Interning at James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland: Reflections on the Multidisciplinary Approach in Action


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The term “multidisciplinary approach” receives a fair share of air time amongst scholars, but what does that actually mean? What does the multidisciplinary approach look like on the ground? For a historian, how does one attain the skills necessary to breach the borders of her own discipline, and feel comfortable in uncharted waters? I have often praised the multidisciplinary approach from the standpoint of a traditional academic historian, but only as a public historian have I truly been able to embrace the breadth of sources one can access when you are able to employ not only the tricks of your own trade, but those in other highly specialized fields to better connect with the public.

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Monroe era house denoted by white paint, north façade

This summer, as a result of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant awarded to Ash Lawn-Highland, I had the privilege of interning at James Monroe’s Albemarle County plantation. Monroe referred to this place as Highland, a property he purchased in 1793 right next to his friend Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Monroe considered Highland his official residence between 1799 and 1823. Highland is currently comprised of 535 acres and offers guided tours of the Monroe era house, a chance to freely move about the interpreted cellar dependencies and service yard outbuildings, as well as grounds. Its current executive director, Dr. Sara Bon- Harper has brought a new research focus to Highland. This summer as Highland buzzed with researchers, both experts and interns alike, visitors often witnessed new research and discoveries taking place during their visit.

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L-R: Dr. Sara Bon-Harper, Nancy Stetz, Kayla M. Pittman (author) Photo by R. Stillings

This summer I was one of the many researchers visitors regularly saw ascending a ladder into the attic. I did not do this for the pure enjoyment of the attic’s sauna like conditions, nor was I particularly interested in spending my afternoons in the company of wasps, lost honey bees, and the occasional snake; however I was highly interested in trailing architectural historian Willie Graham. I wanted to learn everything I could about how architectural historians approach the past so that I could grow as a historian in my own field. By understanding some of the methods and approaches architectural historians employ, I can add another layer to my understanding of the historical record. A multidisciplinary approach allows me to add another color to the palette I use to make the past come alive as a public historian. So, if Willie Graham went to the attic, I made sure to hold the ladder and follow suit.

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L-R: Dr. Sara Bon-Harper, Kyle Edwards, Kayla M. Pittman, Nancy Stetz. Photo by K.

Although l learned a great deal from Willie Graham on our trips to the attic, learning from him was not done for purely selfish reasons. As the graduate intern, my tasks were to analyze previous architectural and archaeological reports written on the Monroe era house and service yard outbuildings, confront discrepancies in research results, and put forth recommendations for areas of future research. In order to accomplish these tasks, I had to rely heavily upon my archaeological training as I read various archaeological reports filled with jargon and specialized maps. In no way do I consider myself to be an archaeologist, however having the basic skills necessary to feel comfortable operating in that realm of academia gave me an edge as I confronted previous reports.   Having some archaeological training also did not hurt when crawling under the house to confront what was seen on an archaeological map in person.

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L-R: Architectural historians Carl Lounsbury & Jeff Klee. Photo by K.

Furthermore, working with architectural historians Willie Graham, Carl Lounsbury, and Jeff Klee as they investigated and inventoried the Monroe era house afforded me the opportunity to include the most recent research conducted on the structure as it unfolded in my report. During this time, I also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon discussing dendrochronological research potential of the Monroe era house, interpreted overseer’s house, and smokehouse with Dan Druckenbrod, a dendroecologist who often works on projects at Monticello. Working with these scholars allowed me to stretch my skillset to encompass elements of other disciplines.

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Photo by Ash Lawn-Highland

My final report at the end of the summer is most concisely summarized as a document that says “this is what we know to be true and this is where we go from here.” With Dr. Sara Bon-Harper I presented my report to Highland’s guides and staff and was able to answer their questions about how to present this information to the public. This report will be used by future researchers at Highland as well as by the interpretive staff. Some of the findings described in this report will drastically change how the Monroe era home is interpreted.

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South façade of Monroe era house

For example, while examining the Monroe era structure, Carl Lounsbury, Willie Graham, and Jeff Klee found that the first building period dates between 1798/99 and 1800 and consists of the interpreted Monroe bedroom and dining room. The second building period is attributed to a shed addition constructed circa 1816 which is comprised of the interpreted Monroe study and his daughter Maria Hester’s bedroom. Lounsbury, Graham, and Klee found that the interpreted front entrance on the northern façade is in fact a secondary entrance most likely reserved for servants and slaves. The entrance Monroe, his family, and guests used would have been located on the southern façade and accessed by a series of stairs leading up to a landing or porch. This was evidenced by the observation of blind nailed flooring in the lobby between the interpreted Monroe bedroom and dining room which is a costly detail generally reserved for primary rooms.

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Circular saw marks pictured on attic beams above the interpreted drawing room. Photo by R. Stillings

Another major change to the interpretation of the Monroe era house is that the room currently interpreted as Monroe’s drawing room is not in fact a Monroe era space. The interpreted drawing room is a part of the third building period that Lounsbury, Graham, and Klee dated circa 1850s. This was evidenced by the observation of circular saw marks seen on beams in the attic over this section of the house.

James Monroe’s Highland is nestled in the hills of Charlottesville, Virginia, but it is not a place to be forgotten in the shadows of Monticello. It is a vibrant place for both visitors and scholars alike. At Monroe’s Highland, historians and especially interns can grow as academics and readily connect with the public we most desperately seek to engage as public historians. A multidisciplinary approach is the key to unlocking our understanding of Monroe’s Highland not only as the historic home of fifth president James Monroe, but also as the home of an enslaved population. Further research is needed at Highland, but with Dr. Sara Bon- Harper leading the charge, Highland remains rich with opportunity.

Why Should Ken Burns Get to Have All the Fun?


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By Brian Comfort, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History


Grumbling can often be heard emanating from various history departments around the country about the power that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns wields over public perceptions of history and how he wields that power. After all, his extraordinarily popular documentaries on subjects as diverse as the Civil War, jazz, baseball and legendary prizefighter Jack Johnson reach a few more folks than your average or even highly regarded monograph from a respected academic publisher. The Civil War reached 40 million viewers on PBS in its initial run. That’s Michael Jackson Thriller territory, whereas we historians would gladly settle for some airplay on local radio and a couple of CDs sold from the trunk of a car. Stephen Ambrose was quoted as saying, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” And that continues to be the case as the number of viewers of his documentaries has soared past 100 million. Continue reading

The Internship Experience: It’s What You Make of It (And What Others Make of It)


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By Rebecca Schmitt, M.A. Student, Department of History

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Rebecca Schmitt photo-documenting the Kathryn M. Lee, an oyster schooner currently undergoing restoration

For any graduate student in public history or historic preservation programs, probably the most nerve-racking requirement is the internship. Everybody wants an internship that is fulfilling, fun, and can help lead to a job later. All of us who have had internships can attest to the fact that there are bad internships, good internships, and great internships. Although sometimes you just have to take what internship you can get, there is always something that you can do to ensure that your internship is good or great. My summer internship is a good example of a great internship that was molded through not only the actions of others but also myself and my fellow intern. Continue reading

Lessons from Special Collections: A Public History Summer Internship


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Emily Hunter hard at work in University Special Collections

By Emily Hunter, M.A. Student, Department of History

This summer, with support from a Charles K. Hyde internship scholarship, I have been interning at the Special Collections and University Archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst. My major project has been processing and creating a finding aid for the papers of the Diana Mara Henry Collection. Born in 1948, Henry is a photojournalist best known for her documentation of sociopolitical activism of the late 1960s to the early 1980s. With her camera and pen, she followed the 1972 and 1976 Democratic presidential campaigns (McGovern and Carter campaigns), served as the official photographer for the President’s Commission on International Women’s Year and the First National Women’s Conference, and photographed the activities of a variety of well-known politicians and activists, including Shirley Chisholm, Al Lowenstein, Elizabeth Holtzman, Liz Carpenter, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Jane Fonda, and Eugene McCarthy. Additionally, Henry captured images of the political demonstrations of organizations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the Women’s Pentagon Action Committee. Henry also photographed the New York City fashion scene in the 1970s and, in the decades to follow, pursued work as a photography instructor, arts administrator, newspaper journalist, and independent scholar and researcher. Her photojournalism has appeared in a wide array of publications, including Time and New York Magazine and in collections at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

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Return to Sender: Lessons from Boston College’s “Belfast Project”


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By Margo Shea, Alumna, Department of History

Margo Shea completed an M.A. in Public History in 2005 and a Ph.D. in History in 2010 (both from UMass Amherst), with specializations in public history and memory, Irish history and Urban history. She is currently an assistant professor in the History Department at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts. Shea is currently revising her doctoral dissertation, “Once Again it Happens: Collective Memory and Irish Identity in Derry, (Northern) Ireland 1896-2008,” for publication.

“Return to Sender” originally appeared on Shea’s personal blog. See Shea’s blog here.

On Tuesday, May 6th, Boston College’s Director of Public Affairs, Jack Dunn, announced that “The Belfast Project” oral history initiative would honor all requests from participants to return recordings and transcripts of interviews not currently in use as evidence in the murder investigation of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972. The college will keep no copies. The information in the interviews will remain known only to the interviewers, a few Boston College employees, and William Young — a federal district court judge who read the transcripts to determine which ones should be delivered to Northern Irish authorities under a treaty governing exchanges of information between nations for the purposes of law enforcement. Continue reading

Community Museums: Part of the Village


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By Kate Preissler, Digital Media Marketing Manager at the Berkshire Museum and Alumna, Department of History

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

–President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013

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In Kindergarten was distributed to all new kindergartners in Berkshire County

There is currently a movement amongst some museums to become involved in the development of our very youngest citizens. Spending significant resources to create opportunities for toddlers used to be the exclusive realm of children’s and maybe science museums, but now many more institutions — historical, arts, music — are getting into the game. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1903 by Zenas Crane to be the Berkshires’ version of a Metropolitan Museum of Art or Smithsonian, is one of them. Finding ways to integrate early learners into a setting designed for adults presents many challenges but also makes for some very innovative programming. As a part of this initiative, titled WeeMuse, the Museum has added an Early Childhood Specialist staff position in the Education Department, started a series of programs and activities in the Museum for kids 18 months to 3 years, increased networking and direct outreach to early childhood education and care providers, and become a partner in the Pittsfield Transition Team — a group of educators, school administrators and organizational representatives who meet to address the needs of young children, especially as they transition from home or daycare to the public school system.

Out of the Museum’s participation in the Transition Team came the newest WeeMuse offering: In Kindergarten, a book for parents and children that addresses many of the things that kids will experience when starting school for the first time. It’s not a manual, but appears in the style of a storybook with engaging graphic images, activity pages, and even stickers. Continue reading

Choosing Challenging Bookends: The UMass GHA Conference & Jeanne Theoharis on Rosa Parks’ Story


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Left to right: Marwa Amer, Dr. Jeanne Theoharis, Erica Fagen, Jacob Orcutt, Katherine Garland, and Karen Sause

By Katherine Garland, M.A. Student, Department of History

Lately I have been thinking a lot about bookends. No, I do not mean the kind that keep my copies of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom from falling off of my bookshelf. I mean bookends on the ends of historical stories. When my advisor and I meet to discuss books about early American religious history, we often end up talking about beginnings and ends. When comparing books on similar subjects, we note how historians play with the time period, starting and ending their stories in different decades in order to emphasize different ideas. Those bookend dates are not arbitrary; they deeply influence the text’s meaning.

When I tell the story of the UMass Graduate History Association’s 10th Annual conference, “History in the Making: Pivotal Moments in Public Understanding,” I will need to think hard about where to place my bookends. For me, the conference did not start and end on March 29, 2014 — the actual date of the event — it started months before that, perhaps last April when I accepted the position of GHA secretary, or perhaps in the fall when planning began in earnest. My story contains months of fundraising, organizing panels, communicating with conference participants, and planning meals. And that was all before the actual conference. On the conference day, we set up food, attended informative and thought-provoking panels, and enjoyed Dr. Jeanne Theoharis’ keynote speech, “Hidden in Plain Sight?: Rosa Parks and the Black Power Movement.” Continue reading

Science (and Math!) for the People


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By Emily T.H. Redman, Assistant Professor, Department of History

This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing a year-long project come to fruition: the Science for the People (SftP) conference here at UMass Amherst. The conference, aimed to bring together participants from the 1970s radical activism group — alongside academic historians, scientists, and young scholars — explored the early origins of SftP and its lasting legacy, with a healthy dose of looking toward future reform, advocacy, and activism. I was, by the start of the conference, quite eager to see how it would unfold, which speakers would make an impression, and the overall zeitgeist of the event.

As a historian of science, I am interested in the ways in which science interacts with the larger culture. Science, of course, is inextricably part of that culture, but one that shares an interesting position — many find it inaccessible, imagine it to exist within impenetrable ivory towers (or worse, lock-and-keyed federal laboratories), and be driven by moneyed or powered interests that remain concealed. Science represents a stark duality of both fear and promise. Just as we look toward science and technology to solve our problems — ranging from cancer cures to prosthetic limbs to cleaning our oceans to just about everything — we also have a long history of deeply mistrusting science. At best, science is the pinnacle of human achievement; at worst it’s our Frankenstein, set into motion by our collective hubris, sure to rear its monstrous head and wreak havoc on any comfortable intimacy we might have had with scientific inquiry and practice. Continue reading

A Guide to Interviewing for that Perfect Job


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Anne Lanning, Tony Rapucci, and Jessie MacLeod during the Job Interview Panel. Courtesy of Marla Miller.

By Deborah Kallman, M.A. Student, Department of History

On Monday April 7, 2014, the History Department’s Graduate Program hosted a panel on interviewing techniques. The panel, moderated by Graduate Program Director Marla Miller, was comprised of Anne Lanning, Tony Rapucci, and Jessie MacLeod. Lanning is Vice President for Museum Affairs at Historic Deerfield. Rapucci is a Ph.D. student and K-12 educator. MacLeod is an alumna and an Assistant Curator at Mt. Vernon. During this engaging discussion, the panelists shared their experiences as both the interviewer and the job seeker.

Lanning began the discussion by reminding the audience that, when applying for a job, half of the battle is getting out of the pile of applications and into the interview. All panelists stressed the importance of both the cover letter and the C.V. While it seems like stating the obvious, both the letter and C.V. must be free from grammatical and spelling errors and letters should be tailored to the specific job for which you are applying. Letters should emphasize your strengths, though MacLeod cautioned the group that there is a fine line between a competent tone and a cocky one. As employers, the panelists all look for enthusiasm and passion, but Rapucci advised the group not to use the word “passion” in a cover letters as this term is overused. The trick, panelists agreed, was to convey your genuine enthusiasm for the work and ability to contribute to the employer’s mission; don’t emphasize how the job would be great for you, but rather how you can help the institution reach its goals. Continue reading

Adam Hochschild: Engaging the Audience through Characters


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By Matthew Herrera, M.A. Student, Department of History

Last Tuesday — March 25th — 2014 UMass Writer-in-Residence Adam Hochschild paid a visit to Stephen Platt’s Graduate Writing History Seminar. During this session, students were able to interact with the prolific writer, asking him numerous questions ranging from his writing style, dealing with writer’s block, and advice for developing a thick skin when it comes to reviewers. Adam Hochschild is a writer of journalism and history. He is also a Lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed to numerous magazines, newspapers, and published many well-known works, such as King Leopold’s Ghost, Bury the Chains, and most recently, To End All Wars.

During our seminar we discussed many things, such as technique; his book, To End All Wars; and advice regarding the publication process. However, one of the most important lessons we learned from Hochschild’s visit was his approach of writing history for popular audiences. Hochschild informed us that his job as a writer was to captivate the reader in a subject in which he or she has no interest. To accomplish this, Hochschild presents the material through the eyes of characters and their relationships. In his article “Practicing History without a License,” Hochschild states academic historians often produce works that are obscure and “dry as dust.” One way of avoiding this, he recommends, is by writing history though the utilization of characters. Not only does this approach engage the reader, but it also allows the author to tell the story through the experiences of characters. Additionally, using characters that are connected together will only engage the reader even further. Using films, novels, and plays as examples, Hochschild pointed out most stories involve characters that are connected and encounter each other.

Also discussed was technique and writing style. Hochschild believes in order reach wider audiences, historians need to make use of the classic tools writers have been using for hundreds of years, such as narrative devices of plot and scene setting. Writing that makes use of these techniques appeals to audiences outside of academia, and using these in works that expand the field can only have a positive influence. As Hochschild states in his article, “there is no reason why most history can’t be written in a way that offers thought provoking analysis and, at the same time, reaches well beyond an audience of fellow scholars.”

While pointing out various techniques and ways in which characters can help drive a written history, Hochschild did stress diligence. He warned that one must remain disciplined to not overwhelm the reader with too many characters. Introducing too many could not only lead to a work becoming tedious, but also confuse the reader, causing him or her to lose interest. Furthermore, it could become harder for the author to keep up with everything as the characters start to blend together. After all, every one of us has encountered a book, film, or television show that had so much going on, our interest faded or we were left Lost and confused.

In a field that is looking to expand further into the public consciousness, following the advice Hochschild bestowed upon our history class can be extremely beneficial. There are definitely times that research and analysis-driven works are most appropriate, yet finding a medium that appeals to both academics and popular audiences can only be beneficial. While it seems the “gap” between the two audiences is closing, producing historical works driven by characters, plot, and scene settings can only hasten the process and benefit the field by helping it grow.

Further Reading:

Hochschild, Adam. “Practicing History Without a License.” Historically Speaking XI, no. 4 (March/April 2008): 2-21.

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. New York: Mariner Books, 2011.


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