Publication Date

September 29, 2022

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, From the Executive Director

At its August 12, 2022, meeting, the Board of Trustees of the National History Center voted to “consolidate the work of the Center into the current and future activities of the AHA.” This decision will have structural implications, but it will not affect the actual work that the National History Center has been doing over the past few years.

The Center currently focuses on three activities: the book-based Washington History Seminar, which is currently online and tremendously successful as measured by attendance; Congressional Briefings, currently on hiatus because of insurmountable obstacles to in-person events within the Capitol Complex and compelling evidence that the briefings are ineffective in a teleconference format; and the History and Policy Education Program, which currently lacks funding and therefore has no staff time allocated to it.

This issue of time lies at the heart of the revision of the relationship between the Center and the AHA. The National History Center has never been able to raise enough money to pay even a small honorarium to the director. For a while, idiosyncratic institutional arrangements with home universities have generated time for a director to do the things required to maintain a viable nonprofit organization: coordinating the work of a governing board (more time than most people realize), cultivating donors, writing grant proposals, managing finances, mobilizing volunteers, creating programming, engaging collaborators, and more. Volunteers, generally board members, can help with some of this. But the buck stops at the desk of the director. The Center has been fortunate to have directors who have combined the generosity of their home institutions with their own flexibility and commitment to generate the time necessary for all this—though usually also with considerable allotments of time from the AHA executive director. Small grants have funded a part-time assistant director.

The Center has been fortunate to have directors who combined the generosity of their home institutions with their commitment to generate the necessary time.

This isn’t viable. That conclusion led to consideration of the Center’s origins, goals, and mission, and whether an ambitious vision has just not had the right conditions to make substantial progress toward fruition. Sometimes even good ideas just don’t work out.

The original purpose of the National History Center is formally stated in its articles of incorporation:

The purposes for which the corporation is organized are: The study of history, the diffusion of historical knowledge through writing, teaching, and discussion, and related activities for presenting historical knowledge to scholars and students—all in the interest of education and enlightening people about the past.

This overlaps considerably with the current work of the AHA itself. For example, the Center’s unstaffed History and Policy Education Program—an excellent idea developed by a previous assistant director, which has previously had several successful implementations—requires focused attention. This is more likely to come from the AHA’s history education programming than from a thinly staffed Center with no current expertise in this area. Similarly, the Center has organized annual meeting sessions, which can easily be generated from other sources. Indeed, because of the time constraints faced by the Center’s director, there have been fewer sessions and fewer opportunities to provide leadership to volunteers who helped with planning and organizing in the past. With the AHA’s evolution over the past decade as a highly visible public advocate for the study and teaching of history, evidenced in Perspectives on History, the AHA website, and numerous mainstream media outlets, a separate entity focused on this work is no longer necessary.

There were, however, other purposes envisioned at the founding of the Center. There was an ambition for a building—an actual National History Center—that for legal and other reasons would need to be administered by a separate 501(c)(3) entity. There was some hope that a governing board separate from the procedures of a membership organization could generate new fundraising opportunities. Despite the efforts and commitment of the Center’s founders, however, neither of these goals materialized. Attempts to move toward these goals in different ways also proved unsuccessful. Indeed, the only reason the small subsidy from the AHA has been sufficient to maintain (barely) the Center’s viability has been the generous energy of its volunteers and directors. We’re back again to time.

By incorporating the Center into AHA operations, the new arrangement will enable the Center’s director, Eric Arnesen, to focus on the Washington History Seminar, relieving him of the substantial duties of a nonprofit executive that have become unnecessary. With the Center’s work incorporated into the mainstream duties of the AHA, that infrastructural work will no longer exist. Even the Washington History Seminar can now benefit more efficiently from new efforts and resources directed toward online programming at the AHA. The Center’s part-time assistant director, Rachel Wheatley, has joined the AHA staff full-time as program assistant, and Arnesen will continue to donate his time as the co-organizer (along with Christian Ostermann at the Wilson Center) of the seminar.

The AHA has benefited not only from the work of the National History Center but from the ideas, energy, and enthusiasm stimulated by that work. I was involved early on, in collaboration with Stanley Katz, through a project on rethinking the undergraduate history major—in a way a precursor to the AHA’s more recent Tuning the History Discipline initiative. The Center’s longest ongoing program, the Decolonization Seminar, brought together a cohort of emerging scholars who have helped to shape the last decade of scholarship. The AHA remains grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for supporting those convenings, in addition to the Congressional Briefings that have reminded congressional staff that everything has a history and making policy requires knowing that history.

With the Center’s work incorporated into the duties of the AHA, that infrastructural work will no longer exist.

My predecessor, Arnita Jones, and her collaborators Wm. Roger Louis and James M. Banner, Jr., deserve recognition and applause for their vision in creating the Center and their dedication to making it a reality. Nothing would have happened, however, without the tireless efforts of the Center’s assistant and associate directors: Miriam Hauss Cunningham, Marian Barber, Amanda Moniz, Amanda Perry, Jeffrey Reger, and Rachel Wheatley. The Center’s most recent directors, Dane Kennedy and Eric Arnesen, both went above and beyond what anyone could expect from volunteers ready and willing to shoulder the responsibility of institutional leadership. The AHA is proud of the Center’s many significant accomplishments, and this structural revision will allow us to continue building on them.

What matters most is the work. The Center describes that work as “provid[ing] historical perspectives on current issues and promot[ing] historical thinking in the service of civic engagement through nonpartisan programs that are intended for the benefit of policy makers and the press, educators, and the public at large. Its initiatives are intended to bring the insights of history and historical thinking to bear on the challenges that confront our nation and the world and to encourage an informed appreciation of the ways the past shapes the present.” This is a large part of what we do at the AHA. Integrating the Center’s activities into the AHA’s structure and mission will enable us to do this work more efficiently and more effectively.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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