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Meet Matthew Wasneiwski: The Historian of the United States House of Representatives

Matthew A. Wasniewski, Ph.D., Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, speaking on the architectural significance and cultural and 

historic importance of the Cannon House Office Building.

Matthew Wasneiwski is the Historian of the United States House of Representatives, a position he has held since 2010. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Maryland. He shared many facets of his work as House Historian with David L. O’Connor for the History News Network.

David O’Connor: How would you describe the mission of the Office of the House Historian?

Matthew Wasniewski: Well, our mission is really two-fold. First, our office serves as the House’s institutional memory—we’re a resource for House leadership, members, staff, and the wider congressional community for any and all questions about the origins and development of our unique institution. That work takes many forms. We answer all kinds of reference questions that members and staff may have: When was the last time that the Constitution was read in full on the House floor? What was the most contested Speaker election in history? Did JFK once have my office? How many women have served in Congress? How has seniority been determined in committees over time? We also maintain the House’s major historical publications, such as the Biographical Directory of Congress. We’ve written a series of books on the history of women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Pacific Americans in Congress.

But we’re also a public history office in the sense that the general public, students, teachers, and the press use many of our resources. And a big part of what we do is to help the public understand the House—we often say to put a human face on an institution that, from afar, might seem rather monolithic and impenetrable. Congress can be a difficult institution to understand: 435 representatives, a handful of delegates and the resident commissioner; a complex committee system; a chamber that operates under rules and procedures that date to the late eighteenth century. A biography, anecdote, or oral history, each of these are useful mediums to give people a toehold of sorts to scale the edifice, become conversant, learn more about the larger institution.

You have been in the position of House Historian since 2010. How has the position changed over the years?

The position itself hasn’t changed all that much. My colleagues and I enjoy a front row seat to congressional history—which you can’t beat if you’re a political historian. There’s also a lot of diversity in what we do day-to-day—an oral history one morning and a stumper of a reference question in the afternoon; writing a blog post on the history of wearing hats on the floor in the 19th century, speaking to a group of teachers at a workshop on the history of the House, or researching material for a profile of an important nineteenth-century Speaker. For me there’s some administrative work, too. But getting to use the different tools in the historian’s tool kit—archival research, public speaking, writing, interviewing—these are all things I enjoy and are why I chose to do public history in the first place.

What has changed over time is the visibility of our office, which was part of the direction I was given when the House leadership hired me in 2010. One of the most notable ways we’ve made that happen has been with our web presence. In 2013, we launched History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House, which integrates the work we do with that of the House archivists and curators. It’s one-stop shopping for the Hill community and the general public who are interested in the House’s past. We’ve built out social media components and a blog—so our online presence and resources are much more accessible and plentiful than before. We’ve also worked at outreach with Member offices and staff, too, doing more talks and teaching a regular House history class.

What have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as the House Historian? What do you consider to be your most significant contributions?

I’m not sure the challenges that we faced are really unique or all that daunting. I think that my colleagues and I are most proud of the fact that, day-in and day-out, we help to record the House’s history and make it as accessible as possible for Members, staff, and the public. The fact that we’ve established ourselves as such a resource is important, I think, particularly because staff turnover in the House tends to be high. Being able to offer some institutional memory is important in that kind of environment and we find that we’re involved in a constant process of education.

It’s interesting that your office shares the same website with the Office of Art and Archives. How did that come about and what are the advantages to doing a joint website?

Well, we’ve always worked closely with our archival and curatorial colleagues who work for the Clerk of the House—the institution’s chief records keeper. In fact, we all used to be under in the same office administratively, and several of us who are now managers were hired at roughly the same time, now 15 years ago. From the very start there was a synergy to what we did—each group had its own independent responsibilities but we also collaborated on many projects—producing guides to historic rooms in the Capitol or on artwork, updating various aspects of the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, researching images for our publications. When I became Historian, the history function was made into its own independent office. And while the administration of the offices changed, we collectively retained many of the same collaborative projects, we still live under the same roof in adjoining office space, and we still support one another on a variety of fronts.

The History, Art & Archives website kind of grew organically out of that situation. And while it was a lot of work—even for offices as close as ours—to re-conceptualize how we presented our information and reorganize it, the end product made sense for us and for users, too. Having all of our information and resources in one place makes it a better experience for our users, and makes our work stronger, too.

It seems like there would be considerable overlap between the two offices. How do you divide up responsibilities? I imagine there are a lot of very interesting conversations among the archivists and historians over who covers certain topics.

Actually the lines of demarcation are pretty clear. If it’s related to an official House record of any kind—paper or electronic—then that’s in the archivists’ wheelhouse. If it is about a space or an office on the House side of the Capitol, if it hangs on the wall, or is an object, that’s within the curators’ jurisdiction. If it pertains to the history of a person, piece of legislation, precedent, tradition, or historical data that’s our work as historians.

That said, there are plenty of discussions about how to make these various aspects of the House’s part accessible to various audiences on the web or in person. And we rely on one another for our areas of expertise. For instance, we might help the archivists to explain the context of how a particular document in their database of House records fits into the larger narrative of House history—take for instance the Wade–Davis bill which foreshadowed conflicts between Congress and the president over the course of post-Civil War Reconstruction. Or, the archivists might help us in developing strategies to find manuscript materials for 19th century members, or provide help with image research for one of our publications like Hispanic Americans in Congress. The historians and curators also cooperate on advising the Capitol Visitor Center on the exhibition content and the documents that regularly rotate through the exhibit hall. And, many times, in conducting oral history interviews, we speak with individuals who’ve collected artifacts that help explain the House’s material culture and we’re only too happy to put them in touch with the curators.

You have some great exhibits up on the site right now, from Jeannette Rankin’s congressional career, to the role of Hispanics in Congress, to a history of the annual congressional baseball game. How does your office come up with topics to explore? Do you receive suggestions from any House members?

We have a nice mix of projects. Some of them are congressionally directed; and others, as we’ve matured as an office, we’ve developed under our own initiative. The books that we’ve produced on women and minority Members of Congress, for instance, were authorized by a joint House and Senate resolutions that directed that such volumes be updated or created. In recent years, the House also directed the Historian’s Office to collect and preserve oral histories from Members and staff related to the original Selma March in 1965 and the larger civil rights movement.

And then there are projects which we have had the chance to initiate, such as our larger oral history program which we established in 2004, as the House’s first such program. And, as you’ve alluded, in preparation for the centennial of the first woman in Congress, Jeannette Rankin, the oral historians designed and conducted a project that focuses on the impact that women Members and staff have had on the institution by interviewing dozens of individuals whose service extends back to the 1960s. And we work collaboratively with the curators and archivists, so that we tell these stories in the most complete manner possible—not just through biographical material and data, but also through the records and material culture of the institution.

How long do you keep the exhibitions up on the site?

Exhibitions remain available on the site indefinitely—and a number of them, for instance the exhibits on women, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in Congress, are updated routinely. From time to time, we rethink an exhibit and change its layout or merge it into another exhibit. In other cases, we expand on material that may have at first only told a small aspect of a much larger and more complicated story. The website allows us to be flexible.

Which of the exhibitions have gotten the most visits?

Far and away, our Women in Congress exhibit receives the most visits. In particular, the essay on the Women’s Rights Movement is very popular. We suspect the National History Day participants play a large part in its success. In recent months, our Institutional page has been receiving the most web traffic. This section focuses on the House’s constitutional origins and powers and it offers a nuts-and-bolts overview of such issues as the House’s power of the purse, investigations, impeachment, the Electoral College, the House’s role in deciding deadlocked presidential elections, and the qualifications for being a Member of the House.

I loved the exhibit on the congressional baseball game. The video of the 1957 game is fantastic. Gerald Ford’s line drive for two RBIs was very impressive. He was a star athlete at the University of Michigan so this may be an unfair question, but can any current House members hit like that? The tape also shows an unidentified Democrat bowling over the catcher, Thomas Curtis (R—MO), in a play at the plate. Do they still play that hard?

In the modern era, Steve Largent of Oklahoma, a former pro-football player who served from 1994 to 2002, dominated the Republican pitching mound. Democrat Cedrick Richmond of Louisiana, who came to the House in 2011 and is still serving, played baseball in college and is known as one of the better current baseball players.

As for how competitive the game has been over the years . . . maybe the best indicator of that is that according to our chart: the series, which stretches all the way back to 1909, has been very evenly matched. Republicans lead the overall matchup with 42 wins to 39 for the Democrats (another game ended in a tie). Democrats, though, have won 7 out of the last 8 games.

A more recent development has been the Congressional Softball game, which, since 2009, has pitted the women Members of Congress against members of the press. Like the baseball game, it supports a charity and it’s rapidly grown in popularity. It’s also been a pretty evenly matched series with the press taking five of the eight games to date.

What are some exhibits visitors to the website can look forward to in the future?

The Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress exhibit based on a book that our office has researched and written, will be coming sometime later this year. It is modeled after our other exhibits on women, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in Congress. Also, we’re updating our technology in House exhibit with new material on electronic voting. Our staff is working on a number of really interesting blogs exploring women in the House, as well some new pieces related to the institutional development of the House.

How can your office help educators teach students about the functioning of the American government and the role of the House of Representatives in particular?

Under the Education tab on the website, we have more than two dozen lesson plans and fact sheets that correspond to our exhibits on minority representation in the House as well as information on resources and tours. Last fall, our office helped the House archivists launch a new Records Search, which highlights primary-source documents from the official House records. These include everything from certificates of election, to maps, to a contemporary account of the infamous caning of Senator Charles Sumner (by Representative Preston Brooks) in 1856.

Additionally, under that same “Records” tab on the website are bibliographies that provide sources on various aspects of House history (committees, the Speakership, the parties, procedure, etc.), glossaries, and finding aids for House records from the 1st Congress (1789–1791) through the 96th Congress (1979–1981).

Do you have materials suitable for elementary and secondary school teachers?

Our website is really geared toward secondary education and beyond. For instance, the new records search would be ideal for high school educators looking to use primary source documents in the classroom. The Office of the Clerk’s website has some resources for elementary school-age students, in an exhibit called “Kids in the House.”

You have been the House Historian in one of the most partisan eras in American history. Do the political tensions affect the work of your office in some ways?

You know, I get that question quite a lot. By focusing on the past, I can honestly say that we are fairly well insulated from the politics of the day. That’s partly because we work very hard—and I think we have a long track record of—being completely nonpartisan. No matter the party affiliation, we put the same amount of effort, professionalism, and courtesy into helping with any request we get, whether it’s a reference call or an invitation to speak to office staff or help with a constituent question. Because of that, we’ve earned a reputation inside the Hill community as being fair and impartial and yet honest about the House’s history.

With the press—which is another constituency—we take very seriously our obligation to provide reliable information about the past including historical data, background, and context. But by the same token, we don’t seek to be quoted or to see our office name in the newspapers, except on rare occasion, because that’s just not the usual role of support staff. So I think our experience in that aspect, knowing the contours of our jobs, the expectations within our Hill community, helps to provide a buffer between our work and current politics.

I think it also helps that as historians we take the longer view of things. You’re right to mention that we work in a politically polarized moment, but we know that our country and Congress have experienced other such periods. And as I often remind people, the House is, by constitutional design, a majoritarian and partisan institution, and partisanship has been the norm rather than the exception in American political life. That reinforces the notion that if we’re going to operate successfully in that kind of environment, then we always need to be scrupulously fair and nonpartisan.