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A Q&A with Expert Cassandra Potts Hannahs

By | August 23, 2018
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Q. What keeps you interested in traveling as a Smithsonian Journeys Expert?

A. The whole process—before, during and after! I love the preparation of crafting a series of lectures to help our travelers get the most out of their experience. Of course, it’s also great fun being on these tours too, even ones I’ve done over and over, because each group creates its own chemistry and makes the journey unique. I tend to specialize in small-group tours where we can really get to know each other. And that’s a big part of the pleasure too since “Smithsonians” are a self-selected group, focused on learning and keen to share their questions and insights with each other. Traveling with them is invigorating. It reminds me of teaching honors courses, where the students are willing to work harder to learn more, and their ideas and insights are flying fast and furious. And finally, after the tours there’s always a flurry of emails as we exchange photos, articles, book recommendations and favorite moments. These tours create communities that stay in touch for years as we continue to trade stories and let each other know what we’re reading now and where we’re going next. And we often meet again. For example, on my upcoming Highlights of Britain tour, five of the twenty-two people on it have been on previous Smithsonian Journeys trips with me. I’m really looking forward to seeing and traveling with them again.

Q. What do you love about being a historian on these tours?

A. There are many different types of Smithsonian Journeys trips. The ones I join generally focus on the history and culture of a region, so my job is to be on hand to help interpret specific sites and also to propose broader themes that help tie the tour together. In Ireland, for example, we explore how the medieval past was reinterpreted in the 19th century to inspire a new national consciousness that helped inspire their movement for independence. In France the big question is how the different regions we visit were gradually, and often reluctantly, assembled into the whole. Identifying these unifying themes helps people at the end of the tour remember and understand the significance of what we saw at the beginning, since we’re talking the whole time about how it all fits together. So, to answer your question directly, it’s incredibly refreshing for me as a historian to step back and consider the big picture this way.

Q. What do you look forward to on A Celtic Cruise, especially given that it commemorates the 75th anniversary of D-Day?

A. Normandy has a special place in my heart because I lived there for over a year while doing research for a book, and I’ve returned many times over the decades. One thing that I’ve found fascinating about the World War II experience in Normandy is how the sites of memory have evolved. New museums and exhibits about D-Day continue to open, like those at the Airborne Museum, which we’ll be visiting. At the same time, it has been moving to see how appreciation for Operation Overlord has only deepened in the past generation. The last time I was there, it took my breath away to go inside the village church at Saint-Mère Eglise and find American paratroopers depicted in the stained-glass windows. I look forward to showing that to our travelers. I’m also excited to visit the newly refurbished D-Day Museum at Portsmouth and headquarters of the Allied Command at Southwick House, especially with General Eisenhower’s grandson on the trip.

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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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