Describe what you’re currently working on at Historic Columbia. What projects are currently keeping you occupied?
Over the last five years Historic Columbia has been engaged in a complete overhaul of the interpretive frame and content delivery at four of the six historic sites that we manage. Our goals include ensuring that all individuals associated with a site are represented in the narrative and that visitors are challenged to think more critically about the past in new ways. In 2014 we opened the only museum dedicated to the Reconstruction Era inside the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. Here visitors experience South Carolina’s capital city from 1869 through 1873, through the eyes of a teenage Wilson and consider how his experience in Columbia influenced his public policy as president. In May we re-opened the Hampton-Preston Mansion with a tour narrative that places the lives and stories of the enslaved individuals as equal to that of the white owners.
What is one of your favorite examples of public history work that Historic Columbia has done, and why?
I’ve been at Historic Columbia for 16 years so its hard to select just one, but I’d say among my favorites has been the urban archaeological investigation at the Mann-Simons Site, which was owned and occupied by the same African American family from the late 1830s to 1970. This effort started in 2006 as the master’s project of an anthropology student, Jakob Crockett (now Ph.D.). Today one small residence stands on the property, but historically the site was a complex that included a grocery store, lunch counter, and residential units that housed both family members and renters. The excavation uncovered the footings for each of the buildings, as well as close to 60,000 artifacts that allowed Dr. Crockett and, subsequently, Historic Columbia staff to completely shift the interpretation at the site. These former buildings are now represented by metal “ghost structures” that comprise the basis for an outdoor museum.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I’m currently reading Blood in the Water in preparation for the plenary session that includes income UHA president Heather Ann Thompson. Other works that have been enlightening to me in gaining insight into South Carolina’s complex past include Tom Brown’s Civil War Canon and Katherine Chaddock’s Uncompromising Activist.
What advice do you have for urban historians who want to work with the public but might not know where to start?
Just reach out to your local museums and preservation organizations! We are often generalists trying to get information to the public. You likely have more in-depth content knowledge and are more abreast of current scholarship that can be utilized to enhance and often drive interpretive changes at museums and historic sites. We can be a platform for you to share your research and provide access to a broader population. We are also a great resource for your students!
What historic site in Columbia do you hope that UHA 2018 conference attendees make a point to go see? What is not to be missed?
Of course I hope that attendees with visit the house museums that Historic Columbia manages, particularly Hampton-Preston, Mann-Simons and the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, which experienced the aforementioned interpretive and physical upgrades. The conference tours are a great way to experience local history, but taking a walk on the Statehouse grounds or through the historic campus of the University of South Carolina will prove to be both informative and restorative. Our Main Street is experiencing a renaissance, particularly in the 1500 and 1600 blocks where Reconstruction-era buildings are being adaptively re-used for locally-owned restaurants, a bowling alley, art house move theater and more.
One thought on “Member of the Week: Robin Waites”