Architectural Historian Wes Cunningham
Current position: Architectural Historian (Amec Foster Wheeler, an engineering and project management firm)
Degree: MA History, 2016
Education background: BA History, Archaeology minor (Murray State University)
What sparked your interest in studying history, and public history in particular?
I have always been interested in history when I think back on it, but I wasn't really aware of my interest until I began my college career and realized I could pick the classes I wanted to take. Having the freedom to decide what I was taking allowed me to really explore my interests fully.
As for public history, I didn't even know what public history was until I came to my graduate school orientation with the history department and spoke with Prof. Dan Vivian, director of the Public History program. It was then that I realized that jobs for historians were not solely in academia and that I could combine my personal interests with my academic interests.
Focusing my studies on social justice issues and Black history in Louisville made my course work and research not seem like work at all. Now, conducting oral histories has become one of my favorite methods of research. I realized that I could use my outgoing and personable nature to benefit my historical research. It was a great realization.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
This is a hard one to answer because I have had so many great people give me amazing advice, whether they were family members, coaches, professors or UofL program assistants.
But, there is one story that I always refer to regarding my work ethic. It was simple. When I was a kid I wanted to sign up for little league baseball. My folks had no issue with me playing and instead of telling me to win, or to try my hardest, my father told me one thing that has stuck with me; if you want to play, make sure you honor the commitment and show up. Simple as that.
What is your role at the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research (ABI)?
I have worked with the ABI on a few projects, but the one that I am working on currently is part of a larger LGBTQ history initiative. We are working with the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Fairness Campaign to compile a narrative history of LGBTQ history in Kentucky.
I am responsible for research as well as writing an amendment for the National Register of Historic Places listing for Historic Whiskey Row. This amendment will highlight the role that the Downtowner, a gay bar that once occupied one of the buildings on Main St., played in the larger LGBTQ history in Louisville. It will stress the importance of the Downtowner on the LGBTQ culture throughout the city while giving a brief overview of LGBTQ life in Louisville from 1970-1990.
While researching I have had the opportunity to speak to, and conduct oral histories with many community leaders and locals who were involved in the Gay Liberation Movement in Louisville as well as around the state.
Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career thus far. Why that one?
I have been a part of many projects throughout my time as a graduate student in the College of Arts & Sciences, from creating exhibits to nominating a building for the national register, but I think that one of my favorites was another one associated with the ABI.
The project was part of a national exhibit called "Organize Your Own: An Exhibition and Event Series about the Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements." What I did was reach out to community leaders and conduct oral histories with them on the topic of white folks speaking out against racial injustice, both historically and currently. I then created two digital stories, one about Carl and Anne Braden and one about LSURJ (Louisville Showing Up For Racial Justice), using my own narration, excerpts from the oral histories and images from archival and personal collections.
This stands out to me because the experience of talking with and bonding with so many local leaders was invaluable both to my research as well as my own personal interests. You never really know how interesting someone's story can be until you sit down with them and ask.
You went from intern to interim executive director at the Farmington Historic Plantation in a matter of months. How did that happen, and what did you learn from that experience?
My experience at Farmington Historic Plantation was a blast. I began as a summer intern, which is a requirement in the Public History program, and I loved every minute of it. I became quite close with Executive Director Diane Young and a few of the volunteers, in addition to learning what went on during the day-to-day operation of the site.
I learned so much that when it came time for Diane to go on maternity leave, I was the best option for running the place in her absence. Since it is a small operation (only two full-time employees) someone needed to be in charge of making sure things continued to run smoothly and I was lucky enough to be that person.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.
I have had a lot of mentors in my life. Obviously my folks have been instrumental in making me who I am today, just as my professors have played a large part in making me into the public historian I am.
What I am committed to and what I believe in are products of a great upbringing and consistent questioning. These ideologies have been molded through experience and interactions that no individual person has wholly been a part of. As far as a "key mentor" goes, I cannot really think of one person in particular. I am inspired by so many people and that list continues to grow, so singling out one person is impossible.
What's the one thing about you few people know?
I am in a punk rock band called For The Birds. I play drums and write lyrics for the group. Although my interest in punk rock is no secret, my involvement in a band is not usually a topic I bring up on campus. I have been playing in punk bands since I was about fifteen and have been together with these guys for about four years or so now. We are not able to play too often but you should come check us out if you get the chance.
Finish this sentence:
I think, therefore I Ask Questions.