Bob Beatty is founder and President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction. Previously he was Chief of Engagement at the American Association for State and Local History and Director of Education at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center. He is author of Florida’s Highwaymen: Legendary Landscapes, co-editor of Zen and the Art of Local History, and author of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History.
If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interests you?
Other than the House of Refuge in my hometown of Stuart, Florida, the first sites that really captured my imagination were Civil War era forts. Florida has several of them that I visited as a youngster: Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach and Fort Pickens in Pensacola. I was just enthralled by their size and scope (and, of course, the cannons*!). I dragged my family to Forts Pulaski and Jackson near Savannah, Georgia, and Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. We also visited the non-Civil War site of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. Then there is Gettysburg. General John Buford is an ancestor of mine so the site has always had a special place in my mind’s eye and in my memory.
Two more come to mind, both from my first trip across the pond. The first is Green Castle, a 14th-century castle in Greencastle, County Donegal, in Ireland.
Talk about stirring the imagination of a history geek! The ruins predated Columbian contact in the U.S. by nearly 200 years! Later on that same trip, we visited the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland. Its earliest buildings were from the 12th century. Cashel is the reputed site of an Irish king’s conversion by St. Patrick in the 5th century.What I loved was that there was a very tangible aspect to them. History came alive for me in the spaces.
*BTW, the cannons are somewhat of a running joke with me and Erin Carlson Mast of President Lincoln’s Cottage. When we were talking about our own experiences at sites as kids, we noticed how many photos we had standing with cannons. Now whenever I’m visiting somewhere and see a cannon (or any type of artillery), I snap a photo and send it to her by text. I post them on Facebook now too.
Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at?
If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a site that most people be surprised to learn?
There are two things that I’ve always been intrigued by both as a visitor and as a student and practitioner of history/public history.
The first is that not all historic sites are truly “as they were, when.” They are often fascinating examples of change over time, which is the bedrock of the discipline of history. Watching how sites grapple with the original vs. the updated, changing floor plans (or in the case of the Civil War forts, coastal defense systems), etc. is very interesting to me. Unfortunately I’ve observed it’s somewhat devolved into tours full of pointing out “this is original, that is original” rather than what the site means or stands for which takes so much of the power out of visiting sites.
Second is how not all sites mean the same thing to everyone who visits. Way back in 2007, David Blight addressed the AASLH conference (here’s the audio) and talked about the differences between “memory” and “history.” It’s a concept I’d long grappled with, but had never articulated as clearly as Blight had. This was/is especially true for sites that have conflicting or complex histories: plantation homes, battlefields, and the 1927 Orange County courthouse.
Thinking about this is part of my own journey to a better understanding of diversity and inclusion in our profession that I referenced in my book An AASLH Guide to Making Public History. I’m comfortable at nearly every historic site, because my narrative is typically featured very prominently within it but that’s just not the case for everyone. And it’s important for history organizations and historic sites to not only acknowledge this, but to act with intentionality to be more accessible to more than just me.
What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?
I’m looking forward to seeing what Mercer University does with the old Capricorn Studio in Macon, Georgia, mainly because the site is such a key part of the story of my recently completed dissertation: “You Wanna Play in My Band, You’d Better Come to Pick” Duane Allman and American Music.
One place I’ve never been, but will get to eventually is Max Yasgur’s farm, the site of the Woodstock festival. My friend Wade Lawrence runs the museum there, called Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
I’d also like to go back to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and do some more digging around about my family history. My great-grandfather Bob Beatty, was captain of the HMS Lyndhurst, which was based out of Belfast. My middle name is Lyndhurst, after my grandfather who was born on the ship and it inspired the name of my business, the Lyndhurst Group.
Why do you think people should visit historic sites?
Hard to even put this into words, honestly. There’s something very real about historic sites. They can convey so much history and really stir imagination. Having watched my internal focus group of museum attendees (my wife and two daughters), I’ve noticed that sites are particularly engaging for people less inclined than I to enjoy history and history museums.
How can people get in touch with you?
Twitter is where nearly all of my history-related business happens: @Lyndhurst_Group. I’m also on LinkedIn.
Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to write about their favorite sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to the public. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me.