The room is now so still

The restored Den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo courtesy of Leslie Schwartz Photography.

The restored den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo credit: Leslie Schwartz Photography

This post had its genesis in an undergraduate course, “Doing Local and Community History” (taught by Amy Tyson) at DePaul University in Spring 2015. Through the course, the author, then-senior Juan-Fernando León, partnered with the Frances Willard Historical Association in Evanston, IL.  Drawing on archival research he conducted at the Willard Archives, he was inspired to write the following.

In 2006 the Frances Willard Historical Association completed a faithful restoration of a key room in the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, Illinois: the upstairs den. Serving as a library and study for suffrage and temperance reformer Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), the restored den visually freezes the space to a single moment in time: in this case, a period between 1889 (when the den was renovated) to 1898 (when Willard died). But what of the space’s longer history?

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Project Showcase: Explore le Tour

Main-Logo-855x300Longer than the Olympics and arguably as prestigious, the most attended sporting event on earth is the Tour de France, which meanders through more than 2,000 miles of Europe’s most picturesque and challenging terrain. One cannot divorce the race from the surrounding cultural heritage and history. Yet this aspect of the Tour has not been fully integrated into the media surrounding the event.

This gap is what prompted me to create Explore le Tour as a side project to my full-time job in early 2015. The eventual concept is for Explore le Tour to become a comprehensive cultural and historical guide to the Tour de France route, where blog posts about specific topics are keyed to stage-by-stage maps and information. All this is geared towards enriching the television audience and traveler’s experience.

For those planning a trip to see the Tour in person, it offers ideas and context for things to see and do, many of which are off the beaten path. For the larger audience at home, the initiative serves as an armchair guide while watching the race on television. For Tour organizers, Explore le Tour offers an opportunity for increased fan engagement and possibly an expanded fan base thanks to the wide appeal of French culture across the globe. At the same time, the website moves to boost French tourism by marketing locations and events to the same global audience.

Join the peloton’s journey through France and history this July with Explore le Tour. Vive le Tour!

~ Alex Bethke is the Cultural Resources Program Lead for Navy Region Southwest in San Diego. He traveled to see the Tour de France in 2012 and launched Explore le Tour as a reflection of his three biggest passions, history, cycling, and travel.

Why do old places matter?

“As I settle in a place, the place settles me.” Juhani Pallasmma, Forum Journal (Spring 2015)

00_29.3Cover_smallMore than fifteen months ago, my colleague at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tom Mayes, embarked on a journey. For six months, he lived at the American Academy in Rome researching and thinking about one of the most central tenets of our profession: Why Do Old Places Matter? He wanted to tease out the reasons both easy to grasp and far reaching in order to allow preservationists to create a more complete picture of why we work to save places. In those fifteen months, I feel as if I’ve traveled alongside him, literally as part of my work at the National Trust, and intellectually in trying to answer and embrace the question in my own way.

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Place-based epistemology: This is your brain on historic sites

Wilder Homestead Hill, South Dakota. Photo credit: Michelle McClellan

Wilder Homestead Hill, South Dakota. Photo credit: Michelle McClellan

The summer before last, I found myself driving around the back roads of DeSmet, South Dakota, with people I barely knew but with whom I felt a kinship based on our mutual devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. We periodically stopped the car, got out, and gazed in rapt attention at….the prairie. Occasionally a fence line or post marked the spot, but sometimes our destination had been determined by the odometer, and there was nothing on the landscape to distinguish that spot from any other. Nevertheless, we oohed and ahhed in appreciation because this place had been the homestead claim of one or another of the people Wilder described in her books. By being there, right there, we hoped we just might move through time. Continue reading


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ship Pendant Victoria and Albert




Editor’s note: This piece is part one of a special online section accompanying issue 37(2) of The Public Historian, guest edited by Lisa Junkin Lopez, which focuses on the future of historic house museums. The contributions in this section highlight the voices of artists who engage with historic house museums as sites of research, exhibition, and social practice. In this piece, Rebecca Keller takes us on a wild ride in the form of a fictional professional association’s newsletter, envisioning a provocative future where technology plays a starring role in visitors’ experiences of the past.

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Fragile history in a gentrifying neighborhood

1.Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo by the author.

Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit:  David Rotenstein

Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.

Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values.  Continue reading