The National History Center Is Nearly Ten
James Sheehan, September 2011
Editor's Note: In 2012, The National History Center, an initiative of the American Historical Association, will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of its launch. In the following essay, James Sheehan, the chair of the center's board of trustees, and a former president of the AHA, takes a brief look at the center's history and its many activities. In subsequent issues of Perspectives on History we will carry articles by others involved in or engaged with the center's programs
The American Historical Association's Constitution lists the organization's goals as “the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information, the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public, and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history.” Anyone who has spent time in the AHA headquarters at 400 A Street or, for that matter, anyone who reads Perspectives on History recognizes how energetically and creatively the Association endeavors to fulfill its founders' goals. And yet I think most of us would agree that the most difficult and elusive of these goals is the quest for “the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public.”
J. Franklin Jameson, who was the first professional historian to become president of the AHA (in 1907), tried unsuccessfully to establish a center in Washington that would provide a permanent place for historians to meet and a forum from which they could address the general public. Wm. Roger Louis took up Jameson's idea when he became AHA president in 2000; two years later the National History Center was officially founded, approved by the AHA Council, and supported by contributions from an impressive number of founders. The Center continues to depend on the leadership of Roger Louis, who has remained the guiding presence behind the organization, and on the efforts of a dedicated core of volunteers. Until recently, Miriam Hauss Cunningham, the Center's assistant director, was its only full-time staff member. The Center is extremely fortunate to have persuaded Marian Barber to take Miriam's place as associate director.
Looking back over the past decade, three things about the National History Center's activities stand out.
First, as the Center's letterhead proclaims, it is “An Initiative of the American Historical Association.” Its purpose is not to compete with the AHA, but to supplement and extend its mission with projects that, for a variety of reasons, the Association cannot do. The relationship between the two organizations has been, and must remain, very close. The AHA's executive director—first Arnita Jones and now Jim Grossman—plays an active role in the Center's governance, as do the Association's three vice presidents, who have ex officio positions on the Center's Board of Trustees. The associate director works out of the AHA headquarters building. The Center sponsors sessions at the annual meeting and regularly reports on its activities in Perspectives. Without the active engagement of the AHA leadership and the ongoing support of its individual members, the Center could not exist.
Second, because the Center cannot be a membership organization that is financed by collecting annual dues, it must depend on contributions from individuals and organizations. In the past several years, most of the Center's work has been the result of strategic partnerships with other institutions. These include the Teagle Foundation, which supported a study of the history major in liberal education; the Newberry Library, which co-hosted a conference on history education policy; Oxford University Press, which publishes “Reinterpreting History,” a series based on AHA sessions initiated by the Center; the Council on Foreign Relations, which sponsors a biannual lecture in New York; the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations, which support weekly seminars in Washington, D.C., that feature prominent historians; and the Mellon Foundation, which funds the extraordinarily successful series of annual summer seminars on decolonization that have been meeting since 2006 at the Library of Congress.
Third, throughout its first decade of existence, the Center has seized opportunities to leverage its limited human and financial resources effectively and efficiently, both in running the programs listed above and through other projects. In the past year, discussions among those who have been directly involved with the Center from its creation and on the Board of Trustees have focused on deepening the relationship between history and public policy. This will involve reviving the program of Congressional Briefings, in which the Center arranged for scholars to speak to members of Congress and their staffs about the historical background of contemporary issues. This is, everyone agrees, a most valuable enterprise, but also a very difficult one in a capital city where time is scarce. The Center is in the process of creating workshops, probably to be held at the annual meeting, in which historians can discuss how to make their expert knowledge accessible to policy makers and opinion leaders. Plans are also underway to create a setting in which historians and journalists could exchange ideas about how history might better inform the reporting of current events.
Although it will be celebrating its 10th birthday next year, the National History Center is still very much a work in progress. The current governance structure, which depends too much on the extraordinary generosity and commitment of a few people, must be broadened. In the long term, the Center's future will depend on its ability to find reliable and predictable sources of funding, preferably an endowment substantial enough to sponsor programs, pay for adequate staff support, and, if possible, provide for a building in which Franklin Jameson's vision of a center for historical studies can finally be realized. In the meantime, however, the Center continues to be active in a growing number of projects, all designed to help expand the engagement of historical knowledge with American public life. To learn more about these projects, go to the Center's website, http://nationalhistorycenter.org/ .
James Sheehan, a professor of history emeritus at Stanford University and a former president of the AHA, is the chair of the Board of Trustees of the National History Center.