America's Sacred Spaces (2018-2019)


The United States possesses singular places where citizens and others can visit to absorb elements of the nation’s depth of pain, triumph, awe, reverence, disappointments and dreams. “Sacred spaces” in this context refers to understanding America by literally standing in places and taking in layers of meaning that plumb the depths of our national character.  

This pilot project will launch a multiyear, in-depth documentary research initiative to tell stories of 40 essential American places that enhance our understanding of the United States. This initiative will result in a field guide to the meaning of this country—a pilgrim’s itinerary into the soul of America. Ultimately, the goal is to provide a website, app and book that will provide orientations in text, maps and pictures of the country’s most sacred spaces. These tools will provide tangible lessons in civics, history, cultures and geographies, all combining to ground the traveler in our common heritage.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will begin organizing a field guide that will ultimately teach the complexities of sites such as the Manzanar Japanese internment camp, Fort Sumter, Little Big Horn, the site of Geronimo’s capture and New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Not all will be as painful as these. The guide will also highlight the spot in Yosemite where John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt stood and imagined national parks, and the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at the Grand Canyon where youths worked to build the park.

The project team will first determine a list of places that convey the project’s main goal. Sites—likely including Pearl Harbor, Jamestown, the Lewis and Clark launch at the Columbia River, Cumberland Gap, Lexington, Yorktown, Utah’s Golden Spike in the Transcontinental Railway and a “stop” on the Underground Railway—will vary greatly. Yet every one of them will raise questions regarding Americanness, particularly where people have taken up arms and where someone has been forcibly removed for another’s gain.

Multiple voices are essential in the selecting of these sites. Each entry will be vetted by an advisory group. After the selection process, the team will collect oral history narratives, images, maps, video and supplementary readings about two initial sites, which are likely to be the two closest geographically to Durham. In preparation for the field visits, team members will help identify people with whom to meet as well as community resources and archives to explore. 

The National Park Service, Library of Congress and other archival sources will be key resources. Duke research librarians and archivists will be crucial collaborators to provide training in research and help with preservation of the materials the team uncovers.

Anticipated Outcomes

Annotated list of sites to be explored in the entirety of the project (not just in year one); two fully-researched field sites documented and written into a usable form for the project; groundwork for external funding proposals

Student Opportunities

This team is only accepting applications from undergraduate students. Preference will be given to students with interests in documentary studies, history and digital design. An in-person interview will be required. Students of color are especially encouraged to apply.

Desired backgrounds and skills include cultural anthropology, history, documentary studies, computer science, visual arts, filmmaking, photography, historical research in archives, community outreach, writing, web design, mapping/GPS and app design.

Students will learn a variety of research and writing skills, contribute to publications in print and online, employ anthropological and documentary fieldwork techniques, do archival research, engage in community-building exercises, work with community groups, learn how National Park Service work is conducted, learn about the hidden histories of the U.S. country through oral history interviews and community collaborations, improve their knowledge of citizenship and enhance their leadership skills.

Students who wish to receive course credit will be graded based on participation in the project and the final materials they submit.


Summer 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Summer 2018: Two teams of researchers visit two different sites to conduct documentary fieldwork and archival research, compiling raw materials for construction of project’s website, book chapter and maps
  • Fall 2018: Write up results, submit five major external proposals; plan work for next semester
  • Spring 2019: Continued activities


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

Get Involved

Apply here

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Adriane Lentz-Smith, Arts & Sciences-History
Jedediah Purdy, Duke Law*
Charles Thompson, Arts & Sciences-Cultural Anthropology*
Norman Wirzba, Divinity School

Graduate Team Members

Matthew Block, Liberal Studies-AM

Undergraduate Team Members

Ilke Arkan
Jane Booth, Art History/Visual Arts (AB), Chemistry (AB2)
Mary Coyne, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Helen Healey
Yi Hui Hong
Caroline Kealoha, History (AB), Spanish (AB2)
Yunjoo Lee
Samia Noor, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Gi Shin, Art History (AB)
Sawyer Uzzell
Erica Wang

* denotes team leader