Driving through the state of Virginia, a tourist will see the state’s history laid out in historic sites, monuments and markers denoting famous people and events.
It is these objects, not just the landscapes on which they rest, that fascinate Laura Macaluso.
The self-described interdisciplinarian sees every object — whether it’s a mural on the side of a building, a document like the Declaration of Independence or even the teapot your great-grandmother passed down — as a window into understanding our society.
“I like to ask questions about those things and find out how they came about, how they came into being,” Macaluso said. “What they mean today, and what they’ve meant in the past.”
This type of examination, one that is categorized by a seemingly endless array of technical terms like “cultural heritage” and “public art,” is an area of study Macaluso has worked in for decades and has illustrated in her newest book “A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia.”
“Laura's concern with 'things' puts her in the field of what is now called 'material culture,'” said Robert Russell, a former professor and advisor of Macaluso’s during her doctoral work. “I think she is more concerned about getting the history right about her things than many material culture folks are. So I would say she is a more sophisticated historian of material culture than many others.”
Like Macaluso’s approach to history, her new book explores the Commonwealth — or “Jefferson Country” as she notes in the preface — through the eyes of the country’s third president by examining the places he lived or visited, the possessions he owned and the objects others created to recognize him.
“A good way to think about what she does is, as an independent scholar, she comes into communities and captures the essence of the history and culture through historical research,” said historian Kelley Fanto Deetz, a visiting professor of sociology at Randolph College.
From an early age, Macaluso said she always had a sense that every place was unique, starting with one of the old libraries in a small town within her home state of Connecticut, which she can still describe in great detail years later.
“Going to particular places always affected me and if art was involved, it affected me even more,” she said. “… I wanted to be in those places, I wanted to experience those places and do things in those places.”
Like the winding byways on the Virginia map, Macaluso’s career has taken somewhat of a scenic route, fueled by this interest in place and personhood.
She has made pit stops with jobs writing, researching and consulting for historic sites, art institutions and national parks, including the department of arts, culture and tourism for the city of New Haven, the Swaziland National Museum in Africa and Poplar Forest, where her husband, Jeffrey Nichols, is the president and CEO.
In the last few years, Macaluso, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and a Ph.D. in cultural and historic preservation, has found her way onto the main turnpike through her historical writing.
Unlike many histories, Macaluso’s work, which has focused on Connecticut and now Virginia, doesn’t read like a stodgy academic tome densely filled with names and dates, said Russell.
Part of the way she accomplishes this is by placing the spotlight on objects related to these historical moments. In the case of Jefferson, that means everything from his various homes, educational institutions and places of work to his journals, collections and household items.
"She talks about a toothbrush handle they found with his name on it and all the reasons why it probably really was his toothbrush,” said Kate Jenkins, acquisitions editor for Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, which published Macaluso’s book earlier this month. “… It's little things like that that are so fascinating and really make such a monumental figure like Jefferson seem like a real person."
In many cases, highlighting objects can evoke a more emotional response than simply reading dates and facts on a piece of paper, said Deetz, who is also the public historian at Stratford Hall in Stratford.
It’s the difference between visiting a historic plantation and holding objects used by members of the enslaved community versus reading about slavery in a high school textbook.
“Humans need to touch things to understand them. The more senses we use the more we connect with objects,” Deetz said. “Reading can ignite one's imagination, but touching ignites a human response, nostalgia, feelings that are instinctual, not forced.”
Macaluso’s reasoning behind focusing on objects and their connection to place is simple. She’s not a fan of history books that don’t include pictures.
Even “A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia” was inspired not by her own time in Virginia, where she and her husband have lived since he started his job at Poplar Forest in 2012, but by the painting featured on the book’s cover.
Macaluso has continued her exploration of objects and place in her current projects: a collection of essays focusing on monuments she is in the process of editing, and her first-ever children’s book, “Colonial Klaus in Thomas Jefferson’s House,” which follows her real-life pet dachshund as he travels back in time and visits Poplar Forest during its heyday.
While the story of a dog, which will be published by the historic site later this year, doesn’t quite read like Macaluso’s previous books, she said it still follows the road of her previous work.
“Almost none of our landscapes exist as nature gave them to us. It's all been manipulated and transformed in some way,” she said. “The landscape at Poplar Forest, the one Klaus walks around in and discovers all the stories in the landscape — stories of the people, the story of the buildings — the landscape itself is also material culture because material culture is really by definition shaped by human hands.”