Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Cassandra Potts Hannahs

Q. What do you love about being a historian on Smithsonian Journeys 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. As a historian, what is your main goal as a Smithsonian Journeys Expert?

A. My first priority is to help our travelers appreciate the places we visit in terms of their broader historical and cultural 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. 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. Going to these sites ourselves makes them and their pasts meaningful in a personal way that no classroom experience can replicate.

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.