AHA Member Spotlight: Martha B. Katz-Hyman
Martha B. Katz-Hyman is an assistant curator at Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. She lives in Newport News, Virginia, and has been a member since 1973.
Alma maters: BA (American studies), Simmons College (now Simmons University), 1970; MA (museum studies), Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta), 1973
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
As an undergraduate, I wanted to be a librarian, specializing in American history. Although I had always loved museums—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, and the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, were among my favorites—I never imagined that I could have a career working in one. But when I discovered the Cooperstown Graduate Program, which focuses on training museum professionals in all aspects of history museum work, I realized that I could combine my academic interest in early American history with my love of objects to help museum and historic site visitors understand the lives of people who lived in 17th- and 18th-century America through artifacts.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
For someone who has spent the better part of her professional life studying and writing about colonial American material culture, there is no better location than Virginia's Historic Triangle. Within a half hour from my home, I can be at Historic Jamestowne, where English settlement began in 1607; Williamsburg, where debates about governance, imperial power, and representative democracy took place during the American Revolution; and/or the Yorktown Battlefield, site of the American victory in 1781 that led to the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the formal recognition of American independence.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am working on preparing a furnishing plan for the kitchen at George Washington's Mount Vernon, and I am working with two other scholars on the preparation of an interpretive master plan for a very rare surviving slave quarter, the Lewis Farm Slave Quarter at Arcola, in Loudoun County, Virginia. I am also working, with a co-author, on a book that uses artifacts to explore the lives of enslaved African Americans.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
As an undergraduate, I was very interested in how Europeans saw the new American nation and their views of American life; I wrote my honors thesis on the subject. But using objects to expand on the lives of ordinary people and helping objects "tell" their stories is now the focus of my professional life. In the United States, the majority of non-historians learn about the past by visiting historic sites and museums or through the media. My work helps provide the settings within which this history and the stories of the people who lived in the past can be told.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
I have found so many fascinating things while doing research, but the most life-changing thing I ever found was a very small notebook, with 17th-century English shorthand, at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was made by one of Rev. John Eliot's assistants as Eliot preached to a group of Algonquians, and I was amazed that I—an undergraduate!—was able to hold this precious object and examine it. Although I could not decipher the shorthand, the power of that moment has never left me.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
History is not static: because we can never know exactly what happened in the past, more research on a person, a place, or an event inevitably reveals more information. That information helps to clarify what happened in the past and brings nuance and understanding that informs our lives and experiences today.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
When I joined the AHA, I was living in Israel and working, as a secretary, on a project to publish the letters and papers of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann. I felt very removed from American life and especially American history and decided to join the AHA to reconnect with then-current historical scholarship. Now, many years later, I continue to value my AHA membership for bringing me perspectives on histories that I would otherwise not know.
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 Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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