Changes at the National History Center

James Grossman, April 2014

Photo by Frank CardimenThis month’s Perspectives includes a generous and gratifying farewell from Marian Barber, associate director of the National History Center. Because Marian is affable, thoughtful, energetic, and all sorts of other adjectives, she is familiar to many historians who have been involved in AHA activities over the past three years. What is much less familiar, I have realized, is the National History Center itself.

The AHA created the National History Center in 2002 with an initial goal of building just what the name implies: a central place for historians in Washington that would welcome visiting researchers, host lectures and other public programs, organize historical seminars and workshops, and have rooms for rent to visiting scholars. It was a ­compelling vision, articulated elegantly and passionately by founding director Wm. Roger Louis. When I visited Washington in 1979 as a graduate student on a research trip, I would have benefited enormously from such an institution. Instead I had to make do with the vending-machine room in the basement of the National Archives for opportunities to meet other historians.

As the vision of a building receded against a backdrop of skyrocketing real estate prices and the complexities of government bureaucracies, the center’s founders turned ­imaginatively to the idea of a “virtual center.” With the emergence of new Internet capabilities, and the recognition of the spectacular potential of creative partnerships, it soon became clear that the various activities envisioned as being located within a physical “center,” could be developed in other spaces—whether real or virtual.

What emerged was a set of programs that would have taken place in a National History Center building in Washington, had one been acquired. These programs have had in common a general orientation toward the relationship between history and public policy, and (with one exception) the importance of Washington as a venue. They have been diverse, however, in their geographical focus, their function within the broader ecology of historians’ work, and their participants.

The center’s initial flagship program, the Congressional Briefings, were initiated in 2005, with the purpose of helping Congressional staff understand the historical context of current legislative issues and the significance of that context for policy formation. Topics have ranged from the commercialization of space exploration to social security, from Korea since World War II to the impact of federal legislation on immigration. Because the center does not engage in advocacy in Congress or in federal agencies—other than encouraging the consideration of history and historical thinking in policy making and debate—these briefings have developed a reputation as nonpartisan, balanced, and unattached to any specific policy agenda.

Within the academy, the center has probably exercised its greatest influence through its eight summer institutes on decolonization, which have attracted more than 200 early-career historians from around the world. Convened at the Library of Congress—in many ways the ideal venue for such an enterprise—the institute enables these scholars to combine research with a community of practice. The result has been not only publications, but also professional relationships whose vitality emerges most visibly in panels at the AHA annual meeting and in other conferences.

What we hope is that these institute participants will be apostles of the center’s mission to support and nurture engagement between historians and various parts of the policy community, including journalists, government officials, and scholars oriented toward policy work, whether inside or outside government structures. This engagement takes shape most readily in the center’s strikingly popular Washington History Seminar, a collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center and, in some instances, the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations. The weekly gathering at the Wilson Center, cochaired by Christian Ostermann (director of the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center) and Eric Arnesen (George Washington University, and representing the National History Center), attracts 25–60 individuals from government, academia, media, and nonprofits.

These programs are complemented by a book series, collaborative lectures with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and sessions at the AHA annual meeting organized in collaboration with the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. The breadth and extent of these programs are a tribute to Roger Louis’s energy and creativity and Marian Barber’s ecumenical ­perspective and ability to multitask.

With all this going on, the center now takes a moment or two (but that’s all) to pause as it goes through a leadership transition. Roger Louis resigned in May, and Dane Kennedy, Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, will step in as director of the center. A distinguished historian of the British Empire, Dane has been involved with the center through the decolonization seminar, and the AHA as chair of our Nominating Committee. Marian’s successor will be Amanda Moniz, a historian of early America, whose interests and expertise extend widely into such areas as the history of philanthropy and food history. Roger has generously agreed to stay on to provide intellectual leadership to the decolonization institute.

Formally renamed the National History Center of the American Historical Association two years ago, the center has its own board of trustees, legal status as a nonprofit organization, and sufficient independence to be eligible for funding from donors reluctant to support a membership organization. Tucked into a small office at 400 A Street SE, it somehow manages to do as much as other organizations with substantially more staff. Moreover, small often implies agile, a useful quality for a center that seeks to bring together the worlds of history and public policy.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA.

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