Madeline Dunn on 45+ years with the division

By Engagement and Collections Manager Meg Hutchins

The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs is fortunate to have many dedicated staff members, but few have stood the test of time like Madeline Dunn, the agency’s National Register of Historic Places coordinator. While she has been in her current position for 12 years, Dunn began her tenure at the division in 1973 and has held many roles. As a committed history professional, she has seen many changes at the division and the National Register in the last 47 years.

Photo of Madeline Dunn
Madeline Dunn

MEG HUTCHINS: How did you get started in the field of public history?

MADELINE DUNN: The bug bit me when I was a curatorial assistant at Winterthur and my boss allowed me the privilege of doing primary research, which was not allowed for undergrads at the time. When the bug bites you to do primary research, it opens up a lot of doors.

HUTCHINS: What has it been like working for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs during your tenure?

DUNN: The continuous learning and administrative support to do research, and to do it correctly, is wonderful. From my first day on the job back in 1973 as a casual/seasonal, it has always been following the National Park Service standards for research and programmatic development.

I am also excited about the level of professional maturation among the staff. To see how far we’ve come as an organization and where we are headed. I see the sky as the limit for the division.

HUTCHINS: In your expert option, how has the National Register of Historic Places changed since it was formed in 1966?

DUNN: One of the biggest things I’ve seen evolve in the National Register program from the way it was in the 70s when I began is that nominations approved then emphasized site-specific information which met the basic fundamental requirements of the National 1966 Preservation Act. Now, those early nominations, often referred to as legacy nominations, can be amended to include the current research standards by addressing expanded research requirements through comparative analysis, development of an historic context, including multiple aspects of social history, as well as incorporating information obtained through oral history interviews. These expanded facets of research are parts of the National Register nomination process I value most because of their inclusionary emphasis.

HUTCHINS: How do you see this change in the National Register affecting nominations in Delaware?

DUNN: Currently, 70.5 percent of our National Register nomination inquiries in the state come from constituents and 29.5 percent are associated with professional consultants. The fact that interest in this nomination process is growing is wonderful, but it also means that SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office] needs to provide a lot of technical assistance with writing the nominations, especially assistance with writing architectural descriptions, developing historic contexts and providing guidance for archival research. As SHPO seeks to establish historic preservation partnerships throughout the state, it is exciting to receive an increase of inquiries especially from the African American community for churches and schools which represent significant aspects of community development.

I enjoy working with people and appreciate the opportunity to interact with the grassroots preservation efforts because citizens have perceptions, ideas, and are passionate about sharing their local history. Networking with constituents has a lot of benefits and the National Register program acts as a catalyst for dialog between the division and Delaware communities.

HUTCHINS: Do you see that the division is keeping up with these changes and integration of diverse histories?

DUNN: I am very proud that the division was the first museological entity in the state to really get involved with African American research and document stories that place men, women and children on the historic landscape. The division takes its research seriously — not just as statistics but as individual people who were enslaved, freed, tenants, property owners, tradesmen — and seeks to document family relationships especially connected with the John Dickinson Plantation.

HUTCHINS: What has drawn you to this line of work, particularly the interest in social history of underrepresented individuals?

DUNN: I think there are several things involved — the interest in history and buildings and the people that occupy them actually came in 1957 when I first visited Colonial Williamsburg. Then in the 1970s to 1980s, I had the opportunity to meet and co-edit books with Dr. Harold Hancock who taught at Otterbein College in Ohio, and during the 1960s published numerous articles about Delaware’s African American history. Working with other great scholars and being trained in African American research by Charles L Blockson [curator emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University] also helped me but I also give a lot of credit to my mother, Madeline Arnold Dunn. As a Delaware art educator for 30 years in Sussex County, she developed multicultural art curricula and served as an art supervisor for the African American and Native American schools in Sussex County, so I was brought up with an appreciation for people with diverse backgrounds.

HUTCHINS: Thank you so much Madeline for your years of dedication to telling and engaging in diverse historical storytelling and your continuing commitment to the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.

Madeline Dunn has served as the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs’ National Register coordinator-historian since 2009. A lifelong Delawarean, she joined the division in 1973 and has served in a wide variety of positions including architectural site surveyor for the State Historic Preservation Office, and as curator of education from 1975 to 2009.

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