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Home arrowInclusiveness arrowInterview with Molly Kerr, Founding Director History Revealed, Inc.

Interview with Molly Kerr, Founding Director History Revealed, Inc.

Molly Kerr is a founding director of History Revealed, Inc., a recently created non-profit that focuses on researching and interpreting the American past. She has a bachelor’s and master’s in anthropology from the University of Mary Washington (nee Mary Washington College) and the University of Arkansas - Fayetteville, respectively. Between working as a “shovel bum” and substitute teaching, she realized early that her real passion was for sharing research results with the public and strove to find a way to make that possible. She worked at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation from 1999 to 2001.She also worked for George Washington’s Mount Vernon as a digital humanities project manager creating a database cataloging evidence of the lives of the enslaved at Mount Vernon, and at Colonial Williamsburg as its supervisor of teacher development managing its teacher programs. The creation of History Revealed, Inc. is the culmination of her years of diverse experiences and, through it, she looks forward to being able to bring the themes of history and preservation to a larger audience.

What led you to your field?
I have always had an interest in preservation and history - starting when I was young, devastated by the widening of a road and the loss that occurred with its construction. In college, I ended up in anthropology/archaeology, as I was drawn to the human component to the past. Talking about and teaching about the past also played a role in my professional direction.

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
Historic preservation comes in many forms. At the moment, my focus is on how historic documents can inform us to preserve the legacy of the past, especially to teach us more about the individuals who lived, what they ate, where they lived, what they possessed, etc. With any luck, I’ll be able to connect these documents to specific archaeological sites and make connections between the artifacts found and when those objects were purchased.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
Prior to the advent of the digital world, what survived the elements was all that was left for the future to know what happened in the past-whether that was documents, art, buildings, objects, artifacts, landscapes, etc. I think working to preserve those few elements helps us better understand the past, especially given that the puzzle is already missing so many pieces. Learning from our past helps us to make informed decisions about our future - the old adage, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana, 1905).

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Humanities subjects are essential: anthropology, history, linguistics, architectural history. But, with the evolving technologies, GIS, digital visualizations, and website design are in high demand, and it’s definitely important to get grounding in spreadsheets and databases- I have yet to have a job that didn’t require me to know how to use a spreadsheet.

Do you have a favorite preservation project?  What about it made it special?
As a trained archaeologist, although not currently practicing, I love state-wide avocational archaeology programs. My first introduction to the Archeological Society of Virginia was more than 20 years ago as an undergraduate on an archaeological project on Virginia’s Northern Neck. As a graduate student, I joined the Arkansas Archeological Society, one of the most active and organized in the country, and I enjoyed its annual field school and additional practical learning experiences outside the classroom.

The community and camaraderie and willingness to share knowledge really impressed me. It was almost an apprentice opportunity, where you could learn about archaeology and the peoples being studied by working with the more experienced avocationalists and professional archaeologists. Although it was what I was studying in school, by interacting with folks who were doing it as a passion rather than for employment, it reminded me that you are never too old to keep learning and that folks come to archaeology from many different paths.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
One of the primary projects History Revealed, Inc. is working on at the moment is the transcription and analysis of store accounts from the 18th century in and around Alexandria, Virginia. The accounts provide a relatively holistic approach to the community surrounding the stores as they include purchases made not by just wealthy, white, male, plantation owners, but all classes of individuals, including women and slaves. One of the attractions of these ledgers is their ability to inform so many different disciplines-archaeology for material culture, architectural history for building products and practices, genealogy with people (as shoppers) who are often not found in the written record otherwise, economics for valuation of items individually and over time, religious studies for the role the church played in these individuals’ daily lives and how that plays out in the accounts, geography given the distances people had to overcome to shop, and so on.

We involve students and volunteers in as much of the process as possible, and have even been added to the syllabus of several upper level American history classes. Although not ready for publication yet, the plan is to make the transcripts publicly accessible and expand the project to other stores/regions.

How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?
National historic preservation programs remind us that our communities are connected to one another and are not alone. National programs provide credibility to and funding for local projects that may need help to jump start their efforts. Applying for national recognition provides the clarity of voice local projects sometimes need.

Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
Try to experience as many different avenues of preservation as possible before deciding on your path. I thought archaeology (excavating) was going to be my career but came to realize that my desire to share stories about the past through working with learners of all ages was going to be difficult if I stayed solely in the dirt. Remember there may be many avenues within a single discipline: archaeologists don’t only dig in the dirt - they work in the lab curating artifacts, they analyze their findings (soils, artifacts, landscapes, features, etc.), they make maps, they research in local archives, they take photographs, they draw, they educate the public, they manage websites, and they write articles and reports.

The ACHP’s mission is “preserving America’s heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving its heritage?
I live not far from historic Alexandria, Virginia. While not a preservation museum like Colonial Williamsburg, Alexandria has made a concerted effort to preserve its original appearance and still be a modern, living city thriving with businesses and residents. It may not be seamless, but the city strives to find a balance between modernity and the city’s historic past in appearance to give one a small sense of what life may have looked like. Through the city’s archaeology program, construction sites are monitored for archaeological remains during new construction and renovations of existing properties. The city’s museums provide programming for the public about the community’s past- and they do not limit themselves to just the recognized people and places and events. Preserving heritage doesn’t always mean being frozen in time, and I appreciate how Alexandria seeks a balance between maintaining its historic integrity and to still be a successful municipality.

How can business/entrepreneurial consulting play a role in historic preservation?
Business and entrepreneurial consulting plays a significant role in historic preservation. With a push for smaller government, but still with regulations and statutes that require preservation related efforts, consultants allow for jurisdictions to meet their obligations without having to have a large staff of their own. History Revealed, Inc., and other consultants provide access to research efforts that may be inaccessible otherwise.

As a brand new non-profit, our interests focus on individuals and communities whose stories are not traditionally told. We hope to work with both museums and municipalities to help them further their goals, especially to be able to seek out diverse funding sources to accomplish these goals.

Read more Q&A stories about the preservationists in your neighborhood!

 

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