Bethany Hawkins: My favorite history site

Bethany in CT 2015

Bethany at the Old State House in Hartford, CT with P. T. Barnum

Bethany Hawkins is Program Manager for the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville, TN.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?

Choosing one or two favorite historic sites is like asking me to choose between my children. When you love historic places, it is hard to pick just one. The Hermitage, Home of Andrew Jackson, has to be one of the two, simply because it was the first historic place with which I connected. I grew up in Nashville and as a fourth grader I loved reading a kid’s biography of Rachel Jackson. After seeing me reading it for the umpteenth time, my mother said, “You know we can go to her house, right?” I made her take me right away. It blew me away to know I was walking on ground where my favorite P1020459heroine walked. I remember visiting her grave and thinking it was so cool that I was actually standing above her (ok, I was a bit of a morbid kid).

I am going to cheat for the second choice and pick two which connected with me for the same reason. In my work with AASLH, I get to travel to a lot of historic places and experience them in a different way. Often, I am thinking about how I can use that visit to train others in the field about what to do (and what not to do) instead of the actual tour or story of the property. While on business for AASLH, I got to visit the Phillip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut and Drayton Hall in Charleston. In both cases, I connected to the sites outside of the formal tour at a time when neither had many visitors due to the season. I loved the landscape surrounding the properties. It was almost a spiritual experience to just “be” in the space, leaving a lasting impression with me.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

I worked at the Sam Davis Home and Museum in Smyrna, TN. It was my first job as I started as a part-time interpreter at the age of 15. It really opened my eyes to the field of history. As a result, I ended up a history major and continued to work at the site as an interpreter and then administrative assistant throughout high school and college. When the director retired, I was hired as the executive director where I served for seven years.

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?

I think most people would be surprised at the many hats one has to wear when working at a historic site. Very little of what I did on a daily basis actually dealt with history. I had a degree in history, but had to learn on the job about project management, human resources, and animal removal. I loved the various challenges that arose each day, but very little of it, at least at the small site I worked at, involved historical research and interpretation. When I did get the opportunity to “do history,” however, it was a great treat.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I would love to visit any of the multitudes of historic sites in Europe, particularly England and Italy. Through my job at AASLH, I have been privileged to visit many of America’s historic sites, but have not had the pleasure of visiting Europe. I believe it would give me an entirely new perspective of what history is and how my experiences fit into the larger world narrative.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

People should visit historic sites because they provide so many different experiences. You can visit to learn about someone, like Rachel Jackson, or to see how weird it would be to live without plumbing or electricity.

You can also visit to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Historic sites provide a great opportunity for people to make a spiritual connection to the past, nature, or just unplug for a little while.

Finally, I think people should visit historic sites to learn about the past and connect it to our present. Visiting a museum and seeing sterile artifacts in a museum case can be an important way to connect to history, but historic sites provide us history in contexts that we can relate to. We can see the past more clearly. They lived in a house, so do we. They worshiped in this church, so do we. They fought here on this place for my freedom, and I am standing here. Powerful connections can be made through place and that is why I think historic sites are so important.

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

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