Bringing Wonder Back into My Historical Practice (Omohundro Conference Part I)

Over the weekend, I attended the Omohundro Institute Annual Conference. It was a fantastic conference and I came away inspired and ready to tackle my work. I also had a few reflections I’d like to share. On Saturday night, the OI threw a 75th anniversary party on Jamestown Island. Of course, Jamestown can be a problematic place. It is a moment of discovery and settlement for Anglo-Americans and also a moment of violence and dispossession for Native Americans. It is important to study the place and acknowledge both realities.

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Yet as I stood on the banks of the James River at the nerdiest possible party in the history of nerdy parties, I was struck by a sense of sheer wonder. This was the exact spot is where Anglo-American society took root in the Western hemisphere. And I was standing there. And it was really freaking cool. For better or worse, it was a giant moment in history. It is only one tiny part of the story that needs to be told and I’m aware of the major issues with celebrating this place. But I got to watch the sun set and see what it would have looked like 400 years ago (albeit with dental hygiene, bug spray, vaccines, the right to wear pants, and a woman with a Ph.D.).

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As historians we are taught to be mindful of methodology and evidence and theory and sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed with the responsibility of telling complicated stories to the best of our ability. But most of us probably started thinking about history when we were quite young by standing in a place and realizing that someone had walked that same spot so many many years ago. Our 5 year old selves would have been awed by all that came before us.

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Now maybe it was the wine or the really spectacular sunset or the giant bald eagle that flew right over me on the banks the James river, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe we should bring a little bit more of that wonder back into our scholarship.

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Wouldn’t it be better to show that we are totally blown away by the awesomeness that is the history we get to experience (whether it be the good, bad, or smelly)? Wouldn’t that reach more people and help people see history as more than facts and dates and places on a map? The more passion we can show, the better. I don’t mean telling only positive stories or outcomes that are comfortable. I know that serious scholarship demands going beyond this sense of wonder and delving into the really intense, negotiated realities of everyday life. But my time at Jamestown on Saturday night made me committed to bringing my excitement for history onto the written page as much as possible. I hope you will join me.


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