Peter Benes was the main founder of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife and led it for more than forty years.
Peter was born as Bohus Matej Benes in Geneva, Switzerland, to Emilie Berta Zadna Benes and her husband Bohus Antonin Benes, a member of the Czech diplomatic service. His great uncle was Edvard Benes, president of Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1938.
After the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, Edvard Benes went into exile in England, and Peter’s family followed. In 1942, they traveled on with other diplomatic families to the United States on a British troop liner. Peter Benes attended high school in Berkeley, California, before enrolling at Harvard College, earning an A.B. with the class of 1955. He went on to earn an M.A.T. at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1965 and completed his graduate studies with an M.A. in 1980 from Boston University’s Program in American and New England Studies.
It was as a graduate student at Boston University as well as a history instructor at the Dublin School in Dublin, New Hampshire, that Peter Benes launched the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife. The inaugural gathering in the summer of 1976 brought together more than one hundred researchers interested in the history and design of New England gravestones. In 1977 the seminar turned to the subject of New England archaeology, and from that point it has met annually with a different focus each year. Benes remained a leader of the Dublin Seminar and an editor of its published Proceedings volumes for nearly 45 years.
The Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS) was another outgrowth of the inaugural Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife. Researchers launched the organization in 1977, with Peter Benes serving as founding treasurer. The AGS developed into an international membership organization that “promotes the study of gravestones from historical and artistic perspectives, expands public awareness of the significance of historic gravemarkers, and encourages individuals and groups to record and preserve gravestones.”
In 1980, Benes was named director of education at the Museum of the Concord Antiquarian Society—today the Concord Museum—in Concord, Massachusetts. Among the exhibitions he led there was the ground-breaking 1982 event “Two Towns: Concord/Wethersfield,” which compared the material culture of Concord—an inland community whose population was principally English—and Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town along the Connecticut River with a significant Germanic and Northern European presence.
In 1968, Peter Benes married Jane Montague of Concord, Massachusetts. A graduate of Concord Academy, Jane Montague attended the Sigtuna folkhögskola in Sweden, the University of Wisconsin, and Boston University. Jane Montague Benes served as associate editor for the Dublin Seminar Proceedings and helped to manage the annual seminars.
Together Peter and Janes Benes have been recognized for their contributions to scholarship. In 2011 they received the Bay State Legacy Award in recognition of their contribution to scholarship in Massachusetts and their work to “help professional and avocational historians alike explore an extraordinary range of subjects in the everyday life, work, and culture of the Commonwealth and the region.” In 2014, the American Association for State and Local History presented Peter and Jane Benes with a Leadership in History Award in recognition of “a lifetime of promoting and preserving the history of New England through The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.”
Peter Benes’s Scholarship
Peter Benes’s own scholarship focused on two areas: the material culture of faith and especially New England meetinghouses; and popular entertainment in early America. He authored scholarly monographs, catalogues for museum exhibitions, and collaborations with other researchers.
- The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689-1805 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1977). Chicago Folklore Prize from the American Folklore Society.
- New England Meeting House and Church, 1630-1850: A Loan Exhibition Held at the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, with Philip D. Zimmerman (Boston University, 1979).
- New England Prospect: A Loan Exhibition of Maps at the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire (Boston University, 1981).
- Two Towns: Concord and Wethersfield—A Comparative Exhibition of Regional Culture, 1635-1850 (Concord: Concord Antiquarian Society, 1982).
- Old Town and the Waterside: Two Hundred Years of Tradition and Change in Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, 1635-1835 (Historical Society of Old Newbury, 1986).
- Charles Delin: Port Painter of Maastricht and Amsterdam: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Portraits of American Sea Captains by Charles Delin Held at the Cushing House Museum, Newburyport, Massachusetts (Historical Society of Old Newbury, 1987).
- The Art of Family: Genealogical Artifacts in New England, with D. Brenton Simons (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002).
- A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England by photographer Paul Wainwright, text by Peter Benes (UNKNO, 2010). Award of Merit from the AASLH Leadership in History Awards. Gold Award for best Northeast regional nonfiction title from the Independent Publishers Association. Best Photography/Art Book for 2010 by the New England Book Festival.
- Meetinghouses of Early New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014). Abbott Lowell Cummings Award from the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Fred B. Kniffen Book Award from the Pioneer America Society.
- For a Short Time Only: Itinerants and the Resurgence of Popular Culture in New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016). George Freedley Memorial Award from the Theatre Library Association “for an exemplary work in the field of live theatre or performance.”
- Fruits of the Tree of Life: New Discoveries (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2021)
And of course Peter Benes coedited 43 volumes of the Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar.