Over the past decade, the National History Center's International Seminar on the History of Decolonization helped create a new field. This summer, the center held a reunion conference for seminar alumni to renew and strengthen their network and to stimulate new scholarship in the history of the end of European empires.
Founded and directed by Wm. Roger Louis (Kerr Chair in English History and Culture and director of the Program in British Studies at the Univ. of Texas at Austin), the Decolonization Seminar and reunion conference were generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and hosted by the Library of Congress's John W. Kluge Center, with support from the American Historical Association. Each summer from 2006 to 2015, the seminar brought 15 early career historians from around the world to Washington, DC, for a month of research, writing, and discussion about the phenomenon of decolonization in the 20th century. In addition to Louis, the seminar faculty members were Dane Kennedy (director of the National History Center and Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington Univ.), Philippa Levine (Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities and co-director of the Program in British Studies at the Univ. of Texas at Austin), Jason Parker (associate professor of history at Texas A&M Univ.), Pillarisetti Sudhir (former editor of Perspectives on History), and Marilyn Young (professor of history at New York Univ.).
Participants in each summer's seminar developed and generally maintained close bonds, so the reunion conference allowed members of different cohorts to meet one another and forge relationships. Over 80 of the seminar's 150 alumni returned to the Kluge Center for the conference, with participants coming from countries across the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The six regular faculty members also attended, along with several guest faculty and local scholars.
Over two and a half days in July, participants considered the state of the field and the new directions of scholarship that alumni and their students are now pursuing. The program committee—Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo (Univ. of Coimbra), Jennifer Foray (Purdue Univ.), Leigh Gardner (London School of Economics), and Jessica Pearson-Patel (now at Macalester Coll.)—organized presentations into the following topically, chronologically, and geographically diverse panels: "Resources, Technology, and Economies in the Era of Decolonization"; "Empires at War"; "Drawing Borders, Building Communities"; "Global Connections in a Decolonizing World"; "Between Empire and Independence"; "Decolonizing Global Governance: International Organizations and the End of Empire"; "Rethinking the End of Empire: New Approaches to the Study of Decolonization"; and a roundtable on humanitarianism and development. The conference also included a roundtable discussion of approaches to teaching the history of decolonization to undergraduate and graduate students. Of particular interest to attendees was the possibility of creating a digital archive of sources relating to decolonization for student research. All told, 49 alumni and faculty members participated in the formal program, with a book display of recent works published by seminarians, including those who could not attend, adding to the intellectual stimulation.
The conference program, including a list of recent publications by seminarians, as well as a list of each seminar cohort, organized by year, can be found online. To learn about how seminar alumna Jessica Pearson-Patel has taught the history of decolonization to undergraduates, see "Teaching the End of Empire: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Decolonization" on AHA Today.
Besides the formal academic program, the conference included a public history dimension. Seminar alumna Ellen Feingold, curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian Institution, gave a group of attendees a private tour of a National Museum of American History exhibit, The Value of Money. In addition, the conference's closing reception, held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, contributed to the scholarly conversation by featuring foods associated with the histories of empire and decolonization. (The center's program assistant, Amanda Perry, explores this history in "The Aftertaste of Empire: Food and Decolonization."
The reunion conference culminated an extraordinary program that has made the history of decolonization a staple of academic inquiry. Its legacy includes an ever-growing number of publications, undergraduate and graduate courses, the H-Decol listserv, and conference panels, several featuring seminar alumni at the upcoming AHA annual meeting in Denver.
Amanda Moniz is the associate director of the National History Center.
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