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Hidden away in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building are an assortment of small, unpretentious offices. Matthew Wasniewski, the House historian, and his staff of about 10 occupy them. Working in conjunction with the Clerk’s Office of Art and Archives, the Office of the Historian is vital in preserving the work, culture and heritage of the House of Representatives.
History preservation in both houses of Congress is actually a relatively new concept, with the creation of the Senate historian in 1975 and the House historian in 1983, in preparation for the 1987 bicentennial of Congress. Raymond Smock was the first House historian and held the title until 1995, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., fired him. The position then remained vacant for 10 years.
The separate Office of History Preservation was created during that time, in 2002, under the auspices of the Office of the Clerk. Its role was to maintain the material and records archives, and prominent historian Robert V. Remini was tasked by the Library of Congress with writing a full history of the House, which was published in 2006. Then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert — a former high school history teacher — appointed Remini as House historian in 2005.
When Remini retired in 2010, a bipartisan search committee created by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, concluded that the House historian and historians working in the Office of History Preservation should be combined into one — the Office of the Historian. They then named Wasniewski the new House historian; he reports directly to the speaker.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Wasniewski developed an early love of history from his father, an avid user of metal detectors who took his son to various local farms to look for Civil War and Colonial-era artifacts (always with permission from the owners).
He graduated with a double major in history and journalism from James Madison University in 1991. (And he triumphantly returned to give the commencement address at his alma mater on May 9.) During his brief stint as a sports editor for the Fauquier Free Citizen, he maintained his interest in political and diplomatic history, and eventually went back to complete his studies, earning his Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland in 2004. After four years at the Capitol Historical Society, a job opened up in the Clerk’s Office of History Preservation, which eventually led to his current position.
Wasniewski and his staff regard themselves as the “institutional memory of the House.” One of their main tasks is to respond to questions from both the media and the members. A common question from members — especially new ones — is, “Who occupied my office before me?”