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Michael Olmert

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Professor of the Practice, English

(410) 924-4889

3116 Tawes Hall
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Research Expertise

Medieval and Renaissance
Mythology and Folklore
Post-1900 British and Irish
Restoration and 18th Century

Olmert holds an MA and PhD in English literature and for the last 31 years has been teaching at the University of Maryland, where he lectures on Medieval Studies, Shakespeare, 17th and 18th Century Studies, and Modern British Drama.

He is also an active television, film, and print writer, with four books, seven plays, two feature films, an IMAX film, and over 90 TV documentaries, three of which won Primetime Emmy Awards. He has also written some 200 magazine articles, reviews, and essays. His pieces have apperared in Smithsonian magazine (30 articles), Colonial Williamsburg magazine (51 articles), the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated. He also published ten literary articles in refereed learned journals. 

A recent article is on the architectural and cultural history of markets, market houses, and butter crosses and appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Colonial Williamsburg magazine, which is available here: http://history.org/Foundation/journal/Summer15/Summer15flipb/Summer15/index.html#?page=20

His latest book is on the architecture and cultural history of the eighteenth-century backyard. Called Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth Century Mid-Atlantic, it was published by Cornell University Press in 2009.  It is based on extensive research in Maryland and Virginia, especially at Colonial Williamsburg. Olmert also wrote the Official Guidebook to Colonial Williamsburg (in print from 1985 to 2015), which covers the most-studied 18th Century town in the world. In 1992, he wrote The Smithsonian Book of Books, on the history of the manuscript and print revolutions.

His other books include Milton’s Teeth & Ovid’s Umbrella (Simon & Schuster, 1996; reprinted by Barnes & Noble, 2005), which is about the nature of History.  The Smithsonian Book of Books (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992; reprinted 2003) is to do with the codex and print revolutions.  A quotation from Milton’s Teeth was the answer to the New York Times Magazine “Doublecrostic” puzzle on January 23, 2005.  A quotation from his Smithsonian Book of Books is carved over the door of the public library in Curtis, Michigan.

Olmert also wrote the feature film The Leopard Son (Discovery Pictures, 1996), narrated by Sir John Gielgud, and the IMAX film Wildfire (1999).  His feature film Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins was released in 2008.  His screenplay about the Cold War and Albert Einstein, called Einstein and Margarita, is in fund-raising and development. His screenplay about Darryl Hill, Illegal Contact, is about the first black football player at the University of Maryland (1963-65). THis project is also in fundraising.

He has also written seven stage plays: His latest, Little Gidding (2017) is about KIng Charles I and his visit to an Anglican religious community just after his crushing defeat at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. It will have its first reading in May 2017.  His play on the curious life of St. Paul, Saul/Paul, who never saw Christ but who utterly transformed the nature of Christianity, had its first reading in May 2015. Southern Cross: A Play for Dabby Bryant (2012) is about the first person, a woman, to escape from the Australian penal colony. On her return to England, she was sentenced to death but was saved by the lawyer, and Dr. Johnson's pal and biographer, James Boswell. Olmert's play called The Purple, Green, & White (2013) is about life and martyrdom of Emily Davison, the "dangerous" Suffragette. 

Moving the Chains (2010) is a play about the University of Maryland football player Darryl Hill, the “Jackie Robinson” of ACC football. It was first performed in Maryland's Ulrich Recital Hall in in May 2010 and read by D.C. professional actors at the Lincoln Theatre in March 2011.  Olmert’s play Great Creating Nature (2005) is about botany and betrayal in the early 17th Century, and centers around the life of the father-and-son plant-collectors, the John Tradescants.  And his Shakespeare and Doctor Lopez (2004) is about Queen Elizabeth I’s Jewish physician, who may have had an influence on the writing of The Merchant of Venice. The play had a rehearsed table-read with professional actors at Theatre J in Washington in 2007. 

In 2001, 2002, and again in 2006, Olmert won Primetime Emmy awards for writing television documentaries (all on paleontology; all on the Discovery Channel).  In 2003, he wrote the well-received Walking with Cavemen, a two-hour special on human evolution, narrated by Alec Baldwin.  The writing on this show was awarded a gold medal at the New York Festivals in 2004.  For PBS, he wrote the documentary on the making of the Holocaust Museum, For the Living (1993), narrated by Ed Asner. For display inside the museum, he wrote a 12-minute loop film on the history of anti-semitism. It has been playing there since 1994.

In 2009, he wrote National Geographic’s documentary on the latest archaeology in Southeast Asia, Secrets of Angkor.  He also wrote two 2-hour specials in the Discovery Atlas series: Australia (2006; narrated by Russell Crowe) and France (2008; narrated by Candice Bergen). 

Shows written by Olmert have also won, among other awards, an American Bar Association award for Mr. Justice Brennan (PBS, 1996), the CableAce award for The Great Siberian Grizzly (Animal Planet, 1997), and the NEA award for The Lion’s Pride (CBS, 1996).

His television work has involved writing for and directing a number of major actors in addition to Gielgud, Baldwin, Crowe, and Asner, including Richard Dreyfuss, Gabriel Byrne, Malcolm McDowell, Gary Sinise, Stockard Channing, Martin Sheen, and F. Murray Abraham.

Over the years, nine of Olmert’s students have won the prestigious Philip Merrill Award as the top annual graduates from across the university and they selected him as their most influential college teacher. On five occasions, he was nominated for the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Council’s Teacher-of-the-Year Award. In 1999, he received the Phi Kappa Phi honor society faculty-mentoring award.  (Only two are awarded each year, covering all campuses of the University of Maryland system.)  

For 20 years, Olmert has taught a Study-Abroad summer course in literature, archaeology, and architecture in London, Yorkshire, and Norfolk. He's also lectured to Maryland Alumni Study Tours in Sicily, Florence, Tuscany, Sorrento, Greece, India, Burgundy and the Rhone valley, the Cotswolds, Scotland, and Ireland. 

He has delivered 60 invited public lectures, including a lecture at the “One-day University,” a national series using master teachers from major universities.

In 2005, he was inducted into the University of Maryland Alumni Hall of Fame (along a number of others, including with Larry David, Gary Williams, Morgan Wooten, and Connie Chung).   

27 II  2017

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has posted a video-cast in which Olmert talks about the demotic 18th century backyard in Early America. It's available here at http://www.history.org/media/videoplayer/?cat=vodcast&file=HiddenWilliamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg has also posted a podcast, enhanced with a slide show, of Olmert talking about "Smokehouses and Other Outbuildings," at http://history.org/media/podcasts.cfm, and has included his article "Of Follies" in the Colonial Wiliamsburg magazine, Summer 2013 (pdf available here).

Publications

Of Garden Mounts

"Vision, clarity, and perspective: such are the benefits of altitude. And altitude is what you got, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, when you erected an earthen mount, or mound, in your ornamental garden." 

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:

"Vision, clarity, and perspective: such are the benefits of altitude. And altitude is what you got, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, when you erected an earthen mount, or mound, in your ornamental garden."

 

Of Garden Mounts

Vision, clarity, and perspective: such are the benefits of altitude.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:
And altitude is what you got, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, when you erected an earthen mount, or mound, in your ornamental garden.

Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic

In Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies, Michael Olmert takes us into the eighteenth-century backyards of colonial America.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:
He explores the many small outbuildings that can still be found at obscure rural farmsteads throughout the Tidewater and greater mid-Atlantic, in towns like Williamsburg and Annapolis, and at elite plantations such as Mount Vernon and Monticello.

Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic

In Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies, Michael Olmert takes us into the eighteenth-century backyards of colonial America.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:

In Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies, Michael Olmert takes us into the eighteenth-century backyards of colonial America. He explores the many small outbuildings that can still be found at obscure rural farmsteads throughout the Tidewater and greater mid-Atlantic, in towns like Williamsburg and Annapolis, and at elite plantations such as Mount Vernon and Monticello.

These structures were designed to support the performance of a single task: cooking food; washing clothes; smoking meat; storing last winter's ice; or keeping milk, cheese, and cream fresh. Privies and small offices are also addressed, as is the dovecote, in which doves were raised for their eggs, squab meat, feathers, and fertilizer. Often, these little buildings were clustered in such a way as to resemble a small village, knit together by similar design details and building materials: they were all constructed in weatherboards or in brick, for instance, or were arranged in a single file or positioned at the four corners of the yard.

In this appealing book, featuring nearly a hundred crisp black-and-white photographs, Olmert explains how these well-made buildings actually functioned. He is riveted by the history of outbuildings: their architecture, patterns of use, folklore, and even their literary presence. In two appendixes he also considers octagonal and hexagonal structures, which had special significance, both doctrinal and cultural, in early America.

 

Archaeologists and historians still have many questions about the design and function of outbuildings-questions that are often difficult to answer because of the ephemeral nature of these structures; they were not documented-any more than laundry rooms and storage units inspire rhapsodies today. Olmert's book, deeply grounded in scholarship, eminently readable, and profusely illustrated, takes these buildings seriously and gives them the attention they deserve.

The Smithsonian Book of Books

Through more than 300 glorious illustrations from library collections around the globe, you’ll discover a wealth of book lore in these pages and gain a new appreciation for the role of books in human society.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:

Through more than 300 glorious illustrations from library collections around the globe, you’ll discover a wealth of book lore in these pages and gain a new appreciation for the role of books in human society, from our earliest attempts at writing and recording information to the newest electronic books; from sumptuous illuminated and bejeweled medieval manuscripts to Gutenberg and the invention of movable type; from the diverse arts and crafts of bookmaking to the building of magnificent libraries for housing treasured volumes; from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh to the plays of Shakespeare and the tales of Beatrix Potter; and from the earliest illustrated books to revolutionary science texts.

“Succeeds beautifully. Olmert’s lively text describes the evolution of the book and its impact on society.” - Bloomsbury Review

“The ultimate thrill for readers: beautiful, copious illustrations, and text that leaves no page of book history unturned.” - Los Angeles Daily News

“A feast for book lovers.” - Publishers Weekly

The Smithsonian Book of Books

Through more than 300 glorious illustrations from library collections around the globe, you’ll discover a wealth of book lore in these pages and gain a new appreciation for the role of books in human society.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:
From sumptuous illuminated and bejeweled medieval manuscripts to Gutenberg and the invention of movable type; from the diverse arts and crafts of bookmaking to the building of magnificent libraries for housing treasured volumes; from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh to the plays of Shakespeare and the tales of Beatrix Potter; and from the earliest illustrated books to revolutionary science texts.

Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser and Curiouser Adventures in History

In this illuminating collection of essays, Michael Olmert explores how the most ordinary artifacts of everyday life can reveal a huge amount information about how history actually works.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:

We've all been taught that history is the story of great events and important people—but is it, really? In this illuminating collection of essays, Michael Olmert explores how the most ordinary artifacts of everyday life can reveal a huge amount information about how history actually works. For example:

  • Toothbrushes—how they eased civilization into the Industrial Revolution
  • Playing Cards—how the technology of printing cards led to Gutenberg's Bible
  • Keys—why these little metal objects have been a symbol of power and authority throughout the ages.
  • Pets—why black cats were considered dangerous omens, while white ones were thought to be stupid.

How have these little things affected us, and what role does their history play in ours? Olmert forces us to take another look at the odds and ends of life we so often take for granted. Whimsical, witty, and highly informative, Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella holds the key through the back door and into the kitchen of history — where people really lived.

Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg

This was the first Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg in over 40 years; first published in 1985, it has been frequently updated since.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:

This was the first Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg in over 40 years; first published in 1985, it has been frequently updated since. It covers all the buildings in the historic area, including the 88 original Williamsburg structures (which were carefully restored) plus those that were reconstructed, in many cases, on original foundation footprints. The text is illustrated with line drawings of every historic building and its relationship to other structures along the town's four chief streets. In addition to architectural history, the text attempts to place the material culture of the town into the historical context of the Revolution as well as the lives of the families that lived and died in them--and their many slaves. Census documents show that Williamsburg was more than 50 percent African-American at the time of the Revolution. Illustrations, maps , and color photographs.

Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg

This was the first Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg in over 40 years; first published in 1985.

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:
It covers all the buildings in the historic area, including the 88 original Williamsburg structures (which were carefully restored) plus those that were reconstructed, in many cases, on original foundation footprints. The text is illustrated with line drawings of every historic building and its relationship to other structures along the town's four chief streets. In addition to architectural history, the text attempts to place the material culture of the town into the historical context of the Revolution as well as the lives of the families that lived and died in them--and their many slaves. Census documents show that Williamsburg was more than 50 percent African-American at the time of the Revolution. Illustrations, maps , and color photographs.

Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser and Curiouser Adventures in History

We've all been taught that history is the story of great events and important people—but is it, really?

English

Lead: Michael Olmert
Dates:
In this illuminating collection of essays, Michael Olmert explores how the most ordinary artifacts of everyday life can reveal a huge amount information about how history actually works.