AHA Member Spotlight: Matthew Costello
Matthew Costello is senior historian at the White House Historical Association. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and has been a member since 2018.
Alma maters: BA (history and political science), University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009; MA (American history), Marquette University, 2011; PhD (American history), Marquette University, 2016
Fields of interest: American Revolution, early Republic, antebellum America, Civil War, memory and memory studies, nationalism, the presidency, White House history
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? It was actually rather fortuitous. As I was researching for my dissertation, I met Stewart McLaurin at Mount Vernon. He was working at the library, and we stayed in contact beyond his time there. He was later appointed president of the White House Historical Association in 2014, and when a historian position became available he asked if I would consider applying. I applied, interviewed, and was ultimately offered the job.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? My family and I really enjoy our proximity to Washington, DC. The city has some of the most incredible museums and cultural institutions in the country, which in turn entices more friends and family to come visit us. As an early Americanist, it is one of the best places in the country to work and research. And our office is in the historic home of Commodore Stephen Decatur. You get a real sense of the history every time you walk through the door.
What projects are you currently working on? I am finalizing my book manuscript on the memory of George Washington and the history of his tomb with University Press of Kansas at the moment. My second book project with the WHHA explores the 1902 Theodore Roosevelt White House renovation. They were in many regards the first modern first family, and the renovation reflected that transformation in a number of ways. We are also researching more on the African American experience at the White House and in the President’s Neighborhood, which has been fascinating so far.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? Unfortunately, there is not a graduate program in “White House History.” While I consider myself an expert in American history, my lack of formal training has meant supplementary reading and studying to become a self-taught “White House historian.” This position affords me the opportunity to learn new things on a daily basis—through research, writing, and editing for the Association.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? As strange as it sounds, there was some uncertainty over when exactly President James Monroe moved into the White House. There was a public ceremony on September 17, 1817, but we know that President Monroe left the capital shortly thereafter to attend to his family and bring them to the White House. I was doing some research on the reconstruction of the White House and found a receipt in the records of the Commissioner of Public Buildings at the National Archives. A bill had been submitted for the rent of the President of the United States. According to the note, the rental dated from March 4, 1817, to October 3, 1817. I would later find out that President Monroe returned to Washington around October 21 (thanks to Daniel Preston of the Papers of James Monroe project), but it appears that his rental agreement was terminated on the 3rd. Of course, then the question becomes what qualifies as moving? Is it people? Is it possessions? Is it based on how long they stay in the house? Or is it when your lease is up? While the discovery was not exactly paradigm-shifting, it was quite exciting to be asking these questions and finding an answer almost immediately.
What do you value most about the history discipline? Its inclusivity. Everything has a history, and what I have found in my own work is that even the White House has its own history beyond politics and policy. The home itself has evolved and changed over time, and can be studied from a variety of perspectives and lenses. Regardless of your interest, the White House is one of those places that touches on just about every facet of the American experience.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? To be honest, I was not a consistent member as a graduate student. It was only toward the end of that process that I began to utilize the great resources, programs, and workshops readily available through the AHA. I gladly support that mission now, in particular the Career Diversity for Historians initiative.
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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