From the Viewpoints column in the November 1999 Perspectives

A National Center for History

James M. Banner Jr., November 1999

We are two years short of the centenary of one of the greatest dreams of one of the nation's greatest historians—probably the only dream of his that has never been realized. It is time to summon, and try to realize, that dream again.

In 1901, J. Franklin Jameson, then on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, proposed the creation of a School of American Historical Studies in the nation's capital. Crediting Frederick Jackson Turner with the idea, Jameson had in mind an institution patterned after the American Institutes in Athens and Rome and the Institut für Geschichtsforschung in Germany and Austria—a center composed of a consortium of supporting universities and directed by faculty members from them.

Nothing came of Jameson's original hope. Yet while his idea of a "University Center for Research in Washington" died soon after its conception, his justifications for it remain sound. "The mass of historical material at Washington, especially of manuscript material," he wrote, "is so vast, the opportunities which the city presents for studying the workings of the government, past and present, are so plainly unique, that really no young student of history ought to consider his professional preparation completed until he has spent some weeks or months in research there." Jameson imagined the center as a site for research seminars that would count toward students' degrees and be a national institution serving historians from everywhere. He estimated its cost at $2,000 per year.1

For the next 60 years, historians occasionally recalled Jameson's vision. Julian P. Boyd made it the subject of his 1964 AHA presidential address. Boyd emphasized "the task of providing at the capital of the nation a center for historians and for historical study in all of its vast ramifications that will be worthy of the dignity of the discipline and of its fundamental importance to the culture of a free society." Citing comparable institutions, Boyd had in mind an institution that would encourage research into all fields and kinds of history, including the social sciences, and one with residential accommodations. Not flinching from the prospective costs of such a venture, he estimated that an adequate building to house a center would alone require $10 million. He said nothing of the cost of its programs.2

As had been the case with Jameson's, nothing came of Boyd's proposal. Yet the need for an institution similar to that envisaged by both men has only grown with the years. Washington has become, and will remain, the city with the most extensive archives of books, manuscripts, material artifacts, and art concerning American and other histories in the world. The internationalization of historical research and the increasing ease of travel bring mounting numbers of research scholars to these resources each year. Graduate students from every country eventually find themselves in one or more of the city's archival repositories. Notwithstanding, Washington—indeed, unlike other countries, the American nation itself—offers no center like that envisaged by Jameson and Boyd for historical research in the midst of these archival riches at the seat of government.

To fill this void in the institutional structure of history in the United States, the vision so long ago conjured by Jameson and revived by Boyd should once again be a matter of urgent consideration by historians in the United States.

The reasons for establishing a center are compelling. As Jameson and Boyd noted, no unifying center for historical research exists in the United States. In addition, Americans' knowledge of the past is seriously deficient, history has lost its former central place in schools and colleges, and much historical scholarship has become divorced from the general public. Thus the potential contributions of historical studies to citizens' understanding of the great issues of history, to their search for a usable past, and to the formation of public policy remain unrealized.

No single institution can solve these problems. Yet the lack of a national center whose sole focus is to confront them is a serious defect of the nation's cultural and intellectual life. Moreover, while no effort to address the challenges facing historical studies can succeed without a solid foundation in scholarship and the firm support of academic scholars, neither can those challenges be resolved by traditional and academic means alone. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to the advancement of historical knowledge in the United States, to its effective teaching and transmission, and to its improved application—an approach, spearheaded by a distinctive institution, that brings traditional research together with fresh public initiatives.

Therefore, a national center for history ought to differ from most existing institutions. While scholarship and its evaluation should lie at the heart of the center's work, the center should also support the broadest range of efforts to strengthen the entire practice and field of history. It should examine pedagogic and public, as well as academic, issues. It should welcome nonacademic practitioners and users of history who are expert in related professional pursuits as well as college and university faculty members. And it should conduct activities that seek to link historical knowledge to the most pressing civic issues and needs while it advances scholarly knowledge of the past. By purposefully mixing the traditional with the new, knowledge with the everyday world, the academic with the civic, practitioners with scholars, and all participants with Washington's unmatched resources in history, the center should be a place in which the advanced study of the past serves the largest concerns of the entire community of citizens.

How it would do so is not difficult to imagine. Given the challenges that face the study, teaching, and use of history—the broadening range of its subjects, the increasing diversity of its practitioners, the expanding kinds of work related to it, and the growing number of places of work in which it is pursued—the programs of a center must seek to promote history fully, inclusively, and, where appropriate, in fresh ways.

It should be built around resident fellows—doctoral and postdoctoral scholars, independent researchers and public historians, exceptional school teachers of history, and serious students of history from other professional fields (such as filmmakers, journalists, and policymakers)—supported with a mixture of fellowships, research allowances, work space, and other assistance. Also, it must draw its participants not only from the United States but, most critically, from abroad. It should offer historians visiting the capital's resources an intellectual home-away-from-home in the form of invitations to its seminars and other activities. While Boyd's vision of a residential institution must probably now be put aside, at least lunchtime food service offered to draw historians in the city to the center should be one of its binding social features. Regular and continuing seminars that address both research and other subjects pertaining to history, perhaps at least one of them organized around a single but changing theme, should be the center's intellectual focus.

Much of the work of center fellows and visitors will naturally concern subjects in history at the forefront of academic inquiry and research. Yet academic scholarship often overlooks issues involving the practice of history broadly conceived; sometimes it fails to concern subjects in which Washington collections are especially rich; frequently it does not address the needs of government and policy. Therefore, the center should take concerted steps to attract people and design activities that address overlooked issues that make special use of Washington resources, and that contribute directly to the discussion of public issues. For example, the center ought to play a role in the reform and renewal of the teaching of history in the schools. It should help encourage research and understanding in fields, such as artistic and material culture, in which Washington's resources are unsurpassed.

How such a center should be constituted and governed must remain an open question. It might be linked, through its charter and perhaps its benefactors, to an existing institution, much as Dumbarton Oaks and the Hellenic Center are linked to Harvard University and the Folger Shakespeare Library to Amherst College. It might be an independent entity, governed by its own board of trustees. But however it is constituted, it will require major benefactions for a large budget. While the likely cost—an endowment of roughly $50 million for a building and the support of fellowships, staff, a working library, and ancillary activities—may appear impossible to achieve, the center must be grandly conceived and the pursuit of its fulfillment boldly pursued. There is no reason why historians, through their alma maters, friends, and acquaintances, cannot join together to pursue the necessary funds.

Whatever happens, on the approaching anniversary of Jameson's original idea the AHA and OAH should consider appointing a joint committee to study the matter and report to their memberships. Should such a project be considered worthy of pursuit, no one should be under any illusion that its realization will be achieved quickly. It will be necessary for each organization to consider this as a long-term project and to charge its executive director with authority to pursue the vision with colleges and universities, foundations, and individuals whenever and wherever the opportunity can be arranged.

Above all, Jameson's and Boyd's vision should not again be allowed to be forgotten or ignored. Students of history know that they forget the past at their peril, that memory often serves the present well and helps ordain the future. We should be true to our calling and the ancient muse of our work, true also to Jameson and Boyd, and attempt—really for the first time—to realize what they imagined.

—James M. Banner Jr., an independent historian in Washington, D.C., is the author most recently of "The Capital and the State: Washington D.C. and the Nature of American Government," in A Republic for the Ages, ed. Donald R. Kennon (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 64–86.

Notes

1. J. Franklin Jameson, "The University Center for Research in Washington." Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 28 (1923), 259–62. Morey Rothberg, et al. (eds.), John Franklin Jameson and the Development of Humanistic Scholarship in America. Vol. II: The Years of Growth, 1859–1905 (2 vols. to date; Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 262ff.

2. Julian P. Boyd, "A Modest Proposal to Meet an Urgent Need," American Historical Review 70 (1965), 329–49.