Bob Sutton: My favorite history site

Welcome to an occasional new feature of Historyplaces called Our Favorite Sites where I ask public historians to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors.

suttonBob Sutton is Chief Historian of the U.S. National Park Service based in Washington, D.C.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you? There are many, but one that I really like is Congress Hall in Philadelphia.  Congress met there in the 1790s, and it was the county building for Philadelphia. What I liked about it was that many of the early pieces of legislation were passed there, and the first transition between one president and another. As the story went, on the day of the inauguration, after Adams was


Congress Hall

sworn in, Washington insisted that Adams should lead, followed by Jefferson, then by Washington the former president. It has been the same for every other transition, except between Adams and Jefferson–Adams skipped town before the swearing in.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job? I’ve worked at a bunch. I actually worked at Independence National Historical Park, where Congress Hall is located. Also, Fort Vancouver in Washington State, Fort Stevens in Oregon, National Capital Parks-East which has a bunch of historic sites in the district and Maryland, and Manassas National Battlefield Park. I was superintendent at Manassas, Assistant Superintendent at National Capital Parks-East, historian at the rest.

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn? Here are two examples from national parks. When I was running Manassas, I spent far more time dealing with local zoning issues, trying to get a bypass designed and approved, trying to keep cell towers away from the edge of the park, and trying and succeeding in thwarting a Congressman from forcing me to give up land in the park so an intersection could be greatly expanded.

In 2000, we held a symposium at Ford’s Theater titled Rally on the High Ground. We invited the leading scholars on the Civil War to discuss the most recent research on the topic. This became the launching pad for expanding our interpretation at Civil War Era parks, so go beyond “who shot whom, where, when and how.”  The proceedings from that conference were published in: Many of our parks started expanding their interpretive programs to talk about the causes of the war, the aftermath, the impact on families, the experiences of common soldiers in comparison to their leaders, etc.  Almost immediately, we started getting push-back from Confederate heritage groups when we started saying “that slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War,” but as the sesquicentennial approached, more and more parks included slavery as major parts of their interpretation. At Manassas, we were in the process of completely redoing all of our exhibits, films, and interpretive programs, and we were able to focus on the themes from “Rally on the High Ground,” with slavery as the cause of the war.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Little Big Horn Battlefield

Why do you think people should visit historic sites? You can get good history from books, but to visit, touch, feel, and experience the places where something happened is the best way to learn history.  [hear, hear! -Tim]

Thanks, Bob, for sharing your experiences.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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