Gwen Wright - Interview

Little-known facts about the history detective who never leaves home without pictures of her family.


What do you like most about being a History Detective?
I really like the teamwork of the whole crew, the lively debates (and arguments, too), taking account of so many points of view, so many skills and perspectives. It's really enriched my sense of history as a field that's alive, contentious, multi-dimensional.

What do you like least about being a History Detective?
I sometimes get frustrated by having to tie up a story when there are still so many things I want to learn about it.

What advice would you give someone interested in the field of historical research?
Keep asking questions. There's always another way of looking at facts, another perspective from which to look at the past - or the present. Complexity doesn't lead to confusion or woolly thinking; quite the contrary, it helps anyone think more clearly, not just about crucial issues of history, but also our personal and public choices in the present.

What do you do most in this job?
I spend most of my time reading documents - and the interpretations of other historians. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once described intellectual life in terms of tacking, as in a sailboat, moving back and forth between facts and ideas, documents and theories about them, which takes us toward a goal.

How do you approach a mystery? What's the first thing you do?
I first look closely at the place or site. Where did something happen? Who dominated? Where was the power and how did it operate? What was the history of this place? Where did other ideas come from? Who was "outside" or "marginal" -- but still part of what happened? Focusing on a place allows us to see a great deal of complexity, without feeling overwhelmed by it.

What areas would you describe as your speciality?
My specialty is American architectural and urban history. I tend to see the two realms together: structures and surroundings, what's new and what's already established, innovations and traditions, buildings and landscapes.

Is there a puzzle or mystery you dream of solving?
Too many to list.

If you could leave a time capsule now to be opened in 2104, what would you put in it?
Any Sunday's New York Times, with all the sections, plus newspapers for the same day from 20 different cities around the country; 20 different magazines with the word "American" in their titles.

Where's the most interesting place you've traveled as a History Detective?
Baraboo, Wisconsin.

What do you never leave home without?
Pictures of my daughter, my step-son, and my husband.