In the last decade, Americans for the Arts has become a national powerhouse for the value of the arts through their research, advocacy, and programs. Take a look at just a few of the tools and resources they offer (but beware of rabbit holes!):
Arts + Social Impact Explorer (quick summaries on the impact of the arts on dozens of topics such as education, social justice, tourism, and culture and heritage; these straight-forward explanations of the value of arts can be re-used in your presentations or newsletters).
Americans for the Arts provides a possible model for the history field to help us better explain our value to society. You can find similar resources in part at History Relevance, American Association for State and Local History, American Alliance of Museums, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and other organizations, but there’s no comparable single source like Americans for the Arts. I suspect this will improve as the history field recognizes the need to go beyond the usual “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and towards a fuller explanation for the value of history (see AASLH’s Framing History project). But don’t wait for others—make it happen in your organization. A house museum or a historical society can research, summarize, and prepare information for their board, staff, and members to make the case for the value of their mission and the history of their community (unless you believe your organization is just a social club and history is a personal hobby). Once developed, it can be reused and easily adjusted in the years that follow. Here are some examples of possibilities taken from the History Relevance Toolkit:
In their year-end fundraising letter, the Tennessee Historical Society emphasized the role of history in providing a “sense of place that builds community” and helps us to “understand the issues we face today.”
Naper Settlement consolidated their research into a colorful illustrated impact report for elected officials and donors.
The Indiana Historical Society produced a video that shares how community leaders perceive the value of history to Indiana.
As part of a project to develop a new framework for AASLH‘s professional development/continuing education program, I plotted history organizations onto a map of the United States using a subset of IMLS’s database of museums. That’s a big category that includes history museums, historical societies, historic preservation organizations, historic house museums, and general museums that include history as a major topic and while there is some discussion about the comprehensiveness of the IMLS database, it’s the best information we have available and for my project, more than sufficient to get a sense of the big picture.
As you’ll see in the map below, history organizations are mostly located in the eastern half of the US. Start at the southern tip of Texas and draw an imaginary line due north and the lion’s share is on the right side of the map.
History organizations in the United States. Red is the location of historical societies and historic preservation organizations; green is history museums and house museums; and blue is general museums. Data source: IMLS, 2018. Map: Engaging Places.
That’s probably something we all suspected but now can visualize it better. When I’ve shown this map to a few people, they concluded that it’s because there’s much more history in the East. But take a look at the heat map below while recalling the US history timeline, and you’ll come to a different conclusion. Continue reading →
I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.
Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.
The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.
Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Values of History.” Businesses and nonprofit organizations have been adopting values along with mission and vision statements for the past two decades but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history as well as include the work of the History Relevance Campaign. Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):
Values of History. Values are beliefs shared by an individual or a community about what is important or valuable. Although values and ethics are terms used interchangeably at times, ethics are the action and manifestation of values. In addition to a mission and vision, some history organizations have adopted a statement of values or a code of ethics to clarify their identity and guide decisions. For example, Society for Historical Archaeology includes in its code of ethics that members “shall not sell, buy, trade, or barter items from archaeological contexts,” an action based in part from their belief that “historical and underwater cultural resources” are a “valued resource for knowledge exchange.” The importance of values was underscored nearly a generation ago in Museums for a New Century (1984): “An effective museum leader—whether scholar or M.B.A. or both—must first understand, believe in, and speak for the values of the institution.”
A common challenge for state and local history organizations is explaining Continue reading →
I’ll be at an all-day workshop today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to discuss the work of the History Relevance Campaign with representatives of two dozen national organizations, including the Library of Congress, National Archives, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Park Service, American Historical Association, American Alliance of Museums, National Coalition for History, National History Day, National Humanities Alliance, and National Governors Association. We’ll use our work on the values of history, impact project, and research on popular attitudes towards history to discuss where the campaign should go next and how they might get more involved (most of these organizations have already endorsed the values statement). I’m not sure what the results will be but you can follow along on Twitter at #historyrelevance.
On Monday, March 21 at 3:00 pm Eastern/12 pm Pacific, Tim Grove and I will be discussing the History Relevance Campaign during AASLH’s monthly Historic House Call. For the past few years, a dozen people from various history organizations have studied the challenges and opportunities for changing the common attitude that history is nice, but not essential. We won’t have overnight solutions and there’s lots of work to do, but we’ll share what we’ve learned, discuss how it impacts historic house museums, and provide a tool that organizations have found very helpful. The webinar is free but preregistration is required.
Thanks to the support of The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, the steering committee of the History Relevance Campaign held a retreat this past week to plan its next steps. Randi Korn facilitated the retreat to clarify our impact and distinctiveness as well as begin to draft outcomes for our work. It was a long day and a half but we made tremendous progress. Although we won’t be ready to share the results for another month or so (our draft ideas are still being discussed), we are making progress in several other areas:
Discussing the History Relevance Campaign at a packed session at AASLH in St. Paul. Photo by Lee Wright.
At the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in St. Paul, the History Relevance Campaign presented an update on their work to a packed audience. During the session, we presented the Impact Project, a year-long process for identifying and studying historic sites and history museums that are making history relevant in their community. The goals of the Impact Project are to:
Increase the use of history as a way to understand and address critical community issues.
Help board members and staff make an impact in their communities by integrating best practices into their strategic and interpretive plans
Encourage AASLH and other professional associations to include standards on community relevance and impact
Encourage academic programs in history, public history, and museum studies to include community relevance and impact in their curriculum
Encourage elected officials, funders, and communities to provide more support for history organizations that are making an impact
Provide every Governor with at least one example of history organizations that are making an impact in their state
We Need Your Help
We are looking for history museums, historic sites, and similar organizations that are Continue reading →
NCPH 2014: Presidential Address by Robert Weyeneth
NCPH 2014: Tom Hanchett on the Levine Museum
NCPH 2014: Drop in sessions to discuss digital projects
NCPH 2014: Vendors in the exhibit hall
NCPH 2014: Discussing the History Relevance Campaign
NCPH 2014: Speed Networking about to begin.
Walking tour of historic Monterey, California.
The National Council on Public History held its annual conference in Monterey, California a couple weeks ago. More than 600 people attended from around the country plus ten countries, making it the largest stand-alone meeting (at times, NCPH will co-host a conference with another organization, such as AASLH). Monterey, of course, is a wonderful place to enjoy history and nature, especially if you’ve been enduring a long winter. This year’s theme was sustainability and a task force is developing a white paper, which is available for public comments.
I attended primarily to discuss the History Relevance Campaign and collect more comments and ideas on our goals and projects. I also participated in a couple sessions, a morning of speed networking (graduate students and new professionals rotate among several mid-career and seasoned pros), and ran into lots of friends and colleagues in the hall and on the street. NCPH is a mix of Continue reading →
Last Friday, January 3, about 65 people braved the winter cold of Washington, DC (okay, compared to Midwest right now, it’s balmy) to participate in a discussion on the relevance of history to Americans. Leading the discussion with me were Tim Grove of the Smithsonian Institution and Cathy Gorn and Kim Fortney of National History Day.
It was an exciting mix of participants. The room was not only filled with historians who were attending the American Historical Association conference, but also people who work at history organizations in the DC region. These various perspectives sparked a Continue reading →