Publication Date

January 30, 2019

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


Public History

Hilarie M. Hicks is a senior research historian at James Madison’s Montpelier. She lives in Orange, Virginia, and has been a member since 2016.


Hilarie M. HicksAlma maters: BA (economics/music), College of William and Mary, 1984; MA (museum studies), Cooperstown Graduate Program, 1990

Fields of interest: 18th- and 19th-century Virginia, material culture, public history

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I have always loved museums and historic sites, going back to family road trips when I was growing up. I was hooked on museum work after interning at the Watermen’s Museum (Yorktown, Virginia) and then working as a historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. I enjoyed learning about the research behind the public programs we presented, and aspired to research and develop programs myself, which I did as curator of interpretation at Tryon Palace (New Bern, North Carolina). After a stint as executive director at the Rosewell Ruins (Gloucester, Virginia), I came to Montpelier in the area of interpretive programming, then moved into research.

What do you like the most about where you live and work? I enjoy working at Montpelier because I can collaborate with a wonderful staff representing many disciplines: archaeologists, curators, educators, architectural historians, and oral history practitioners. Sometimes I am doing documentary research to support their projects, sometimes they are filling in the gaps in my research, and sometimes we are all working together on a major project, like the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition on slavery and its legacy (which received an Outstanding Public History Project Award from the National Council on Public History). Montpelier is also a beautiful place to work. My office is in a converted 1909 pony barn, and when I leave at night, there is a view of the sun setting behind the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What projects are you currently working on? I am studying all aspects of Montpelier as a working plantation: crops, livestock, domestic production, and the question of self-sufficiency vs. market dependence. There are no surviving farm books for James Madison, so it’s a matter of gleaning references from correspondence, the Madison weather journals, and other sources. I am also collaborating with colleagues on a new digital humanities website, Montpelier’s Digital Doorway, which will give a behind-the-scenes look at the multi-disciplinary research we do.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? Finding connections always fascinates me. During the research for Mere Distinction, I was writing up the stories of two young enslaved men, Billy Willis and Anthony, who were advertised as runaways from Montpelier in 1786 and 1787. At first, I thought it interesting that they ran away within a few months of each other. As I studied the advertisements, it became clear that the two ads actually described the same person, whom Madison’s father identified by name in the first ad, and by the aliases he was using in the second ad. Anthony/Billy Willis had been at large for a year before he was captured, only to escape again the next night. The second ad noted that Billy Willis claimed to have traveled to the West Indies, Philadelphia, and Charlestown. This lined up with Madison’s statement about Anthony’s account of his year’s absence:there seems to have been scarcely time for all the trips which he pretends to have made.” Given that Anthony was apprehended only about 50 miles from Montpelier, it’s possible that he stayed in hiding for the year with the help of an extended kinship network. So there are a lot of broader themes about slavery that can be drawn out from this one Montpelier-specific example.

What do you value most about the history discipline? I am going to answer that from a public history point of view; I think about history in terms of places that need to be saved, objects that need to be preserved, and stories that need to be remembered, understood, and shared. At its essence, the process of doing history is about asking questions and finding answers that can be supported with evidence. Understanding the right questions to ask, and making the answers meaningful to the general public, are challenges that are particularly important to those of us working at historic sites.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you? My work is so different from what academic historians do, that it is interesting for me to read about broader issues in the history field. I especially enjoy reading AHA blog posts and the conversations in the Members’ Forum.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Dailyfeatures a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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