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Capturing COVID-19

Miller 2Scott Miller is a PhD student at the University of South Florida. His area of concentration is 20th Century American history with a focus on the Cold War.

Capturing COVID-19

“For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle.” This is an excerpt from a letter written by a doctor stationed at Camp Davens (Massachusetts) during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Letters, diaries, and photographs from that period have provided historians with invaluable insight into the pandemic that took over 20 million lives.

As the world wrestles with a new pandemic, historians around the world are mobilizing to document this crisis for future generations. A recent New York Times article discussed how museums in such countries as Finland, Denmark and Switzerland are scurrying to record history as it unfolds.[1] The staff at Denmark’s Vesthimmerlands Museum have been busy capturing  photographs of the empty streets and shut down stores.  Museum curator Maria Hagstrup is quoted as saying, “Usually, we think of a museum as a place with objects behind solid glass. But right now, we have a chance to get people’s impressions in the moment, before they’ve even had time to reflect on them.”  When it is safe, the museum also hopes to collect objects relevant to the pandemic.

Here in the United States, several historical associations are reaching out to the public for help recording current events.

The Connecticut Historical Society has created a portal for residents to upload their personal stories, photographs and drawings. “We are living in historic times. We recognize that primary source material is the ingredient that history is made of,” said Ilene Frank, chief curator of the historical society in a recent interview. “One hundred years from now, people will be able to study the statistics about how many businesses closed, how many people got sick. We want the human touch, capturing the experience of living during this time.”[2]

Minnesota’s Historical Society isn’t new to documenting history in the moment. In 2016, following the death of native son Prince, the Society collected residents’ stories and photographs of the musical legend. Today, they are requesting COVID-19 related digital submissions— stories, images, sound files, or moving images.  Some selected material will be posted on social media, and some preserved at the History Center.

The Maryland Historical Society has created Collecting in Quarantine. The initiative consists of two parts. The first,  Letters from the Homefront, is asking Marylanders to email their first-person accounts of how this pandemic is affecting their lives. The Business Unusual element is requesting photographs to tell the economic impact side of this crisis.




COVID-19 and Mount Vernon

thumbnail_Rebekah_MunsonRebekah Munson is a graduate student at the University of South Florida with a major focus on Medieval Sicily and a minor focus on Digital Bioarchaeology. During her time in graduate school she has worked on numerous digital archaeological projects and currently is the editorial assistant for The Historian.

Global Time of Crisis and Museums: A Frontline View.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted many factors of daily life in different directions and restructured how people are able to work, shop, travel, and participate in typical life events. As social distancing has become a new normal for many, with many working remotely, standard operating procedures have shifted. This is especially interesting as it pertains to museums because they fill a unique niche in society, and each museum has its own mission whether it is a living history museum or a fine art museum. While the focus of any given museum is different, they are typically institutions who seek to educate and inform the public of a variety of facets of the human condition from science and nature to history to art. Many famous museums have taken steps to put their collections online so that people anywhere have access to their collections from the safety of their home. Hosting collections online, however, is a very topical look at how museums and their staff are handling this global crisis. To further understand what is happening on the front lines with museum staff during this transition, I spoke with Megan Little who is a collections technician at Mount Vernon, the mansion of George Washington.

RM: What is your role (at Mount Vernon), and what do you do when there is not a pandemic? ML: My title is Collections Technician so, basically, I help take care of the objects on the estate. Normally it’s me and three assistant collections managers (we call them ACMs) who clean the mansion every day as well as handle any object movements, inventory, and etcetera.

RM: How has the time of crisis shifted the role or focus of your museum?

ML: The crisis has not really shifted the role or focus of the museum, rather it has shifted how the mission is shared. People are still learning about George Washington and his home, just not in person through guided tours and visits.

RM: Were there any plans in place in case of some type of major crisis?

ML: There is already a disaster plan for any major crisis that has procedures for crisis.

RM: What is the museum doing during this time? (in terms of programming, increased online presence/content, etc.)

ML: The museum is mainly concentrating on outreach through online platforms. There are live streams with the President of the estate on Facebook and Instagram where he discusses the history of one particular room in the mansion (he lives on the estate so he can walk over) as well as live videos with education staff members from their homes where they answer questions from the public. These videos concentrate on different topics and time periods relevant to George Washington.

RM: Did you have any mechanisms to help you improvise and shift operations and procedures? Have they been useful? Why or why not?

ML: We are lucky enough to be a larger museum, so we have more tools and staff available to make the shift easier. As far as specific tools and procedures, I would say that the fact that we

have our own departments such as IT and security has been useful and made the transition smoother as all the directions have been coordinated and the same.

RM: How has the transition been to working from home?

ML: The shift to working at home has been equally difficult and easy. As a collections staff member, I am used to working with the objects: cleaning, inventory, etc. While working from home gives me the chance to catch up on paperwork and other desk work, I miss the hands-on aspect of my job. So at least for me, the hard part has been adjusting to how my job has temporarily shifted to something more remote.

During this time of crisis, it is important to not only think of the role that museums are playing through their online content to stay relevant and providing a platform of accessibility to those who are unable to visit these sites in person – due to quarantine, finances, or disabilities among other reasons – but also to pay attention to those who are facilitating this shift on the front lines. Without the front-line staff, none of this would be possible.

For content from Mount Vernon, follow them on Instagram.

Three Viennese Museums’ Responses to Covid-19. Two: The Museum of Vienna.

ObermuellerAlexander Obermueller currently works on his Master’s thesis on the Raiford prison uprising of 1971. Before coming to USF he graduated from the University of Vienna and worked on a project on the Austrian Civil War.

Three Viennese Museum’s Responses to the Current Crisis.

@wienmuseum Museum of Vienna

The city’s “general-purpose metropolitan museum” announced its closing with a generic text-based shareable on March 11th.1 Almost a week later the social media staff shared a poster of the 1937 hygiene fair in Vienna, bridging the present crisis with past events related to hygiene. Vienna witnessed these exhibits in 1906, 1925, and 1937. The post states that hygiene encompassed a wide variety of measures not just simply protection from infections. Wien Museum_Poster of the hygiene fair of 1937_March 17, 2020By using this poster, the social media staff shows flexibility and creativity connecting past and current events to call on the public to “stay save and at home.” The hash tags #museumfromhome and #closedbutactive are also frequently used. Hygiene makes another appearance in a post about the renowned Viennese architect Otto Wagner. By stressing Wagner’s focus on comfort and hygiene as pillars of truly modern architecture, the long history of concern for hygiene is once more displayed.

In their next post, museum staff again refers to the current crisis and advertises its reading material at the same time. By depicting a backpack used by food delivery personnel, a booming job not only because restaurants closures, museum staff simultaneously refer to a new reality and reminds its audience of previous exhibitions on service sector jobs at the same time. Wien Museum_Food delivery backpack_March 19, 2020Attuned to the more casual tone on Instagram, staff posted a picture that lauds well-practiced social distancing: Only one person sits on each bench in the park outside of the Wien Museum. Again, the connection between the crisis and new social practices, namely social distancing, is tied to the museum by using a picture of the near vicinity.

Wien Museum_Social distancing at the park in front of the museum_March 20, 2020The new reality forces many of us to be confined to our homes by shelter in place ordinances all across the world. For those lucky enough to continue their jobs at home and not being fired, this change often results in a more relaxed working experience. Fitness and recipe challenges pop up all over the Internet to make the prolonged indoor stay bearable. Especially those employed in secure jobs and equipped with financial savings embrace the new homemaking or Biedermeier movement and embark on proper baking sprees. Being on lock down also confronts people with their living space and the Wien Museum jumps that train by referencing museums’ focus on and exhibitions about the home under the hash tag #atmuseumsanywhere. By sharing a picture of author Franz Grillparzer’s home, the social media team acknowledges the current, (en)forced fixation on the home.Wien Museum_At Home_Franz Grillparzer's home_March 24, 2020

In the last post, museum staff references lock down as a well rehearsed strategy against infectious diseases throughout history. Picturing the Viennese plague column erected in 1693 between deserted outdoors cafés evokes a deserted image of a City on lock down. A user even notices the black color umbrellas, which resemble black ribbons. A link leading to an article on hygiene in Vienna and the construction of the sewerage system accompanies the picture. In an effort to include the public the Wien Museum initiated Corona in Vienna: A Historical Collection Project. To catalogue the impact of the crisis on daily lives, the museum called on the public to send “photos of things that exemplify your new private or professional life in the times of Corona.” Museum officials promise to include these objects into the museums collection. Among the pictures already submitted are Corona themed graffiti, documentation of fever curve and an emergency phone call, empty shelves without toilet papers, a homemade face mask, a stuffed toy virus, a shopping list of an elderly neighbor who was not able to go outside, and depictions of home schooling experiences.

Wien Museum, in contrast to the Jewish Museum of Vienna, refrains from any references to their current exhibition, but instead chooses to embed the current state of emergency into the history of infectious diseases, hygiene, and changes in daily life. The museum’s blog even features long-reads about the history of greeting rituals. While the JMV aims at attracting visitors to its existing exhibition, the Wien Museum called on the public to contribute their experiences and objects that exemplify this unprecedented crisis.

Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp and Covid-19.

Lauren Piccinini is a Master’s student with the University of South Florida. Her area of concentration is American History with a specialization regarding American Prisoners of War.
Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp and Covid-19

As the world slowly turned to a grinding halt due to the rapid spread of 2019-nCoV, commonly known as Coronavirus, the historical community began racing to find a way to continue “front-line education.” In this defining and unprecedented time, the world must find a way to move forward without actually moving, thus social media has stepped into the forefront as a source of delivery for museums, national parks, and educational institutions. Utilizing this technology and platform, historical institutions have been able to reach a whole new audience during this time of quarantine and social distancing.

One such institution that has embraced this way of meeting with the community is the National Prison of War Museum, which sits on the remains of the Andersonville Prisoner of War camp. Andersonville Camp, formerly known as Camp Sumter, was built as a Union Prisoner of War camp during the American Civil War and was designed to hold roughly 10,000 prisoners. Andersonville 1When it opened to receive prisoners in April, 1984, the Confederacy was ill-equipped to deal with the Union prisoner population. This is clearly evident as the camp was not fully completed when the first prisoners arrived. Nonetheless, the camp continued to accept prisoners and by August, 1864, the population within the camp swelled to over 33,000 men. As a direct result, the conditions within the camp deteriorated and mortality ranks surged, to almost 13,000 Union soldiers. The leading causes of death within the camp were chronic diarrhea, dysentery, and scurvy. While Andersonville was only in operation for fourteen months, it received over 45,000 soldiers and is notorious for being the largest and most deadly Confederate Prisoner of War camp. [1]

Following the American Civil War, Clara Barton and Dorence Atwater, a former prisoner, returned to the site in order to categorize and rebury all of the deceased men. Since that time, the camp and the burial grounds have fallen into the hands of the National Park system. In recent years, the camp dedicated a museum on the grounds to inform the public on the perils of being a prisoner of war and expanded the scholarship beyond the American Civil War. Annually, the camp hosts Living History weekend, night tours, and educational seminars that are designed to engage the average citizen into the topic of prisoners of war.

When the novel Coronavirus began to spread in the United States, the park took notice and by March 18, 2020, the camp made the decision to close the museum for the safety and wellbeing of their guests, volunteers, and employees. Andersonville 2On March 24, 2020, the camp, having been influenced by the Center for Disease Control and the state of Georgia, closed the park grounds to visitors and they have suspended all military honors during burials at the National Cemetery, which is the burial ground that Atwater and Barton established and sits on the camp grounds. In an effort to remain connected to the individuals who intended to attend a workshop or visit the museum, the park service has engaged the public using livestreaming capabilities on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Instagram.

On the morning of March 28, 2020, Ranger J with the National Park Service at Andersonville greeted thousands of people who were interested in taking a virtual tour of Andersonville. As I sat comfortably on my couch, I saw people checking in from places near and far: Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Utah, Iowa, South Dakota, England (UK), Switzerland, and Afghanistan. While geography certainly was not a commonality with the viewers, the topic of Andersonville prison site certainly connected all of us. For the next 40 minutes, Ranger J introduced an unimaginable amount of people to the history of the camp, the players involved with the camp, and answered questioned posed by her viewers. By midday on March 29, 2020, Ranger J’s livestream had been viewed over 17,000 times. I believe that it is safe to assume that this is largest amount of people who have “visited” the camp in a single morning. Due to the overwhelming popularity, the camp has decided to dedicate Saturday mornings to “Social Saturdays,” with the next stroll occurring on April 4, 2020. This upcoming stream will focus on the burial grounds and the history associated with those interned.[2]

As the world changes, historical institutions have to adjust in order to deliver their content to a new population. During these uncertain times, it appears that the use of livestreaming tours has generated new life into old topics. While quarantining seems boring and lifeless, it is an excellent time to learn something new, of which Andersonville National Park has delivered. Make sure to tune in this, and all upcoming, Saturdays for information on the site, the prisoners who suffered and those who were responsible.

[1] Information on Andersonville POW camp obtained from: McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988)

[2] Information on Andersonville National Park obtained from: “Causes of Death” Available from, “Alerts & Conditions” Available from & “Camp Sumter/Andersonville Prison” Available from

Three Viennese Museums’ Responses to Covid-19. One: Jewish Museum Vienna

ObermuellerAlexander Obermueller currently works on his Master’s thesis on the Raiford prison uprising of 1971. Before coming to USF he graduated from the University of Vienna and worked on a project on the Austrian Civil War.

Three Viennese Museum’s responses to the current crisis

Covid 19 not put only an end to in person classes at universities and schools but forced museums all around the world to close down for an unforeseeable time as well. Without in person visits, museums struggle to remain relevant. Some institutions could fall back on well-developed online tools and modes of digital engagement. For many closing their doors to an audience who is not able to attend proves to be a big challenge. How can institutions that promise to provide a close up experience of history (or art) through the “authentic” objects they exhibit, transition to an online experience that inserts another filter between the wanting audience and the powerful aura of unique objects. In this article I discuss three Viennese museums and their different approaches towards the challenges that Covid 19 entails.


Former journalist and head of the Jewish Museum Vienna Danielle Spera chose a format reminiscent of her former profession to announce the museum’s reaction to Covid 19. On March 11th Spera, correspondent like a microphone in hand, told the museum’s Instagram audience that the Jewish Museum will be closed, at least until April 3rd. Spera also invited visitors to follow the Museum’s online presence to make up for the lost opportunity of an in person visit. A week later the museum staff started using the hash tag #closedbutactive to emphasize its efforts to serve visitors and remain relevant during the Corona crisis. JMV_Danielle Spera announced that the JMV is closed due to Covid 19_March 11, 2020Danielle Spera guides virtual visitors through the current Ephrussi exhibition and narrates what visitors usually experience on their own. The hash tags #digitalmuseum and #museumfromhome signify the mediated museum experience. Another hash tag #jmwanywhere stresses the possibility to visit the Jewish Museum Vienna from anywhere. Additionally the social media team started using #stayathome a call on the community to protect those who are vulnerable and stay away from an institution that usually aims at attracting visitors.

In another episode of the virtual tour through the exhibition Spera references a video interview visitors would be able to watch on site. Visitors quickly encounter the limitations of the improvised museum tours. The video interview is not accessible to the online-audience probably due to copyright issues, the lack of time resources, or other inhibiting factors – this is uncharted territory and we all come up with strategies as we go along. JMV_Danielle Spera guiding a virtual tour through the Ephrussi exhibit_March 25, 2020The Jewish Museum Vienna’s permanent exhibition is accessible via Google Arts & Culture and on the current exhibition one can find an image video produced for the kick off of the exhibit, yet the current situation calls for improvisation. Virtual visitors profit from a rather exclusive format – it rarely happens that a museum director herself guides you through a tour.

Four days after the start of the minute long tours of the exhibit, the static camera position begins to move closer to the discussed objects, to allow visitors to engage them in more detail. Besides tours of the current exhibit and the weekly “Shabbat Shalom” posting, the director of collections makes a special appearance to commemorate the 250 anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday. A series of events, organized under the umbrella of #Beethoven2020 had to be canceled due to the virus and cultural institutions all over Vienna struggle to move the scheduled events online. JMV_Danielle Spera guiding a virtual tour through the Ephrussi exhibit, closer look at Parochet_March 25, 2020Corona not only presents a challenge to institutions as a whole but also forces museum professionals to step into the spot light or get engaged with social media. Whereas the trained journalist Danielle Spera performs her tours eloquently other museum staff understandably struggles to adjust to the unfamiliar and challenging setting.

Public History During Covid-19 Days.

20_0305_opa_coronavirus-micro (1)My graduate Public History seminar this semester has been driven online thanks to CV19. This of course has barred the possibility of people coming up with new interesting projects. A few students already have something clever going on, so they are taken care of and are burrowing away. But the rest of us decided that the best thing to do was focus on the web and explore how public historical sites, museums, and other related entities are coping with this pandemic. The plan is to share their findings here. So, over the next few weeks I will be posting students’ work as we take a look at how public history reacts and responds.

The Road to Mattox and Washington’s Birthplace.

One of the reasons I am so interested in making sense of this landscape is that its residents have centuries of dealing with the relationship between land and water. Of course much of the landscape is hard by creeks and rivers. That might just be a regular fact of life, except that the Potomac has been gaining in force driven by changes to the overall climate and ecosystem. At GeWa this means that archaeological sites like the Henry Brooks site are threatened by coastal erosion. More than threatened really–the site is falling into the river. But managing water here has been a problem for centuries. Large and deep drainage ditches are also one of the most fascinating parts of the landscape and I believe they have quite a bit to tell about where and how people lived on, used, and understood this landscape.

That is a part of why making sense of the maps is so important to me as I try to unpack this landscape.  Here is a problem though that is bothering me. Return to Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey and map which are a major touchstone for me. Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 2.43.17 PMThe western border of the Washington land Lamkin surveyed was the road he called the Road to the Burnt House–it is the backwards L I have highlighted in this close up photo. The ultimate destination and name of that road is a question in and of itself, but for now, let’s focus on the spur that breaks off to its south–also highlighted here. Lamkin called this eastbound spur the Road to Washington’s Mill. Indeed, there was a mill at the head of Pope’s Creek for ages–the remains of its 20c iteration are still there to be seen. The area is now called Potomac Mills–not be confused with the giant mall on I-95 near DC. Right where Lamkin has written “Washington’s” there is another road forking with a spur headed back westward–making for a sort of backwards Z of a road.

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Upside down clip of Lamkin’s map showing his Road to Mattox.

It is that last spur–the west heading one–that is troubling me. Lamkin called it Road to Mattox. That would seem to be a reference to Mattox Creek which is the other large creek bounding this land on the west just as Pope’s Creek bounds it to the east. The problem is that it makes no sense to me for the road to Mattox to be here. The Road to the Burnt House seems to end at the head of Bridge’s Creek–the small creek in the middle of the land. The road’s westward turn–the bottom of the backwards L–runs back to King’s Highway which was the main road down the peninsula and more or less survives today as Route 3. That road itself would have run past the head of Mattox, so why then would a road headed there run south of that road when the whole creek is in fact north of King’s Highway. Take a look at the Google Maps screen grab I am posting below and see if you can follow my reasoning. There are a few options. One is that Mattox refers to something other than the creek, but I doubt that. More likely is that this Road to Mattox in fact links back to King’s Highway somewhere close by, but off the map. On Lamkin’s map, both The Road to the Burnt House and The Road to Mattox cut off before we see where they are going–but notice how they both are headed more or less the same direction. It is easy to imagine Kings Highway running up and down just to the left of this map with both roads connecting to it there.

This is the sort of unspooling one has to do when trying to make sense in detail of these sorts of landscapes. One is always working from scraps and no one is going to come in and set you straight. Part of what makes this so important to work out is that local naming practices are valuable clues to how the roads functioned as part of the larger human social network. Every road has at least two directions–two destinations. Thus, the choice to highlight one direction in a name over another says a lot about how the road functioned and how people understood these places. Why is this the Road to Mattox and not the Road to Washington’s Mill–after all it went there as well?  That was a choice. Whose eyes are we seeing through? What does it mean that The Road to the Burnt House seems to be named for something at its eastern end, while the Road to Mattox is named for something at its west? After all, the Road to the Burnt House was also a road to Mattox via King’s Highway–n’est pas? These are choices here and those tell us something about how this place worked. The past people are trying to tell us us something in this subtle way.  Maps kick ass!

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Mattox Creek is at the left and Pope’s Creek is right. GeWa is marked with the pin. You can see Potomac Mills at the head of the creek and also note that it sits on Rt 3–the old run of King’s Highway. The section of Lamkin’s map I shared is all happening between GeWa and the place called here Wakefield Corner (a 20c name). That run of Rt 3 between Wakefield Corner and Potomac Mills is what I think Lamkin’s roads are linking to.

Surveys and Plats at George Washington’s Birthplace.

Here’s how this worked. A surveyor and his assistants would walk or ride the “metes and bounds” of a property noting the distinguishing landscape features that defined the various corners and limits of a property. Sometimes the border was a creek. Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey of the old Washington lands at GeWa for example, began his survey at Bridges Creek and then followed the run of “the said creek the several meanders thereof.” Other times it was a road or fence. A survey would often include notable landmarks like the “red oak at Pea Hill Gate” Lamkin singled out because any local would know just what he meant. Other times a party might make their own marks when nothing obvious was in sight.

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The opening lines of Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey as reprinted in 1859.

Three Chopt Road west of Richmond, Va for example is named for just such a surveyor’s mark. Not all markers survived though. Seventeenth-century surveys of the area that became Williamsburg, Va often referred to a now-long-lost large stone. No has ever located that exact spot adding a fun element of guess work to understanding property lines.

The game then was for the survey team to measure the direction and distance between each point as the team came upon them. So a survey was more in the form of what used to be called a “rudder,” — a verbal and numerical description of a walk over the land. Again from Lamkin: “Thence S 42 ½ [degrees] W 16 poles to Wakefield Gate at H.”

The next step was to “plat” the survey–to draw it as a map: to change the words to a form of art. Not all surveys were platted, but plats are among my very most favorite forms of documents around. The best have the survey written on them as well so you can sort of trace out the path yourself. These documents are full of detailed landscape information while giving us the opportunity to see the land as it was understood and prioritized in the past.

We are lucky that the Washington land had several surveys and plats over the years. These are vital tools in reconsidering the place and making it all make sense.

One of the earliest is the Robert Chamberlain’s 1683 map of the land that shows the location of John Washington’s (1631-1677) house on the right in relation to the Potomac River at the bottom of the map. The play is a masterpiece of the art form. From the compass sign to the little symbolic houses (stay tuned for a post about those), this is master craftsmanship here.

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Robert Chamberlain, 1683

Not all plats are as clear as this one though. The Library of Congress has an obscure collection of Washington related documents that bear on the GeWa story. Take a look at this crazy plat and see if you can understand it. It represents a subdivison of what should be Washington and neighboring land from sometime in the early 18c. The waterway on the right is the Potomac. Note how the drafter has used hash marks to indicate shore lines. He has made the river rather narrow and shows the Maryland shore on the far right. But look at how those hash marks work along Pope’s Creek on the bottom of the map. See the problem? I guess this is the first survey plat By M. C. Esher.


Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 plat and survey is one of the most useful documents for trying to figure out some site mysteries. This is one we will return to again and again as I blog this project.

Photostat of survey plat Lamkin 1813 COLOR

Samuel Lamkin, 1813

George Washington’s Birthplace on C-SPAN.

George Washington’s Birthplace Map and Art.

We need some background. George Washington’s birthplace is in Westmoreland County, Virginia. It is just off of Route 3 about 40 miles east of Fredericksburg. If you drive out to visit there you can also swing by Stratford Hall a few miles farther east and see one of the most remarkable eighteenth-century Virginia homes. Washington’s Birthplace–some times called Pope’s Creek, other times called by its mid-18c name Wakefield–is owned and run by the National Park Service. The site’s NPS name is GeWa (first two letters of a site’s first two names), and I have gotten pretty used to that name. But GeWa is not an easy site to interpret to visitors. There was not much left of the old Washington homestead above ground by the start of nineteenth century. The location of the home—the Washington birth home—that so many have wanted to find has been a mystery since then. Everything built that is visible today is new–and error riddled. For a deeper background on the colonial history of the site and how the park has reported it, take a look at this Cultural Landscape Inventory. It is a good survey of the land ownership history and some of the challenges. It also embeds some of the assumptions we are now challenging.


This is Benson Lossing’s etching of the stone Parke Custis left at the site. Lossing never saw the stone. 

In 1815 George Washington Parke Custis and friends placed a commemorative stone where they thought the home had been, but they relied on the memory of others to locate the site. Since then the focus has been on where that stone had been. Even in the 1920s as the nation was getting ready for the Washington birth bicentennial, debate still focused on a chain of memory used to locate the lost stone. Independent evidence—like archaeology—was made to fit with stories and privileged memories rather receive its just due as an authoritative and independent stream of information. The park is now working to correct the confused mix of stories that have held sway for decades, and I am glad to be helping.

Gewa paintingThis NPS commissioned painting is a fine representation of the fanciful landscape as imagined by the 1920s folks, here painted with newer understandings of outbuildings layered onto it. It is not a bad vision of an 18c Virginia plantation–it’s just that it is composed of made up parts. No such plantation existed here. The painting shows the fanciful 1920s Memorial House Museum as the Washington home. It was not. In fact, there was very little actual research that went into its building. It was a vanity project by an autonomous group of commemorators and the home looks like a cross between Gunston Hall and Twifford which was the home of the main backer’s grandmother.


This is a Historic American Building Survey photo of Twifford in King George County, Virginia. 

Not only that, but they sat their brick version of Twifford atop the remains of a curious outbuilding—remains which were destroyed in the building process. The rest of landscape is more imagination than anything else. We saw the same thing at Ferry Farm where an iconic set of errors were reinscribed with each new rendering giving new life over and over to old error. Nevertheless, this painting captures what visitors to the site see (more or less) and what rangers work so hard to clarify. It is a difficult task since so much of the available information and art is working against their efforts to share a better understanding. The little white outline on the right has been called Building X. That is the set of brick foundation features—excavated in 1930 and 1936 and which we re examined in 2013. These have been labeled the real Washington birth home, but that is a dubious claim at best. The whole site is a work in progress.

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Returning to the 1897 USGC map shows a bit more of this site from a similar angle. What the map labels as “Monument” is the site of the Memorial House Museum. That straight road that runs away from it now extends all the way down to Rt 3. When this map was drafted though, visitors arrived by steam boat on a Potomac dock at the end of the straight road running to the left past the Granary.

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