national level. During this session a group of us talked about the nature of digital storytelling and its role in education (though of course I was thinking about how it can be used in the public arena as well).

In a nutshell digital storytelling is the practice of telling a narrative using using technology and web tools. Sometimes this involves film (moving or, pictures put to sound), other times it is just a story told sans words with just digital photography. In our discussions we talked about how DS is narrative (that is a story told in a constructive format), non-narrative (something that is more formal), it can be linear or non-linear, interactive or a mash-up of many different mediums.

In the realm of education digital storytelling can be a means to teach the technology, but also a way to re-examine the past.  At the same time its a way to emphasize the value of textual, material, and visual sources in recognizing a complete picture of the past.

Some Digital Storytelling Links (Resources, Examples and Tools):

Local  History

The great thing about THATCamp was the opportunity to meet with preservationists/historians/humanities practitioners on the local level. At work, we (at the National Trust for Historic Preservation) are often looking at the big picture, and trying to provide resources to the local preservation organizations on the ground. So this session was about digital media on the local level–and what their needs were, and how to make the case to their boards and communities that digital technology and preservation are beneficial to where they live.

During this discussion we ended up talking broadly about the challenges and opportunities for local historical organizations, and aside from the ever present problem of funding we talked about the importance of collaboration and working with free, open-source products to branch out how we tell history on the ground level.  How can we, as digital historians, help our local historic societies reach a broader community not only through the framework of history that they tell, but also through the far reaching capabilities of the internet?

At the end of the session we talked about producing one of three “products” for use at the local level.

At the conclusion of the session we discussed a few possible next steps including,

  • A group blog written by local digital historians in the Mid-Atlantic region
  • A collection of how-to guides for implementing digital projects
  • White-papers or reports with detailed case studies on existing projects, e.g. PhillyHistory.org

Social  Media and the History Non-Profit

This was the session I proposed, which was to get an idea of what was going on at other organizations regarding the use of various social media tools. We started out by looking at some of the ways the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been using social media in its advocacy:

  • The 2009 National Preservation Conference, “Virtual Attendee” page. Using live chat (Cover it Live), Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter to get information about the conference out to the preservation community.  In particular the web team looked at ways in which Twitter could be used by multiple people to tell the multiple stories from the conference–and as a result a team was deployed that consisted of each individual Twitter account having its own “beat”. For example, my handle @pc_presnation was tasked with giving a general history point of view for the conference, and I ended up actually tweeting the National Preservation Award ceremony as if it were the Oscars. To prep our members we released this video.
  • The Save America’s Treasures campaign. In brief, in the 2011 budget the monies for the Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America and Heritage Area’s programs were either completely zeroed out or drastically reduced.  In order to mobilize our members and remind Congress of the importance of preservation  it was decided that social media would a) put materials out there that people could use, and b)serve as direct marketing for the cause.  The text messages, the Facebook status messages, and the materials posted on YouTube and Flickr were divided between the emotional and the factual. For examples check out our   Tweet for  Our Treasures page.

The conversation ended up with a discussion about how to integrate social media into existing workloads–and we came up with the following strategy list:

  • Adding Social Media to your work plans
  • Creating a policy to deal with criticisms
  • Developing metrics for assessing how our social media projects are reaching potential audiences
  • In order to get the word out it is useful to have canned messaging for your members to use to get the word out themselves

All that being said, we were left with a few questions. How do you reach people digitally outside of Facebook, Twitter etc., and how do you deal with the issues that come from non-profits that work on an international level? Also–aside from another portal to distribute information from Twitter and Facebook how are non-profits taking advantage of the tools on LinkedIn?


The nice thing about The Humanities and Technology Camp is that it appeals to individuals of all levels of tech ability–and unlike most conferences the discussions are informal, and collaborative, ensuring a continuation of the discussion beyond the four walls of the actual lecture room.  With each of these sessions we developed actual goals and ideas that could be implemented in our day-to-day work days.