Member Profile: Meet Claire Dempsey, New VAF President

11 Aug 2019 11:30 AM | Christine R Henry

From left to right Ned Cooke, Claire Dempsey, and Myron Stachiw, on a bench in front of 226 Bay State Road, ca. 1980.It has been my pleasure to serve VAF over the years as a Board member, an annual meeting committee member, a founder of the New England Chapter, and now as president -- an honor that genuinely took me by surprise.  I have been a member since the beginning – the pink and blue mimeo phase of VAN production – and have been lucky enough to attend 34 of our 40 meetings.  It has been through VAF that I identify and distinguish myself professionally, giving me an intellectual home for my work as a practitioner and an educator.  Like so many in VAF’s first generation, I am not sure what my career would have looked like without it.

I came to vernacular architecture from an undergraduate major in anthropology and a brief stop-over in historical archaeology.  I think my first material culture book purchases were Ivor Noel Hume’s Historical Archaeology and A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America, followed on shortly by Henry Glassie’s Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States.  My graduate training was in the American & New England Studies Program at BU, a fortuitous choice that turned out to be a cordial environment at an exceptional moment. The Program had been an early adopter of expanding the common history-and-literature model to include art and material culture.  The history faculty, enamored of mentalites, thick description, and of course history from the bottom, were demanding but welcomed those of us who focused on things.  Together with adjuncts from the region’s museums, libraries, and historic sites, many also offering internships to augment our course work, these scholars introduced us to an extraordinary mix of methods and approaches.  And on top of all that, Summer Institutes brought visiting faculty and students to Boston, significantly broadening our professional networks.

Because of these diverse opportunities, I was introduced to the work of individuals who would soon found and shape VAF, and I am enormously grateful to have been able to join the group in its early years. In VAF, I saw the sort of holistic and interdisciplinary work I imagined was possible but which was only just becoming a reality. VAN, our journals, and our meetings put me in touch with other students of the cultural landscape whose work was creative and persuasive, an inspiration for someone who has been more of a consumer than a producer of scholarship. At the beginning, VAFers’ interests were so various that I was not entirely convinced that such a motley collection could cohere.  But over time, and in all likelihood because of VAF, my own interests expanded. I began to see that VAF’s strength is how its programs and its members demonstrate over and over that it is all interesting.

Of course it was our meetings and tours that sealed the deal. Amazing places selected for our attention, with transportation, food, and beverages all included.  I would be remiss if I did not also note how important it is to me that our annual gatherings are not just informative, but a really great time. My time at VAF meetings is spent looking, listening, thinking, and debating, sure, but also laughing.  Every time I visit a new place with VAF, I return home tired but re-energized, with better insights into my own region. That should keep me coming back for a good long while.

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