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A Q&A with Expert Cassandra Potts Hannahs

By | November 12, 2015

Q. As a historian, what is your main goal as a Smithsonian Journeys Expert, and how does it compare with teaching in a classroom?

A. My first priority is to help our travelers appreciate the places we visit in terms of their broader historical and cultural significance. And in a sense, this can be more challenging to achieve on a tour than in a classroom since the things we encounter on our journeys are usually not in chronological order. We might begin the day at a Georgian mansion and then visit a medieval castle, followed by a neolithic tomb. Moreover, a single site will often have witnessed important events at different times, so there are layers upon layers of significance. Grasping the order of things is the first step—it’s like drawing a map of the past, one that starts out fairly simple but gains depth as we travel and fill in details. Controlling chronology might be easier in a classroom, but going to these sites ourselves makes them and their pasts meaningful in a personal way that no classroom experience can replicate. 

Q. Please compare your experiences of traveling with Smithsonian Journeys by land versus by sea.

A. The land tours I’ve been on most recently have been for small groups and focused on a single country: Scotland, Ireland, England, and France. We generally travel by coach, exploring different cities, sites, and regions, getting to know one specific country from the inside out. Cruises, on the other hand, tend to visit more than one country and experience them from the outside in, like ancient mariners or Vikings going ashore. Tracing the journeys of ancient and medieval seafarers helps us understand connections that historically linked these areas, connections which modern political lines tend to obscure. I find that fascinating. But I also cherish the focus and camaraderie of small-group land tours, which also offer new perspectives on our ideas of the past and present. 

Q. What do you feel our travelers enjoy most about our tour Scotland’s Treasures?

A. I would say that it’s the value of gaining a new perspective. It’s wonderful to be there: the beauty of the landscape is absolutely stunning and the sites we visit are fascinating. But the sum experience of seeing Britain and its past from a Scottish—rather than an English— perspective is what really turns peoples’ ideas upside down. As Americans, our view of British history tends to be Anglocentric: London has been the ”big dog” for so long. But it turns out that Scotland’s side of the story is very different and important to hear, too. For example, Scotland’s view of how the United Kingdom came about at the beginning of the 18th century helps explain why they’re considering breaking away from it now, three centuries later. 

Cassandra Hannahs

With a Ph.D. in medieval history, Cassandra Hannahs spent most of her academic career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a tenured professor of history. At Middlebury, Cassandra regularly taught courses on Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Norman Studies, as well as more general courses on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the history of Christianity. In her research and lectures, Cassandra explores the cultural and political exchanges that have historically linked Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe. As Study Leader for the Smithsonian since 2000, she enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of the British Isles and Ireland with travelers on land and sea.

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