Publication Date

November 1, 2003


Public History

Series editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles initiated by the AHA's Task Force on Public History. The series—essentially asking the question, "Who is taking care of history in the states?"—will seek to offer a glimpse into some of the issues, developments, controversies, or opportunities facing history in the United States.

Can History Foster Economic Growth?

That history, or "heritage," presents an economic opportunity is perhaps increasingly self-evident. There is an expanding market for heritage or "cultural tourism," an important and growing trend in every state. The new "cultural tourists," who are more affluent and tend to stay longer in heritage sites than ordinary tourists, are turning history into big business. Place and the past are thus acquiring a growing economic value, particularly in the tourism industry, to the extent it can be marketed. Heritage tourism is showing itself to be a linchpin for the revitalization of both historic downtown areas and rural communities everywhere. The loss of that history—whether as historical properties, memory, archival material, records, archeological sites, artifacts, or place—is increasingly seen as lost economic opportunity.

But how is history to be harnessed to promote economic growth? It was to find a possible answer to this question, among others, that the General Assembly in Georgia created a Governor's Commission on History and Historical Tourism in 2001. The South in general and Georgia in particular clearly have a "marketable" history and it was essential to find ways of tapping this potential. The moving force behind the commission was Roy Barnes, a governor who was obviously thinking a great deal about the past and the future of Georgia. The 41 members of the commission, whose appointment was provided for under the legislation, included representatives of the state legislature, public agencies, nonprofit organizations active in history, tourism officials, education organizations, members of the public, and historians. The first of its kind in Georgia's history, the commission was asked to carry out a "comprehensive examination of what state government does to promote and benefit from Georgia history and historical tourism," and was specially charged to determine "how to use historical tourism more effectively as a tool of economic development, especially in rural Georgia."

Governor's Commission on History and Historical Tourism

Why did the Georgia General Assembly set up the commission? There are many reasons—economic, educational, civic, and quality of life issues among them. But direct economic concerns alone were not behind the creation of the governor's commission. The need for reviving the teaching of Georgia's history was another motivating factor. The state's "Quality Core Curriculum" mandates the teaching of Georgia history in the eighth grade, but some schools teach U.S. history or a combination of national and state history instead. A course in Georgia history and state and local government is required for high school graduation, but this requirement has never been enforced either. The fact that state and local history is not covered on national standardized tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) certainly is one discouragement, though this may change with new state curriculum testing requirements. While courses in Georgia history are taught in many public college and university history departments, most eighth-grade teachers in Georgia assigned to teach the course lack training and preparation (some have taken no history at all). Add to this the new reality of demographics in the state—more than half of all residents of the metropolitan Atlanta area claim birthplaces outside the state—and one can see that advocates of Georgia history education might worry about "loss of memory." The state's interest in the diffusion of historical knowledge is part of a more general appreciation that historical knowledge at both levels, state and national, is an element in the preparation of children for responsible civic participation. If we believe that, then history's diminishment has an obvious civic downside.

Commission's Recommendations: Working Together

After a year of public meetings and study committees in 2002, the commission came up with 55 recommendations (giving the highest priority to 14 of these), which have the potential of changing the face of state and local history in Georgia. These recommendations build on the testimony of grassroots organizations and the findings of committees composed of the commission members. These committees included teachers, state officials, preservation experts, professional historians, county officials, legislators, parks and recreation employees, tourism industry representatives, and others. At least six members of the commission held doctorates in history and other social sciences, and history scholars and organizations were invited to testify at commission hearings. (The text of the report is available online as a PDF file at

Like most states, historical activity in Georgia is dispersed through dozens of public agencies and nonprofit organizations, higher education institutions, schools, and tourism boards. At one time or another in its past Georgia has created, abandoned, re-created, or privatized various state historical entities. Today, there is no office or person charged with coordinating, monitoring, or facilitating historical activities among the various public and private interests. This compounds the problem of determining just how much money is spent on historical activity in Georgia (in terms of public funds, private funds, and tourism dollars) or, for that matter, the full extent of historical activity and resources. This information is important to know: it is hard to make a case for public funding without knowing the investments and returns, or the needs. While the case for history education as an indispensable ingredient in civic education seems manifest, the case for history as an economic engine and a contributor to quality of life relies more on general impressions and bits and pieces of data.

For these reasons, the commission's priority recommendation is the creation of an entirely new Georgia Heritage Commission (GHC) whose responsibility would be to develop a strategic plan for public and private sector development of historical resources.

The commission report is asking that two employees be assigned to the GHC and that the new agency be attached for administrative purposes to a nongovernmental body (the Georgia Humanities Council). A key element in the plan is a coordinating council that will, for the first time, assess and facilitate opportunities for partnership across public, non-profit, educational, and other entities. While this new commission will have no executive authority, the process of developing a strategic plan and facilitating inter-agency cooperation toward its implementation certainly could be seen as a step in that direction.

The commission is also proposing that this new office undertake a "pilot historical tourism" initiative that would target one or two of the poorest counties in the state. This demonstration project would bring to bear the coordinated efforts of state, federal, and private resources and organizations in the development and implementation of a historical tourism plan. It would also call on the skills and expertise of professional historians, and especially public historians, in the locale. We are quick to say, "There are dollars to be made in those history hills," but are there? The commission believes there are, and that it can be demonstrated.

The proposal to create a Georgia Heritage Commission with a mandate to coordinate and bring to bear a wide range of expertise and interests that now are dispersed has an importance that cannot be exaggerated. Organization precedes unity, and unity is the key to exercising political influence in behalf of history. Unity can raise the profile of history, infuse history in public life as never before, and begin the process of identifying needs and priorities, and aligning these with funding schedules. Of course unity can come about when barriers fall—among and between public and private entities, between historians inside and outside the academy, and between historians and the public. When we ask the question "who is taking care of history in the states," this initiative offers a vision for what the right answer might look like in one state.

Other recommendations in the report include a proposal to build and develop a freestanding state history museum a block away from the state capitol (which attracts tens of thousands of students and other visitors each year). This initiative has been talked about for years, but couching it (and others like it) in the language of the commission's report elevates the museum to where it belongs: as an intelligent objective of cultural policy. The report also makes recommendations touching on historical signage, archives and records, preservation, archeology, historic sites and museums, courthouses, and school instruction, to name only some. It also calls for a maintenance fund that will institutionalize The New Georgia Encyclopedia, a Web-based resource that models academic rigor and public service.

The commission's report is noteworthy for some other reasons. While the language of "cultural policy" is gaining some ascendancy in a handful of states, history does not always have a strong presence in those deliberations. With some significant exceptions, cultural policy at the state level has tended to be more the domain of local and state arts action groups and legislative interests. This is unfortunate, as it perpetuates a narrow view of what makes up "culture"; it also keeps "history" away from the table when state and local budget priorities are set. This may be changing. The report clearly opens up the cultural policy domain in Georgia, and the creation in January 2003 of the state's first ever legislative Committee on Arts and Humanities may be another harbinger of things to come. It suggests that the efforts of important public policy initiatives like the Governor's Commission on History and Historical Tourism can have a life beyond its legislative mandate. It also suggests that "cultural interests," if united, can have an impact far beyond our numbers. That is a question of leadership, primarily, and the capacity of a community of interests to find ways of communicating and learning to work together. There are many ways for professional historians to become involved—and their involvement can qualitatively change the way history is "cared for."

The Long Term and the Public Good

For now, accomplishing the immediate objective—that of organizing the interests of history and related "heritage" activities in the framework of a broad-reaching and coherent public policy—is a substantial goal in and of itself. Nothing like it has occurred in Georgia before and in that respect, state and local history is at a crossroads. The commission's molding of a consensus out of a cross section of business, cultural, educational, and legislative interests is only a first step. Can the commission's consensus carry weight, and voice, in the rough and tumble world of setting spending priorities in the governor's office and the General Assembly? Can the experience of the commission translate into a broader cross-section of support among policy makers? Perhaps most important, can a commission created under one governor continue its momentum into the administration of a new governor? Governor Barnes, who initiated the commission, was defeated by the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue. An early meeting between commission leadership and the governor's office would suggest "yes," but time will tell. In all things public policy, and most especially those things that depend on public appropriations, the key is timing. The hope is that the current budget shortfall that Georgia and other states are facing will not derail the gathering energy around history education and tourism. There are other factors weighing in. During the past decade Georgia led the nation in job creation. Today, Georgia leads the nation in job losses, a victim of the economic downturn hitting every state. While some of the commission's recommendations are revenue neutral, many are not, and in 2003 the state is faced with finding a way to cover a $620 million shortfall. Georgia's prospects for long-term growth remain strong, however.

Regardless of what happens in the next 12 months, one thing is certain: the events that led to the governor's commission and its final report will remain. All states are buffeted by the ups and downs of the economy, and of course by political trends, too. History can be injured during these periods, but it can also be enhanced. Staying vigilant is important. Even in hard times, there are opportunities. The astute observer will recognize that the commission's report and recommendations may represent the state's best hope for demonstrating, through the power of history in all its manifestations, the true meaning of E Pluribus Unum. It might also initiate a new era for history in the state, where history’s voice is strong, influential, and of service to the public.

—Jamil Zainaldin is president of the Georgia Humanities Council and an adjunct member of the Emory University history department. He was a member of the Georgia Governor's Commission on History and Historical Tourism.

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