Those of us who work in museums and history organizations commonly hear “if only.”
“If only I’d interviewed my grandfather about his World War II experiences.” “If only I’d saved those letters written by my great-grandmother.” “If only that cemetery had been preserved.”
Once these stories and places are lost, they are gone forever. However, there are organizations working to protect our past so that we can better understand the present.
This May, the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) and the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County are co-sponsoring an event to digitize letters, diaries, photographs and artifacts related to Christian County’s African American and Jewish history. In addition to sparking conversations about race relations, this project will help both institutions tell a broader story.
This project is happening thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency that supports history, literacy and civic engagement projects across the United States.
Although NEH funds have preserved our state history and positively affected the education of many Kentuckians, there are now plans to eliminate funding for the NEH and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which also aids museums, libraries and local history organizations.
Between 2008 and 2012, Kentucky institutions received $5.9 million in NEH grants. These grants funded teacher training, traveling exhibits, school programs, adult educational services, digital humanities projects and more. From 2014-2016, four Kentucky museums received $226,000 in NEH funds.
As an example of how important these funds can be, one past NEH grant was used to assess artifacts at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville. For museums, accessible collections provide better on-site experiences, leading to more visitation, greater tourism and, ultimately, a stronger economic impact. NEH funds help make that possible.
IMLS grants also help museums make their collections more accessible. The Kentucky Historical Society is currently using a $149,060 grant to fund a complete inventory of our museum collection, which will help us better care for, and utilize, these important artifacts that the society has been collecting since 1836.
These funds have also benefitted teachers and students.
The Kentucky Historical Society used an NEH grant to train teachers from around the nation about the Civil War. Using Kentucky historic sites as laboratories of study, the teachers gained an in-depth understanding of our nation’s greatest conflict. As the teachers share these lessons with colleagues, the impact of this NEH-funded project multiplies.
Currently, NEH is helping fund the Kentucky Historical Society’s groundbreaking digital humanities project “The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.” This project—an online collection of thousands of historical documents related to Kentucky’s Civil War governors—is broadening our understanding of the Civil War and placing current issues, like soldiers’ post-traumatic stress disorder, into a broader historical context. Again, the lessons of our past help us confront real problems that are affecting us today.
As part of the commonwealth’s 225th anniversary, KHS staff are visiting organizations and communities to reflect upon Kentucky’s positive attributes and to discuss the challenges that we face as a state. These conversations have been revealing; Kentuckians worry about drug abuse, poverty, the health of residents, the decline of family farms and more.
One priority that has emerged from every community conversation is education.
Because Kentuckians care about education, it is important to remember that NEH and IMLS funds assist teachers, expand students’ learning, commemorate our history, support tourism development, bolster our libraries and help us become engaged citizens by prompting dialogue about critical issues.
For those reasons—and for the help that NEH and IMLS have given Kentucky communities and historical organizations—this funding needs to be preserved.
In the future, let us not have to say, “If only the NEH and IMLS had been saved.” Let us instead protect their funding and preserve our history in order to shape a better tomorrow.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.