History Relevance Campaign Meets at the Smithsonian

The History Relevance Campaign, a three-year old effort in the history field to raise the profile of history in American society, joined forces with the Smithsonian Institution on May 24 for a day-long meeting titled History Relevance: Sparking a National Conversation. Hosted by the National Museum of American History, the meeting included representatives from across the history spectrum including the National Archives and Records Administration, National Park Service, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Council for Public History, National History Day, American Alliance of Museums, the National Coalition for History and a few state history organizations.

The History Relevance Campaign was founded by a group of history professionals who believe that a united voice in the history field and better communication among its widespread practitioners would lead to more influence and funding. They recognize that history organizations are not as articulate as they could be in demonstrating their relevance and that increased evaluation of their impact in their communities could lead to a better understanding of the value of history in general.

To that end, the group’s signature piece so far is the Value of History statement, a list of seven ways that the study of history brings value to society. The statement was crowdsourced in various professional conferences over two years and to date has been endorsed by more than one hundred thirty history organizations across the country. This week the Smithsonian added its name to the list. 

The Campaign’s lofty goals begin with its impact statement: “People value history for its relevance to modern life, and use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues.” Since there are many potential audiences for the message, including the entire American public, the Campaign is focusing on three audiences to start: history organizations, K-20 education, and funders. Most of their efforts so far have gone toward the first group: hence, lining up one hundred and thirty-two endorsers of the statement. They want their colleagues across the historical enterprise to advocate for history and historical thinking. On the other two audiences—K-20 and funders—the Campaign is just getting started. They recognize that the American Historical Association and National History Day and others are well advanced in that arena. For funders, the Campaign’s goal is for them to begin using a common set of metrics for evaluating the impact of the projects they fund, and requiring their grant recipients to measure impact. Campaign leaders also want funders to view history, historical thinking, and history organizations as critical to contemporary conversations.

The May 24 meeting began with remarks by Acting Smithsonian Provost Richard Kurin who offered some profound examples of history relevance. The group then briefly considered perceptions of the past and several national studies: Rosenzweig and Thelen’s The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, History at the Crossroads: Australians and the Past, andCanadians and Their Pasts. The last major study of US perceptions was in 1998. The group questioned whether it is time for another one.

The group focused on the Value of History statement and discussed which values resonate most with various history practitioners and then spent time looking at the History Relevance Campaign’s impact project. It is an effort to gather evaluation examples that demonstrate impact and to empower and train history organizations to collect evidence of their impact. Mission is what you do; impact is the result of what you do. Max van Balgooy of Engaging Places mentioned five projects as examples, including one by National History Day, another by the Levine Museum of the New South, and one by President Lincoln’s Cottage. All agreed that deployment of a common set of metrics would be crucial for the field as a whole to start to have the evidence to demonstrate impact.

 

The day also included discussion of examples of various projects intended to broaden the reach of the message of relevance. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, highlighted his organization’s Tuning Project, an effort to describe the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that students develop in history courses and degree programs. Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, and Stephen Parker, legislative director for the education and workforce committee of the National Governors Association, discussed a new partnership between the History Relevance Campaign and the NGA to influence education policy at the state level, and Kim Fortney of National History Day discussed an HRC initiative she is leading to develop a tool kit with examples from all kinds of history organizations of ways to demonstrate and advocate for relevance.

The meeting generated many ideas, created new linkages across the historical enterprise, and continued a vital conversation to raise the profile of history. Because the Campaign had been focused on getting history organizations at the grassroots level to articulate the relevance of history, the meeting in Washington was its first attempt to rally a group of national organizations and federal agencies. For more information about the History Relevance Campaign, visit historyrelevance.com. We encourage all history organizations to consider endorsing the Value of History statement and to start using its language with their many audiences. The Campaign also actively seeks volunteers to join its task forces and to offer suggestions for new projects.