February 2009

Whew, it’s been a busy few weeks in terms of museums, history, and legislative priorities.  Let’s take a walkthrough.

First, the stimulus package.  On Feb 6, the Senate approved, by a large majority, an amendment proposed by Tom Coburn of Oklahoma which forbid the following kinds of institutions to receive federal funding from the stimulus package:  “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.”  For reference, of Michigan’s two senators, Levin voted against, Stabenow for (I wrote her an angry letter.)

Museum folks organized and sent, according to AAM, 4000 letters and emails to legislators about this issue, and, thankfully, in conference committee museums were taken out of the Coburn Amendment.  However, zoos and aquaria are still prohibited from receiving stimulus funding.

The National Trust analyzed the stimulus bill in terms of historic preservation, mentioning things like school renovation as wins for preservation projects.  I hate to be contrary, but I have to agree with a commenter who called this analysis “wishful thinking.”  

And as Larry commented here recently, there was nothing history-related in the stimulus bill.  No new Federal Writers Project, no funding for scanner-ready digitization projects.  

We clearly need to make a better case for the economic impacts and benefits of museums, history and culture.  AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day, Monday and Tuesday of this week, apparently went well, with over 300 museum professionals, volunteers and board members descending on Washington.  That’s just a first step.  We need to be advocating for our community memory institutions locally.  I challenge the Oklahoma museum community to invite their museum-skeptic senator to visit all their institutions and see the ways museums serve their communities.  I challenge you, my reader, to call your county commissioners and invite them to your museum.  Build up support locally and we won’t have to fight so hard on a federal level.

Moving on to the omnibus appropriations bill, which passed the House last week, we get some better news for cultural organizations:

Tyler Green notes some earmarks for the arts and arts institutions in the omnibus.

Lee White of the NCH ran down all the budget lines for agencies of interest.  They are all increases over recent years’ budgets:  National Archives, NHPRC (which the Bush administration kept trying to zero out of the budget), Teaching American History grants (a modest increase), NEH (the digital humanities initiative funding about doubled!), NPS cultural programming and preservation, and the Smithsonian.  

I’ll keep you informed of any new developments.


Applications for internships at THF are due on Monday, so if you want to work with yours truly and the television collection, or develop online education products, or help process the records of a steam engine manufacturer, this summer, for pay,  send off your applications asap.  More info and requirements.

I’ve been receiving a lot of queries regarding career advice for aspiring public historians.  I’m happy to respond to a certain amount of them, but now I’m swamped.  Therefore, I am instituting a policy:  I will no longer provide advice to you personally.  I will, however, publicly answer more general questions posted as comments to this thread.  This will reduce wear and tear on my inbox and also provide some public places to talk about general trends in the public history job market.  Thanks.

I’ve still got a foot planted on the other side of Lake Superior.  Here’s the news from the history community back in Minnesota.

The MHS has a $2.8 million budget hole, and, besides extending a hiring freeze and cutting expenses, is going to require some employees to take unpaid leave.  The problem is related to the down economy and the drying up of state funding.  At least the Global Hotdish Variety Show is still going strong!  We’re all rooting for you, MHS.

Relatedly, the MHS’s History Matters history advocacy day at the capitol is Feb 16.

Plans and structures for allocating the money from the Outdoor Heritage Amendment fractional sales tax passed in November.  About 20% will go to arts and cultural organizations, around $50 million a year.  Minnesota local historians have been talking about plans for possible funding.

This was my entry for Forward Capture.  What do you think is the future of public history?  Please contribute your ideas to the project.

The future of public history will depend on how we tackle issues of community and diverse publics, on how we make public history a big tent. We need to cultivate an active movement of locally-rooted, digitally-enabled citizen historians.

Even some of our natural partners and allies, in the archives world, for instance, aren’t sure if they’re public historians or what value and meaning they might derive from thinking of themselves and their work as part of public history. The future of public history is empowering lone arrangers, county historians, members of groups neglected by historians, and others to become part of a coherent community of people doing history, people sited in their local communities, but connected through the web to collections, stories, data and other public historians.

Though it’s clearly not necessary, useful or even possible for everyone doing history to identify as a “public historian,” public historians can raise awareness of what it means to do history and expand opportunities for citizen historians to participate in the work of finding meaning through the past. This inclusive, community sensibility also requires us to think through our uneasy relationship with the academy and stop defining ourselves against it. The future of public history is going to be diverse, colorful, tempestuous, challenging. How big can a big tent get?

A new state (for me), a new set of problems for historic and cultural organizations.  

The latest blow for Michigan’s cultural heritage communities is that in this week’s State of the State address, Gov. Granholm has proposed cutting the entire History, Arts and Libraries state department, the only department she proposed to eliminate.  She does support “finding other means to support these important functions,” but provided no details.   It’s unclear whether the departments in HAL would relocate to to other state departments or would be cut.  Certainly it would diminish the status of arts and culture on a state level, and possibly mean a decrease in grant funding, particularly for small libraries.

Another cut of interest to history folks is that of the Michigan State Fair, the nation’s oldest.  The governor said that the state would not provide the fair (or the UP fair in Escanaba) any funding at all in next year’s budget, and proposed selling the fairgrounds, on Woodward and Eight Mile in Detroit.  The fair’s director said they would look elsewhere for funding (though the major sponsors of the fair in the past have been GM and Chrysler), and proposals are floating up to move the fair to a more rural location.  Though the Michigan State Fair is not as large or prosperous as, say, the Minnesota State Fair, the Most Awesome Event Ever*, it’s definitely a valuable cultural and community event that deserves some smart thinking and preservation.

Also in Michigan history news, in the Feb 24 special election here in Detroit, otherwise known as this year’s first mayoral primary, there are several ballot proposals up for renewal, including the millage for Detroit history, culture and libraries.  I urge you to vote, and to vote yes on the cultural millage renewal.


*Which inspires me to do a Nina Simon-like post on What Museums Can Learn from the Minnesota State Fair.

Students and aspiring museum folks, what are you doing this summer?  Apply for an internship to come spend your summer documenting historic televisions.  You’ll get to work in our cavernous, archetypal museum storage facility, and also get to work with yours truly and our great registrars.  More details (and, yes, there are other internships too) at THF’s internship page.  Applications are due March 2.