The Iowa public history community, probably in low spirits due to all the recent flooding, finally has some good news. Humanities Iowa is announcing the Iowa History Prize, “a biennial award of up to $90,000, to honor an Iowa history scholar, promote Iowa history appreciation, public discussion and community-based programming.” This is a public history prize–Humanities Iowa’s director Christopher Rossi said that “pure scholarship will not be rewarded”–which can be awarded to anyone working in Iowa history, from museum directors to independent scholars to high school history teachers. The focus is on giving “untapped and underutilized history authorities” the means and audience to engage the public in Iowa history. This is the greatest innovation of the prize: local historians and citizen historians will be empowered to do both basic and cutting-edge public history work. For historians used to working with very little money, 45K a year could keep several small history centers afloat and enable great exhibits, programming, and digital history work, and really jumpstart public discourse about Iowa history
The Prize is modeled on the Poet Laureate program, which of course appoints a person to be the state’s official poetry advocate; “the Iowa History Prize winner will be become the face of Iowa history for the state,” a “historian laureate.” (I think we can officially call history the most poorly funded of the humanities when poetry is our model for successful, relevant humanities programming. Poor Clio!) In an op-ed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Rossi says that the Prize winner will be “the public’s personal sherpa of historical memory who guides us across the landscape of accomplishment and struggle that make up our Iowa past.” He notes that Iowa’s state historical society still lacks a director after 2 years, that Iowa history is inconsistently taught, and that Iowa ranks low in support of cultural organizations, including local history societies. With this Prize, Humanities Iowa hopes to turn around this trajectory and “help scholars and the public interpret the stories that give meaning to our lives, invigorate Iowa history studies, elevate public appreciation of our common past and honor a deserving Iowa history expert as the Iowa public historian.” I wish them the best of luck! If this program is successful, it could be a model for historian laureate programs across the country. The Prize will be awarded in November. We’ll keep our eyes on Iowa.