Publication Date

January 19, 2016


Public History

The is pleased to learn that Ken Burns, award-winning historical filmmaker and documentarian, will deliver the 2016 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the lecture is one of the highest honors bestowed by the federal government for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Creator of numerous acclaimed documentaries on subjects as varied as the Civil War, the Statue of Liberty, prizefighter Jack Johnson, and baseball, Burns has had a profound influence on public perceptions of US history.

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While many historians disagree with some of Burns’s documentaries, it is undeniable that few have done as much to bring historical thinking to the general public. The Civil War, for example, was one of the first film documentaries to combine archival images and texts with humanities scholars as talking heads to bring stories of ordinary Americans during the war to a mass audience. Burns’s particular use of the technique of panning and zooming over still images (now popularly known as the “Ken Burns effect”), paired with historical narrative and period music to convey mood, has left a sharp impression on historical filmmaking and storytelling. In representing diverse histories of peoples and events, as well as tackling discussions of race, Ken Burns has proved to be a positive force for history in the public sphere. The NEH has chosen well.

The free public lecture will take place on May 9 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, at 7:30 p.m.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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