This essay—and that by Miranda Restovic and Susan DeBacher of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities—is a response to the debut of the National Inventory of Humanities Organizations.
About five years ago, the board of directors for the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RP/WRHS), located on Chicago’s far north side, came to an important decision about the society’s future. By that point in the group’s 40-year history, membership numbers had dwindled to record lows, and the board regularly struggled to generate much interest in the society’s initiatives. Board members knew they had to act, and soon, or face closure. To figure out how to move forward, they organized meetings with key volunteers and community stakeholders to determine how the society could best serve the two neighborhoods it calls home. The board used what they learned to chart a new path forward. Ultimately, they decided to commit their resources to programs and projects that would bring people from the area’s many diverse communities together over a shared interest in the past.
Since changing course, the RP/WRHS has hosted several creative programs designed to build relationships and foster discussion about the connections between past and present. One of these took place from late 2016 to 2017, when the RP/WRHS partnered with local art gallery Roman Susan on an exhibition project. Artists used historic images from the RP/WRHS collections to inspire new creations, which were then exhibited by Roman Susan and the historical society. This partnership exposed each organization to new audiences and brought people together to reflect on the meaning and importance of place and neighborhood. The project also helped the society highlight the intersections between art and history and broadcast the unique role local history plays in generating discussions about life in Rogers Park and West Ridge.
Issues Facing Local History
Some local history groups do this kind of pathbreaking work now, and they do it well. But many more have not been able to build sustainable and productive connections with and across their many local communities. Of course, pursuing this kind of change within an institution is not easy—it requires tough and oftentimes argumentative conversations about priorities—but it is also not optional for groups that want to survive far into the future. People need spaces where they can come together to learn about the historical context behind their local political and social landscapes. Local history groups are uniquely situated to do this work, but institutional realities can make this hard to achieve.
How NIHO Can Help
The National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO) has the potential to be a significant resource for local history groups interested in shifting direction to better serve their communities, as well as for those already engaged in this kind of work.
Searching NIHO for humanities organizations located nearby is a good place to start. NIHO contains information about local history groups, museums, cultural centers, arts groups, libraries, humanities councils, and other humanities-based institutions located across the United States. Local historians can use information generated by a NIHO search to identify potential collaborators. Partnerships could focus on anything from cohosting programs or exhibitions to pooling resources to cover the cost of a mutually beneficial service that might otherwise be out of financial reach. NIHO’s focus on the humanities is key here. While local history groups can benefit from working together, they should also consider partnerships with other kinds of humanities organizations. Humanists working in other fields can offer new perspectives and ideas to local historians interested in shaping local change and building bridges between communities. The Chicago Archives + Artists Project, for example, which “highlight[s] Chicago archives and special collections that give space to voices on the margins,” exemplifies some of the benefits of broader collaboration across the humanities.
NIHO can also be used by local history groups that are, for whatever reason, unable to pursue collaborative partnerships but still interested in finding new ways to fulfill their missions. They can generate lists of institutions based on criteria such as region or type of organization and then research select groups in more depth for project leads. Such investigation reveals many inspiring models, such as the Parkland Historical Society’s effort to collect materials left in remembrance of the students and staff murdered at Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2017, and the Shelby County Historical Museum’s fall 2018 exhibition about voting in Shelby County, Iowa, which included an October 2018 debate-viewing party. These are just two examples from a large pool of creative ideas about how local history organizations can connect past and present in support of their communities.
I hope people working with local history organizations will add NIHO to their list of essential resources. Local history is vital to understanding present-day issues facing people living and working everywhere from city neighborhoods to rural villages. NIHO can inform local history groups exploring how to play more meaningful roles in their towns and neighborhoods, as well as connect them with one another and with the broader humanities community. For these reasons, and many more, NIHO should occupy a prominent place in each local historian’s toolbox.
Hope Shannon is a public history professional and historian with a decade of experience working with local history institutions, museums, and cultural organizations. She co-founded Omnia History, a public history collaborative that explores how history can be used to support social change, in 2017.