Stories and Storytellers
An Interview with Ashley E. Bowen, Editor of Perspectives on History
In April, Ashley E. Bowen arrived at the AHA in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. A historian of the Civil War era and medicine, she dove right into soliciting and editing articles for our online publication, Perspectives Daily, about historians’ experiences during the pandemic and the histories that will help us understand the present moment. Ashley comes to the AHA after a two-year stint as the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, working on digital engagement. She has worked in museums in a variety of capacities, serving as a guest curator at the National Library of Medicine, a docent at the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and a tour guide at the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. She spoke with Perspectives about what draws her to history, how she wants to diversify the magazine, and who she most wants to talk shop with.
Where did your interest in history begin?
I read a lot of historical fiction as a child, starting with the American Girl books and then branching out into the work of Mildred Taylor and many others. I was lucky; my elementary school had a great librarian who knew I liked the American Girl books and helped me find more historical fiction. Stories about people drew me in, and then I became fascinated with the worlds they inhabited. My mom and I used to visit a lot of historic house museums, too, so material culture was really my way into history.
Your education comes from outside history departments. How does historical thinking tie together this varied background?
I’ve been doing historical work since I was an undergrad but somehow managed to do all that thinking under the tutelage of historians working outside of history departments. My bachelor’s degree from Reed College is in art history, where I wrote a senior thesis on photography in an antifascist magazine, Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, during the Weimar Republic. I earned an MA from Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, and Technology department, where I researched Civil War reenactors and their deeply felt connection to an imagined version of the past, supervised by a historian.
After my MA, I worked in public health for a couple of years and became fascinated by the origins of the American medical system. Two things became clear to me in that job: first, that I didn’t want to do biostatistics or epidemiology; and second, that I was much more interested in the “how we got to now” questions than in the contemporary practice of public health. I applied to Brown University’s American studies PhD program, in part because I could get a second MA in public humanities along the way. At Brown, I worked with fabulous historians to create a dissertation that’s recognizably a history of medicine and draws on methods from cultural studies. I loved reading archival sources like pension applications and medical records alongside novels and artwork.
You come to the AHA from jobs in several historical museums. How does this experience in public history influence your thinking about Perspectives and the historical discipline?
Stories got me interested in history (remember all that historical fiction I read as a child?), so public history was a natural fit for me. I enjoy talking to people about the past and how it informs the present. The jump from a museum to a magazine doesn’t feel so different—I’m still telling stories about history and collaborating with brilliant scholars to bring those stories to a large audience.
On a practical level, writing very short object labels is great practice for the kind of writing we feature in Perspectives. I learned a great deal about how to tell a tight, compelling story by writing for museums.
What are your goals as editor of Perspectives?
Right now, I’m focused on getting the September issue out while working at a social distance. I had any number of anxieties about stepping into this role when I accepted it in early March, but producing a magazine without ever setting foot in the office didn’t even make the top 10. On a more general note, I’d like to include more coverage of material culture and public history in Perspectives. Look out for more objects and images in the magazine’s pages soon!
Longer term, I’d like to see the demographics of the magazine’s contributor base more closely mirror the demographics of the discipline as a whole. We must do better in terms of racial and ethnic diversity among our authors. We also want to work with historians at a broad spectrum of institutions, including those with nontraditional educational backgrounds or who occupy many different professional roles.
What are your passions outside of history?
I love to roller skate! I had a brief career as a roller derby girl with the DC Rollergirls, but a concussion and a knee injury a few years ago spooked me. I now do speed skating on my quad skates—I get to go fast but there’s a much lower chance of serious injury. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
Social distancing requirements mean I've been spending even more time than usual exploring Pennsylvania's state parks. My partner and I have been hiking almost every weekend since the lockdown began. It's been restorative to spend time in nature and the excuse to visit the many parks near our home in Philadelphia is maybe the smallest bit of silver lining to come out of all this.
If I’m not skating or hiking, I’m almost certainly reading. I still read historical fiction but find that I now know too much to enjoy much of it—especially if it’s set in an era I have studied. Now, I read a lot of detective novels and murder mysteries. There’s nowhere I’d rather be on a Saturday afternoon than reading a good detective novel, sipping iced coffee, and nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie. Truly, paradise.
Last question: If you were to hold your dream dinner party, which three historians (living or dead) would you invite?
This is an unfair question! How can you expect me to pick three—everyone out there will quibble with my choices, and it’s all I’ll ever hear about forever. Therefore, I’m going to reject the idea of a dinner party and host a great big dessert reception in a ballroom. I’d invite all the women thanked for typing but who never got a byline, the many anonymous clerks and stenographers who produced and cared for all the records I’ve relied on, and the keepers of family heirlooms, documents, and histories who think about the future while remembering the past. They may not have names we know, but they’ve been essential to the discipline. I think it’d be lovely to sit down with them over cake and champagne, ask them about what they know, and thank them for enabling me to ask (and answer!) the questions I do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Laura Ansley is managing editor of the AHA. She tweets @lmansley.
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