Get to Know DigHist Contributor Lauren Pfeil

Our family copy (Thanks for the photo, Dad!)

When a mother hears her three-year-old ask, “Mommy, did you know that Teddy Roosevelt kept lots of critters in the White House?”, she likely thinks that her child is trying to angle for a puppy. In my mother’s case, she wandered over and was surprised to find that I was reading Meet Theodore Roosevelt by Ormonde de Kay; the book was one in Random House’s “Story of America” series, aimed for 3rd through 5th graders. Surprised, she asked if someone had read the book to me earlier. When I replied that I was reading it for myself, she went around the house in search of a book she knew I had not seen before. She asked me to try to read some words; I read the first page to her before she turned to my dad and asked him if he already knew that I could read. (He didn’t.)

Funnily enough, my reading tastes have stayed relatively the same as they were in that stage of child development. I still love to discover what made people tick, how events and organizations came together and fell apart, when the extraordinary and the quotidian make an impact—in short, history spurs my imagination. And thus, I find myself in Washington, D.C., enrolled in American University and pursuing a Master’s degree in Public History.

That old living room rug was in West Des Moines, Iowa, where I was raised amidst perennial political campaigns and annual sweet corn harvests. Iowa has an incredibly beautiful state capitol, a low cost of living, and quite literally gave the world sliced bread, so I will always appreciate my home state. I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Butler University—Go Dawgs!—in Indianapolis, Indiana (March Madness fans will remember our consecutive runs to the National Championship Game in 2010 and 2011). Indy is a phenomenal city, once you get over the drivers acting like it’s May three hundred and sixty-five days per year; I genuinely recommend finding any reason to add it to your road trip list.

Learning about new places has always been a love of mine—I’ve visited thirty-eight states and sixteen countries. A few of these were added to the list as a result of two years spent in leadership consulting, which helped me sharpen my skills in audience engagement (ever given a workshop to four hundred and fifty Southern sorority women straight off of a plane?) and helped me to finesse my organizational prowess. Living out of two suitcases and a backpack when you will be in both the stifling heat of Athens, Georgia and your first “snow squall” in Binghamton, New York? It’ll make you a pro at prioritization and compartmentalization.

My two suitcases many, many frequent flier miles later…

After the pandemic took me off the road and into virtual mode, I began wondering what was next for me. I love to coordinate, encapsulate, encourage, and educate. I had spent two years helping others gain tools and skills to help them learn and grow as leaders and learners. During my college years I had worked for Butler’s office of Student Disability Services. A student with visual disabilities hoped to take upper-level Spanish courses, but the Modern Languages department lacked the bandwidth to take thousands of pages of textbooks and make versions that were accessible; meanwhile, Student Disability Services lacked a Spanish-speaker on staff. Enter a junior triple-majoring in International Studies, Spanish, and Political Science who was passionate about accessibility, typed fast, and was thrilled to get pocket change for concessions at Butler Basketball games. The result? You get a student who can now hear audio versions of her textbooks and use screen readers para aprender.

Combining all of these passions of mine into studying Public History makes me excited for the future—not just as a professional, but for a future in which visitors enter a museum and find lessons that resonate with them, where students have materials that make the past come alive, and where learning about history outside of school doesn’t make people immediately think about how their dad lets yet another World War II documentary play while he “rests his eyes” on the weekends. I believe new media is the key to giving history a PR makeover. In this course, I’m excited to find the tools and strategies that will help me help others. From podcasts and documentaries, to behind-the-scenes web design and data sets, I’m thrilled to be in this course and can’t wait to share with you some secrets that will help you find your own Meet Theodore Roosevelt—a little tidbit of history so fascinating that you just can’t help but share it with others.

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

History Unmade: Physical Space Reimagined in Washington D.C.

Historians place emphasis on revealing a part of the past by showing not only what was, but also what could have been. In particular, many focus on how different groups had agency in their situations and the possibility to shape outcomes very different than what actually occurred. What if we bring this notion of agency to the history of the built environment? Few people realize how different the world around them could have been had one building design been chosen over another. These decisions are often contested battlegrounds and the history of Washington, D.C.’s design is no different.

A Very Different Capital City

The designers of D.C. itself made it as a monumental city to represent America to the world. The decisions made about where and what was built were each scrutinized tremendously and the structures that came out of these decisions have become the iconic symbols associated with this country. Notwithstanding their current greatness, wouldn’t it be cool if this was the Lincoln Memorial sitting at the end of the mall?

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John Russell Pope’s Competition Proposal for a Pyramid with Porticoes Style Monument to Abraham Lincoln. Credit: National Archives

The Library of Congress has highlighted some of these designs and their history in the book, Capital Drawings: Architectural Designs for Washington, D.C., from the Library of Congress. While this book does a good job of explaining the context of these drawings in history, I think that placing them in the context of the space they would have occupied through the visualization on a map is much more powerful. The Center for History and New Media has created a great interactive map site called Histories of the National Mall where users can interact and learn the history of the mall as they walk around. While this site is excellent for actual histories that have taken place, it still leaves room for the histories of the imagined spaces on the mall that never were.

Deliverable

Similar to HistoryPin and PhilaPlace,  by using the Google My Maps application, I will create an interactive map, placing designs never built into the landscape, using images from the Library of Congress, National Archives, Maryland Historical Society, among others. I will start with the monuments and public buildings surrounding the national mall, and expanding to other locations should time and resources permit. Building off the map, I will create an exhibit site for this topic using the Omeka content management system and embed the map on it. The images used on the map will be placed on this site as well, making them browsable and usable in online exhibits on each building. Through the exhibit pages, I will provide the context of each design’s history, found in Capital Drawings and other books on the subject.

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Current Status of Omeka Site

Audience

So there will be a map and website, but who will use it? This idea percolated in my mind for a while and oddly enough, at the beginning of February, the History Channel website posted an article called The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs. This article received 24,000 likes and 8,500 recommends on Facebook. Clearly, there is a sizable audience for this topic in the wider community of amateur history buffs, local Washington, D.C. residents, or even the general populace that has grown up with the iconic monuments. Scholars of architecture, historic preservation, and history would also be interested in examining and learning about the possibilities of a cityscape that does not exist in reality today.

Publicity

To gain interest in the project, I will contact the repositories whose collections I am utilizing, in hopes that they would advertise it on their website, social media, and to patrons. Furthermore, the Center of History and New Media is a good partner to spread the word, as their Histories of the National Mall Site is closely connected and they know the constituents who would be interested in this type of project. Beyond these routes, I will contact local media outlets and use personal social media accounts to publicize.

Evaluation

Once the site is active, I will solicit feedback from users on the user experience and content of the site. Suggestions for future places would be useful to both have new material to post as well as tailoring the website to what the users want. Ultimately, there is no way to know if the users learn from the site, only that it has reached them through usage numbers. Hopefully, this site will give users an understanding that the space they inhabit is not static and encourage them to imagine what can be.