By John Dichtl
Many thousands of people in this country are engaged in the work of history: from saving structures and historic landscapes to pioneering new depths of scholarship and from using historical interpretation to engage communities at museums to conducting historical studies for government, corporate, or nonprofit clients. But as we have specialized in all these various corners, we have neglected to speak to one another about why history matters. We haven’t articulated the value of history with a unified voice.
The History Relevance Campaign is a three-year-old effort to raise the profile of history in American society. In late 2012 a half dozen history consultants, administrators, and public historians started a conversation about how to brand history. By the middle of 2013, the group had grown to become a steering committee of a dozen people from across the history professions. We began by traveling to a variety of conferences to workshop lists of reasons why history and historical thinking are important. The group of us involved in the campaign at the time realized that we were all drawing from a similar—but imprecise—pool of assumptions about why history is essential. Listing them all in one place in order to refer back to them was a powerful first step.
The result is the Value of History statement, which outlines seven ways in which history is crucial in contemporary life. It provides a common language for making the argument in a wide variety of settings. While not completely original—we borrowed many ideas from colleagues around the country—the statement is both broad and concise. Historical societies, museums, history departments, and government offices have reported using the language with boards, in grant proposals, with policymakers, on websites, in courses, and in training materials. Please borrow it. Please adapt and improve upon it.
So far, more than 150 organizations have endorsed the statement. Most recently, it was the National Archives and Records Administration. Shortly before that—in conjunction with a day-long meeting of two dozen national groups at the National Museum of American History this spring—we received the endorsement of the Smithsonian Institution. Scan the list and you’ll also see dozens of smaller state and local organizations, as well as many state historical societies.
We invite all history organizations, large and small, to sign on to the statement and start using its language with their many audiences. We also invite their participation in the campaign’s Toolkit Project, to create an ongoing crowdsourced resource that will help organizations of all sizes better speak the value of history to Chambers of Commerce, prospective funders, community leaders, visitors, Members of Congress, local students, taxpayers, and the press. We invite you to offer examples of your own for the toolkit.
Our campaign is now centered around this impact statement: “People will value history for its relevance to modern life and use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues.” Since the entire American public is the potential audience for that message, the campaign is focusing on three smaller audiences to start: history organizations, K–20 education, and funders. Most of our efforts so far have gone toward the first group—hence, lining up 152 endorsers of the statement. We’d like our colleagues across the historical enterprise to advocate for history and historical thinking again and again.
We are also asking our history colleagues to help us find examples of organizations with impactful programming that demonstrates history’s relevance in contemporary communities that are also collecting and analyzing evidence. We believe that documenting these best practices will allow others—such as funding agencies desiring proof of programs’ effectiveness—to learn from them. We welcome your help in this effort and in urging funders to begin using a common set of metrics for assessing the impacts of the projects they fund. Funders ought to view history, historical thinking, and history organizations as critical to nearly all contemporary conversations.
This fall we are taking on a new project at the invitation of the National Governors Association (NGA): creating an action list of steps to help governors promote history’s value within the universal gubernatorial priorities of education and workforce development, advancing economic opportunity, and building vibrant communities. We plan to present this document to the NGA in October.
I encourage you to visit the campaign website to learn about our projects, volunteer to join a task force, and offer suggestions for new projects.
John Dichtl is president and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History.