Negotiating a Research site: Working with ANC

Army Marching band passing through the McClellan Gate. Courtesy of

From my first meeting with staff from the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress in 2010, my hope was to do a documentation project on Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).  My AFC colleague David Taylor recommended the cemetery as a site, mainly because no on had every done a documentation of the work culture there.  I was immediately attracted to the idea.

Growing up in West Virginia, I spent a great deal of time in cemeteries. Our family farm, located in Gladesville, WV, lay adjacent to the Gordon cemetery.  The cemetery property was once part of the original farm; in the 1980s my grandfather donated additional farmland to expand the cemetery.  Our family participated in the annual cemetery Decoration Day (in early June) set out time to visit our deceased loved ones regularly during the summer months.

I also knew that Arlington National Cemetery, as America’s premier military cemetery, was home to a number of unique military ceremonies and rituals.  The cemetery is also a popular tourist attraction, making it a wholly unique site for cultural documentation.

Unfortunately, in 2010 the cemetery was in the middle of a crisis of mismanagement.  I spoke to a woman working in the cemetery’s media relations office during that time who told me that too many things were in flux for the cemetery to consider a documentation project that year. She encouraged me to try again in two years “when things have a chance to settle down.”

I had followed the news of ANC during the last two years, noting a complete change in leadership at all levels.  In 2012 I completed the second year of documentation in the Columbia Pike neighborhoods. One of the community meetings I documented included a visit from the Army about the demolition of the Navy Annex and the expansion of ANC.  As I was ready to close the Columbia Pike project, it was logical to inquire again with ANC.

I started the process in August 2012. I called the Public Affairs office, realizing that all of the staff there were new since I had made my last inquiry.  I explained the field school process and what students would do (document the day-to-day work culture) and more importantly, what we would NOT do: investigative journalism.  As ethnographers, our primary goal is to do a thorough collection of the working traditions of the cemetery.  Our research will become part of the Archive of Folk Culture and the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.  I was also hoping to document and understand how the cemetery operates and how the new leadership had instituted changes to correct the issues that emerged in 2009.

I spend a lot of time on the phone with the cemetery, especially between November 2012 and April 2013.  I was mystified about the decision making process and why it was taking so long to approve the project.  One day I was talking with a public affairs officer, Melissa Bohan, about the project and she asked, “when you say ‘documentary’ can you define exactly what you mean?”

As it turns out, there are certain types of documentary projects, typically film projects, that have a long a complicated approval procedure at military installations.  Once I explained how ethnographic documentation works, it became clear to the cemetery leadership that this type of academic study was not the type of documentation that many at the cemetery had assumed it was.  Shortly after that conversation I was called to the cemetery to meet with the directors of the various divisions to pitch the project, including Engineering, Field Operations, Operations (ceremonies), Internment Services (funerals), Horticulture, Information Technology and Public Affairs.  We began planning for the field school shortly afterward.


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