Last fall as a DH Fellow, I worked in the education division. My activities focused on the National History Day 100 Leaders project, described in a blog post in December. This spring I moved into the public projects division, working with Megan Brett and Sheila Brennan on the Histories of the National Mall project.
I described some of the activities that I focused on in this division in a previous blog post . In many ways, working on this project has allowed me to do what I enjoy most; research historical subjects and share my findings with others. This project is also unique in that it is not tied to a time period or particular subject. Instead, we are collecting and presenting stories that are connected to a bounded geographic space. Framing research in terms of geography has encouraged me to gravitate toward the subjects that are most interesting to me, while also exposing me to new subjects, people, and events.
I’ve focused particular attention this semester on a research question that considers the monuments and other projects that are unbuilt. Of course, the history of the National Mall includes the structures and monuments that currently fill the space, but it is also marked by the things that were never there. This inquiry was started by other graduate students at the center, but I’ve enjoyed exploring the history of unbuilt monuments and other objects. These provide a rich site for investigation on several levels.
In order to be unbuilt, these items received public support and congressional approval. They have to be conceptualized, designed, and a site must be selected. Each of these decisions reflects the beliefs and attitudes of sculptor, artist, community organizer, and congressperson, as well as the broader community. The debates that memorials and monuments engendered can be very telling, especially in cases like the National Peace Garden which was designed and then redesigned based on feedback from the US Fine Arts Commission. These debates can shape the design of an object or define its placement. Further still, a lack of interest or financial support can mean that a proposal is never completed. Much of this interesting history is obscured because the memorials and monuments they propose are unbuilt and invisible. In many ways, this is the value of a project like Histories of the National Mall. It challenges us to think beyond the existing structures and to visualize what might have been. We can reimagine the space with alternate designs for existing structures, like the Lincoln Memorial, and think further about how the Mall changes with the addition of structures such as the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial or a Benjamin Banneker Memorial. Researching these items has been a fascinating and entertaining part of my semester.
In addition to these tasks, I have also aided in the promotion of the site. In the previous post, I described the social media presence that I have maintained over the semester. But recently I was also able to take part in some public outreach activities. On a sunny day this spring, I joined Megan Brett on a whirlwind tour of the greater DC area distributing pamphlets and promotional materials to public libraries, visitors centers and other related institutions. This process highlighted for me the difficulty of creating public history projects online. As much as we’d like to believe the Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe Jackson tells us, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The reality is that there can be a disconnect between the people you would like to visit your site and the people who know about it. This activity was a good reminder that even as we increasingly move to digital modes of communication, there is still a measure in which putting foot to pavement is a part of doing digital work.
In general, it has been a busy and fruitful semester in the Public Projects division. The transition from a first-year to a second-year fellow has meant that I have been given greater responsibility in these projects and have a larger stake in completing the tasks. At the end of next week I will be completing my second year as a Digital History Fellow. Looking across this period, I can note that I’ve grown quite a bit in terms of skill and knowledge and in many ways the center has meaningfully fostered this growth.