Today and tomorrow Preservation Virginia is holding its annual conference on campus — sponsored jointly by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, headed by Sweet Briar alum Kathleen Kilpatrick, and the Tusculum Institute. (This is a picture of me and Kathleen at the opening session; Kathleen is on the left.)
In greeting the group, I outlined what I think is distinctive and important about preservation as practiced at Sweet Briar. It’s a lot more than preserving buildings or displaying the decorative arts of bygone eras — although it certainly requires both of those. In the context of the liberal arts, preservation needs to be about creating sophisticated interpretations that connect preserved sites and objects to topics of interdisciplinary interest and current importance — topics like economic and environmental sustainability, race relations both under and after slavery, and women’s history.
The potential of digital technology to assist in preservation initiatives is another topic of significant interest. Whether in creating 3-D models of structures at various historical moments, or in compiling datasets that help make the case for investing in preservation, or in using GIS to explore alternative siting options, technology can support the work of preservationists.
Interdisciplinary and technologically sophisticated preservation initiatives provide wonderful opportunities for critical inquiry. Experts from across Virginia (and from several other states) have come to Sweet Briar to learn about “greening” preservation and to discuss how to approach preservation in the most environmentally and economically responsible manner possible. They are, in short, enjoying a day or two of professional development in the spirit of the liberal arts, in a beautifully preserved environment.
A couple of folks have asked about the Parker/Manasa cats, since I mentioned them in a previous post. Here is First Feline Bob, who as you can see is an easygoing sort. (Kia and Ballou were less willing to cooperate with this afternoon’s photo op, but may appear in future posts.)
Bob At Rest
By now, I’ve heard from several people about the ghosts haunting campus — including Sweet Briar House. (See this 2005 newspaper article if you haven’t heard about them!) I’m glad to report that no spectral presence has appeared to welcome me personally, at least not yet. Folklore suggests that cats can see ghosts: perhaps Bob has seen Daisy? If so, he’s not telling.
Just last week I was going over the fall calendar of events at the House. Of course, I plan to continue the tradition of “ghost tours” or “Daisy tours” this October. Dates aren’t yet set, but I hope that many of you who are on campus will be able to participate. In the mean time, I’ll try to get Bob to let me know if he spots anything, ah, ectoplasmic.
Sweet Briar is lucky to be located near to many excellent historical sites and museums — and I’m lucky that my furniture hasn’t arrived yet, so that I could spend the Fourth visiting them instead of unpacking!
Within a quick drive from campus are Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, the Stonewall Jackson House, and Point of Honor. I visited them all this last weekend and found myself thinking about how essential it is to engage with — and to struggle with — history and locality.
It’s impossible to walk on ground Jefferson owned and listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence without reflecting on the complex relationship between democracy and slavery that is so deep in Virginia (and American) history. Similarly, Sweet Briar’s history — as a 19th century plantation sustained by the labor of enslaved persons, recreated in the 20th century as an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of women — offers complex and challenging material for research and reflection.
As Sweet Briar enters the 21st century, the preservation of our legacies from the 19th and 20th centuries will inform and enrich us. My predecessor, President Emerita Betsy Muhlenfeld, made the preservation of history, both on campus and off, an important priority. She worked to ensure that the histories of our College, the state of Virginia, and the nation remain accessible to citizens and scholars and thereby strengthened the foundation on which the future will be built. For my part, I’m proud and humbled to become part of the history of Sweet Briar and to contribute to the building of its future.