A New Mission Statement Reflects the Evolution of the National History Center

Marian J. Barber, February 2014

NHC LogoAs it moves into its 12th year, the National History Center of the American Historical Association has a new mission statement, one that more clearly enunciates its roles in the AHA, the discipline of history, and civic life.

The new statement reads: “The National History Center of the American Historical Association provides a venue in the nation’s capital for all who care about the human past to make history an essential part of public conversations about current events and the shared futures of the United States and the wider world.”

The center’s previous mission statement, crafted in its early years, spoke in very specific terms of audience and activities. It stressed historians as the center’s primary constituency. The new version refers to a more mature institution that has over the years forged a new relationship with its parent, the AHA, and has created a place for itself through partnerships with other organizations, weathering the difficult circumstances that have affected all nonprofits since 2008.

When the earlier statement was drafted, the center was considered “an initiative” of the AHA. But while it remains an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the two have developed much closer ties. They share leadership, with the executive director of the AHA the ex officio chair of the center’s board and the past president the ex officio vice chair. The AHA president and president-elect also serve as ex officio trustees, and the AHA has a voice in the selection of a majority of the board members. The center is now a part of the AHA, as conveyed by its title since 2013, the National History Center of the American Historical Association.

The mission statement revision reflects these changes. According to AHA past president Kenneth L. Pomeranz of the University of Chicago, it grew out of discussions at the board’s midyear meeting. “[Past President] Bill Cronon wrote the first draft; he, Jim Grossman and I did further editing. Part of the point of the new language is to emphasize that the NHC is an arm of the AHA with a definite, though broad, mandate—a mandate which is related to its physical location in Washington. The idea is that the center serves the goal of making both specific historical insights and historical thinking more generally central to public discussions about how to navigate the present and future; we seek, through placing the center near other institutions of the capital, to make history a more important part of the thinking that goes on there.”

The NHC board unanimously approved the new language, termed “elegant” by trustee Christof Mauch of the Amerika-­Institut in Munich. “To its great credit, the new mission statement manages to be pointed and capacious at the same time,” said AHA president Jan E. Goldstein of the University of Chicago. “It indicates the distinctive role of the NHC within the AHA: to foster a historical sensibility in public discussion of current affairs. And it also makes the breadth of that role clear: the current affairs under discussion are not only those of our own country but also those of the world at large.”

Trustee David Kyvig of Northern Illinois University agreed: “It encompasses the goals that attracted me to the National History Center: the creation of a more cohesive community of historians with intellectual or physical attachments to the nation’s capital, assistance to historians coming to Washington from across the country and throughout the world to exploit its many resources, and, above all, to strengthen the voice of historians in the various public conversations that take place in this city.”

“The new language concisely expresses the Center’s purpose: to make history a more powerful, relevant, and useful subject beyond its traditional function of uncovering and explaining the past for the purposes of education,” added trustee Richard H. Kohn of the University of Carolina, Chapel Hill. “While the statement identifies the location of the programs (without limiting that), it emphasizes that there are no boundaries to subject matter or audience. Above all, it suggests that history can contribute importantly to public policy in the United States and around the world.”

Pomeranz also emphasized the new partnerships suggested by the statement, pointing out that the center’s location in the nation’s capital “does not mean addressing ourselves only to the U.S. federal government, or focusing solely on U.S. history; like the AHA, the NHC deals with the entire human past, and our possible audiences and interlocutors in Washington include foundations, media, national museums, the diplomatic corps, and everybody else whom we might reach by leveraging our location in this particular city.”

—Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.