Cultural Landscapes

For almost three years now, I have been working as a Cultural Landscape Historian for the National Park Service.  If you’re anything like most of the people I tell this to, you’re now probably thinking: “Cultural Landscape Historian??  What’s that?”

A valid question.

Cultural Landscape Historian is certainly one of those slightly obscure, off-the-beaten-track professions that never appear on the “occupation” list of any fill-out form, of any kind.  As a pre-schooler, I never dreamed of becoming a landscape historian.  Quite the contrary: I had my hopes set on either female police officer or ballerina (so much for that idea).  However, I have since discovered that the field of landscape history is not only an existing career option, but a fascinating one. This delightful little niche occupation studies the past of not just people, buildings, or stuff buried in the dirt; it looks instead at the big picture: the landscape itself.  As an anthropologist I was happy to jump on this bandwagon!   After all, if you think about the human experience as we live it, it’s not just about the one building, field, or wall with which you interact; you are also constantly taking in the elements you pass or observe around that place, or its environmental context.  Even better: the existence, appearance, and arrangement of these features and spaces can speak volumes about the culture of the people who live and have lived here, because the whole ensemble has been developed and influenced by human use over time.  This is what is known as a cultural landscape.  And so you can see, how I became interested in this sort of thing… 🙂

In my current job, I primarily research and write what are known as Cultural Landscape Inventories (CLIs).  These documents, which exist on an online database after they are created, inventory the history and condition of cultural resources throughout our National Parks.  Perhaps most importantly, they analyze the “integrity” of each resource, or how effectively it has been preserved in its historic form over time, and use the site history to evaluate each element of the landscape to determine whether it contributes to the historic character of the surrounding landscape or not.  Thus the inventory provides the cultural landscape for each of these sites, including everything from its topography to its fences, structures, and vegetation, with the necessary and specific historical context to help inform today’s park staff of what they have and, to some extent, how best to think about it.  Meanwhile, the more beefy counterpart of the CLI, or the Cultural Landscape Report (CLR), involves still more exhaustive research on cultural resources at sites and goes one step further, to make recommendations for how best to preserve the historic character of the particular site in question.

One of the greatest things about doing this work is that you get to know and understand the history and development of your local area.  While working in Boston I lucked out and got to work on two CLR projects on the outer arm of Cape Cod.  Since moving to DC, I’ve gotten to know a variety of different sites in the capital, Virginia, and West Virginia.  To give you a better idea of what I’ve been up to, and more importantly share some of my new-found knowledge, I’ve created a few pages on my favorite projects.  Please do visit the sites in person…and enjoy!

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