Publication Date

January 1, 1992

Perspectives Section



Visual Culture

On October 26, 1990, The Center for History in the Media at The George Washington University was inaugurated by Henry Hampton, executive producer for the noted civil rights series Eyes on the Prize and more recently for two major documentary series on the Depression and the War on Poverty. Hampton’s speech was entitled, “Bringing History to Television: The Challenge of Historical Documentary-Making.” Hampton’s talk centered around two main points: The first one was the need to broaden the circle of those qualified to produce and judge historical documentary programming. The second was the charge to historians and broadcast producers not only to find methods of portraying “neat” history on television—i.e. wars, and other sharply defined events in history—but to document the “messy” history of social, economic, and political struggles that make up the more subtle fabric of human existence. The Center for History in the Media has attempted to rise to Hampton’s challenge by introducing a number of innovative teaching and development programs not normally found in traditional university settings.

First, just a word on the founding of the Center. Charles Hobson, then vice president for special projects at WETA-TV, and I initially conceived of the Center several years ago. I was, at the time, president of Historic Media Services, a media consulting firm specializing in historical documentary projects. We envisioned a place where academicians and broadcast producers could come together and collaborate on projects and learn each other’s disciplines in an atmosphere that did not pose the conflicts that frequently arise during the course of actual production. A change in administration at GWU created an atmosphere in which it seemed that such a new interdisciplinary venture in the humanities and communications would be well received. Washington, of course, is a natural place to find such a program with the vast print, photographic, and film resources at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian. For a year prior to the October 26 inauguration, contacts with foundations interested in the support of humanities programming were initiated to raise money to support the project. This is, needless to say, an arduous and ongoing process. Along with seed money from the University, the Center has received a grant from CBS, Inc., and is still under consideration from a number of other foundations for support.

Hampton’s inaugural challenge has taken the Center in two directions: one is to improve the discourse between historians and television producers by teaching methods of historical inquiry to those within the broadcast profession and by training historians in television techniques. The second is to provide assistance in writing proposals, research, and scripting for the production of new historical documentary programming.

We have tackled the problem of teaching historical documentary in a number of ways. This past summer we offered our first five-week intensive summer institute that serves as the centerpiece of our education efforts. Paul Wagner, Academy Award-winning filmmaker for The Stone Carvers, was the guest artist for this year’s institute and together we taught the course with a number of members of the department of history at The George Washington University. The subject of this year’s institute was “Immigration, Industrialization, and Family Life in the Early Twentieth Century.” The general subject came out of Wagner’s present work on a feature-length film, Out of Ireland, which has recently been given full production funds by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The basis for the student’s documentary project was Tamara Hareven’s book The Amoskeag that gave students easy access to oral history and a revisionist view of the impact of industrialization on American family life.

The diversity of subject matter found in the course syllabus demonstrates the difficulty in teaching the intersection of history and television. The first week the students received the standard fare for a first-year history graduate student: historiography, evidence, objectivity, and research techniques. The second week focused on filmmaking techniques such as treatment writing, script development, editing aesthetics, and ethics in filmmaking. At the beginning of the third week, a member of the University’s Communication Department Faculty joined the Institute team and began training students in the hands-on task of videography, editing, lighting, and sound.

The students chose to produce their documentary on the decision of adolescent girls to enter the Amoskeag Mills: Was it oppression or opportunity? They entitled their six-minute documentary Mill Girls. The students were then turned loose on the resources of Washington to write and visually document their main thesis—that mill work, and in some measure industrial life in general, was not, as usually portrayed, wholly without value to the individual; it was, in fact, both oppression and opportunity. Students made extensive use of the Louis Hine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress and of mill footage found at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History to shoot the “Engines of Change” exhibit, and they used the music collection in the Archive of American Folklife to provide period music to enhance the narrative they wrote. The juxtaposition of oppression and opportunity in the mills was underscored by a number of oral histories in Hareven’s Amoskeag, with each of the women in the course reading a role as part of the narration.

The students themselves also represented the diversity of individuals drawn to this form of documentary. We had a sixty-year-old history professor from Pace University, a cameraman from the local Fox television station, a museum studies graduate student who works full time at the National Archives, a graduate student in secondary education who works part time at the Museum of American History, and a former intern from MacNeil-Lehrer, to name a few. Each drew on his or her own expertise in contributing to the ultimate project: a short six-minute revisionist look at teenage women who entered the mills. The students found the production a true challenge and at times were overwhelmed by the production schedule. But, a group dynamic developed that truly mirrored the historical documentary-making production process. Conflicts arose among the writers and researchers who took on the more historically-based task and felt a commitment to historical accuracy. They were countered by the directors, editors, and camerapeople who felt the limits of the electronic medium in that the problems of time, graphic interest, and availability of visuals play a paramount part. Obviously the final product did not have the polished look of a broadcast quality documentary, but it did serve to highlight and educate the students in the opportunities and problems inherent in this film genre. Moreover, several of them have already taken their new-found training and are currently working on new documentary projects. This summer institute was recently awarded the 1991 Creative and Innovative Award of Merit for a Credit Program by the North American Association of Summer Sessions.

In addition to a nonproduction historical documentary making theory class offered for GW University students in the spring, the Center will again offer the institute this upcoming summer from June 1 to July 3, 1992, for students and professionals from around the country. Paul Wagner has again agreed to act as our visiting artist. This year’s topic will be: “Resisters and Draftees: The Vietnam War on the Domestic Front—Race, Class, and Politics in the War Decade.”

Other teaching initiatives have begun that are more targeted towards specific groups of media and historical professionals. Two symposia have been conducted, one at WETA-TV in Washington and the other at KCTA-TV in Minneapolis, that have been directly geared towards training public broadcasting producers in the techniques of asking historical questions, using historical evidence (written, aural, and visual), and methods of effective collaboration with members of the historical profession. Further, plans are underway for a three-day symposium for broadcast producers and historians to come together to participate in a master class on historical documentary making for the spring of 1993.

We believe that our efforts should not be limited to the teaching of broadcast and historical professionals and graduate students exclusively. Broadening the circle of those qualified to judge and produce historical documentary programming should begin with the teaching of history in the secondary schools. To this end, we have entered into a collaboration with the University’s Department of Education and Teacher Preparation and WETA-TV’s Education Department to develop a program for teaching media literacy through historical documentaries to secondary school teachers within the District of Columbia. This program, for which teachers would be offered academic credit through the University, would hopefully serve as a model for other school systems to train their teachers to better use documentary programming in the classroom and to teach critical techniques in evaluating existing productions.

As for Mr. Hampton’s companion challenge of creating an environment in which new and sometimes more complex programming can flourish, the Center has devoted itself to participating in the development and production of several new documentary productions. Historians and graduate students affiliated with the Center have been hard at work providing historical expertise, research services, and scripting counsel on a number of funded and proposed productions. For example, we provided assistance in the development of several proposals that came up for National Endowment for the Humanities funding this past cycle, including the new WETA-TV documentary on A. Philip Randolph. Further, we are in the research phase of a feature film on the actor and filmmaker Spencer Williams, Jr., who was known to some as Andy on the television version of Amos n’ Andy. Aside from this one major acting role, Williams’ legacy is most importantly a fascinating exploration of the black experience not only in television, but filmmaking, prison, and war from 1900 to the present. Other exciting projects are also currently under negotiation so that in the process of teaching historical documentary techniques, we can also provide direct and creative outlets for those who have completed our course as students.

For more information about the Center, its activities, or more specifically about the Summer Institute, please write: Nina Gilden Seavey, Director, Center for History in the Media, The George Washington University, 503E Lisner Hall, Washington, DC 20052; or call 202/994-6787. We are more than happy to provide education, advice, and assistance in the development of historical programming either for those who know a lot about funding and production processes or for those who know nothing at all; or for anyone who seeks to use television as a creative historical outlet.

Nina Gilden Seavey is director, Center for History in the Media, The George Washington University.