Why State Humanities Councils & Museum Commissions Matter

Recently, I was invited by the Ohio Humanities Council to spend an afternoon with colleagues from around Ohio to brainstorm about how some of the council’s grant standards could be updated for the digital age. This gathering revealed the vibrancy of Ohio’s scholarly and professional community, re-introducing me to great digital initiatives like the Ancient Ohio Trail or Columbus Neighborhoods projects.  As we discussed OHC’s present and past grant programming, I raised questions about how state humanities councils could identify and fund innovative projects–efforts that push the envelope, whether of interpretation, format, or technical design. I was thinking, of course, about the “high risk, high reward” strategy employed by the National Endowment for the Humanities in its Digital Start-Up grants. My question, uttered in the waning moments of the meeting, became homework for those of us in attendance. How can a state humanities council encourage innovation in its digital projects? Are its goals and strategies for project support different from the NEH? Or, complementary? And, what might this mean for grant guidelines and programs?

As I’ve mulled over this, I realize that innovation is fomented in many different ways, not merely by funding technological development. Indeed, a significant amount of innovation in the funding of humanities projects is really funding that allows an individual investigator to grow in new ways, to experiment, and/or re-imagine their professional identity.  Understood in this way, the Ohio Humanities Council has long funded innovation. My experience in this regard was through its Oral History Institute at Kenyon College. About 15 years ago (who keeps track of time after a certain age) I attended an OHC oral history institute, which built the foundation for many of my present scholarly activities.  Working at the time as a historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society, I attended because I was planning an interview project to support a new museum initiative being development by my employer at the time, WRHS: a museum of technology and industry planned on the Cleveland lakefront. After the institute, I applied for and received funding for Cleveland Works, an oral history project that documented the lives of industrial workers, especially workers in the steel and auto industries. The project collected more than 40 interviews, many of them quite revealing.  Unfortunately, those interviews never made it into the museum’s exhibitions because WRHS’s plans for a lakefront museum collapsed (leading to long-term issues for the institution.) As the project was failing, I moved to Cleveland State University as a member of the history department.  And, for me, this is when the story gets good.

For the past decade, I have used that oral history training, and my experience from doing Cleveland Works, to explore different aspects of public history and digital humanities. That training has shaped my scholarship on the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, as well as student and public engagement with the Cultural Gardens. Subsequently, oral history became the basis for the initial incarnation of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities. Oral histories done in collaboration with teachers also became the backbone for several Teaching American History projects I directed. Later oral history emerged as a core element in the history kiosks our team deployed on Euclid Avenue with LandStudio and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.  To date, our team has collected more than 800 interviews documenting community, region, and place in Northern Ohio. We’ve even returned those oral histories to the community as I originally hoped to do, but in a dramatically different fashion. Using digital and mobile tools, we’ve transformed the city into a living museum through the Cleveland Historical project, interpreting the region’s history through the voices of many of its diverse residents. I recently wrote about how oral history matters in the digital public humanities in the Oral History Review.

All this came to mind as I thought more deeply about how OHC could spur innovation through its grant programming. Indeed, I realized that we need to view such challenges and questions both in the short term and the long term. In the narrow view, some of what I would say were my more innovative OHC proposals (especially those about the Cultural Gardens, mentioned above) were not funded. But, that said, the support I received for oral history research and training has had a rather extraordinary impact beyond its initial funding: it has had impact on me, students, teachers, Ohio communities, and even on scholarship. (The public historian in me wonders if I should not just abandon the distinction between scholarly history and public history.)

Even as I write this, I realized that I can step back even further. Indeed, I was also fortunate, as a graduate student and later a recent Ph.D., to have collaborated with the Mercer Museum, doing my research on the history of firefighting. I discovered a treasure trove of firefighting materials at the Mercer Museum and then helped Mercer to catalog these materials. Later, Mercer curator Cory Amsler and I curated a major exhibition on the history of firefighting. Those projects, funded by the Pennsylvania Historic & Museum Commission, not only produced what I thought was a great exhibition (how could I not!), but also, the funding was instrumental in helping me become a public historian conversant in practice, not just theory. This, too, has shaped my career in important ways (see the projects above.) Most interestingly, I worked with Cory and a local exhibition consulting/design shop to create a movie for the exhibition that was developed in what was then a new digital tool for making films: iMovie.

Based on my interactions with colleagues, I suspect that my experiences are typical of the training received by many digital humanists, public historians, and oral historians. For many of us, innovation has begun with the support given through small grants or fellowships for public projects, obtained at various times throughout a career. This individual funding might not have been couched as high risk/high reward, but in fact investing in unproven young scholars represents significant risk for so many reasons. It also yields rewards, perhaps not in the short term, but often in the long term. In my case, modest investments, by the OHC in supporting Oral History or the Mercer Museum’s willingness to collaborate with a Ph.D. candidate on core activities of cataloging and curating, have produced long-term rewards for a variety of constituencies (both inside and outside the academy.)

Does this perhaps call for new categories of project investment in digital humanities or public history, more smaller seed grants from funding organizations (perhaps akin to kickstarter campaigns)? I am not sure.

But, I am sure that small grants are as important as large grants in funding innovation.

I am also sure that innovation is about funding individual growth and exploration, as much as it is about funding technology development or underwriting specific projects.

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