URI professors address contemporary problems from historical perspective at Applied History Lab

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KINGSTON, R.I. – February 27, 2015 – Two University of Rhode Island history professors are serving as sleuths, employing the rigorous techniques and nuanced intellectual perspectives of professional historians to discover and recover forgotten human stories and cultural resources in coastal and underwater sites. As leading practitioners of the emerging discipline of applied history, they are using the knowledge and wisdom of the past to help identify and address present-day policy changes.

“Applied history as we practice it at URI addresses contemporary issues by developing a thorough understanding of unique historic and cultural landscapes,” said Rod Mather, URI professor of history. “When we go to a place, our job is to understand the local setting and the way human beings have lived there. We are interested in the key aspects of human interaction with the environment and its natural resources. If we can trace the history of human interactions with a particular place, we can help figure out appropriate options for the future.”


Mather and URI Research Associate Professor John Jensen are making a series of presentations around the country next month outlining the work they are doing with the National Park Service, the state of Rhode Island and other organizations. Each project aims to create a more holistic and culturally inclusive understanding of cultural heritage resources and encourage better decision making by planners, managers, and the public at large.


In studying historic shipwrecks potentially threatened by proposed offshore wind farms, for example, they looked at three centuries of energy use and transportation in Rhode Island. Mather and Jensen found a dramatic increase in major shipwrecks as the demand for industrial energy grew in New England in the late 1800s. Regional dependence on imported coal required thousands of ships to deliver coal to Providence and other New England ports each year. Many of the ships and barges were old or cheaply constructed and hundreds of wrecks occurred. In Rhode Island, 130 energy-related wrecks took place in the 1890s alone. Decades of wrecks and loss of life and property led to national efforts to improve aids to navigation and harbors of refuge in New England.


“Today people are legitimately concerned about wind farms in state waters because of their effects on the viewshed,” Mather said. “But the views across Rhode Island and Block Island Sound have been affected by energy questions for centuries. Whether it be coal schooners in the 19th century or oil tankers and barges in the 20th, Rhode Island waters have long been associated with the state’s energy needs.”


Best known for their studies of marine archaeology, including Revolutionary War ships in Narragansett Bay, Gold Rush-era ships in Alaska, and modern warships off the coast of Virginia, the URI professors consider themselves advocates for more inclusive and effective ways of understanding the past and applying it in the present.


“There has been resistance to our approach,” noted Jensen. “Traditional historic preservation when applied to the coasts and ocean too often overlooked important history or packaged it in very narrow contexts.”


Their approach is generating considerable grant funding, more than $2.25 million over the past decade, which is unusual among traditional academic historians.


They are using a National Park Service contract to broaden the understanding of National Historic Parks on the East Coast, including George Washington’s birthplace in Virginia, St. Croix Island in Maine, and the Cape Cod National Seashore. At Washington’s birthplace, for instance, they found that the historic interpretation of the site since the 1930s ignored the nearby waterways, which were vital elements in Washington’s family’s selection and use of the property.


“We went down there in canoes, we watched the tide, and we encountered the marine environment much like people did centuries ago,” said Jensen. “Almost none of these perspectives had been incorporated into the historic interpretation of the site. The ice and wind and erosion that are creating problems for the park today are due to incomplete interpretation.”


Mather and Jensen have established an Applied History Lab on campus to provide students with unique opportunities to work at what they say is the intersection of the arts, humanities and sciences. Morgan Breene, a URI senior who recently won a prestigious Marshall Scholarship to study in England, is among those who have benefitted from the lab and the new perspective it provides.


“Every place is different, but everywhere we go we’ve been able to identify important historic elements that have disappeared from public perception,” concluded Mather.


Pictured above Research Professor John Jensen, graduate student Alanna Casey, and Professor Rod Mather review blueprints of a sunken German warship. (Photo by Mike Salerno)