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AASLH President and CEO’s Address 2017

by John R. Dichtl, PhD on

President and CEO’s Address (Excerpt)
AASLH Meeting of the Membership

Austin, TX, September 8, 2017

Getting to Austin was difficult for many of you, and preparing this meeting was not easy on the Host Committee and staff. And there are a whole set of new challenges for our colleagues living in South Texas and Louisiana who have had their lives changed by a storm. Thanks to all of you in this room for coming to this 2017 Annual Meeting. This is the 78th time the members of AASLH have convened a national conference.

This year’s annual meeting theme, I AM History and AASLH’s larger strategic goal of building Diversity and Inclusion obviously move us toward greater heterogeneity and durability with regard to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, religion, disability, and sexuality. Those are areas to which all institutions, including AASLH, must continue to commit time and resources.

AASLH will also be dedicated to diversity and inclusion of other kinds.

AASLH has always been an association of lots of different types of history institutions, museums, agencies, offices, companies, and sites. We continue to have broad representation across the country, and are trying to do better to reach and keep members. Most of our member institutions are quite small: half have yearly budgets under $250,000, and half of those are actually under $50,000.

One of the most interesting things about the world of history practitioners at historic sites, societies, and museums is that people come to this work as volunteers and as paid professionals, with some training, no training, or with high levels of education and expertise—and they come to the community of the historical enterprise at a young age, in mid-career, or late in life.

We have history organizations that are public, and others that are private; there are history museums, government agencies, archives, historic houses, historical societies, libraries, historic preservation groups, living history sites, consulting firms, college and university programs, and more within our membership.

It is AASLH’s challenge to bring all this diversity together and to find where the differences of the parts make the whole of us greater.

What is most difficult, I think, currently, is keeping together in conversation and in mutual learning, individuals, and organizations with differing political points of view. This became especially tough after the presidential election, when the country has felt so divided. As we all know, political views shape and are shaped by our understanding of history.

Fortunately, so many history practitioners, whatever their personal politics, are united by the tools and methods for doing historical work:  intensive research, adherence to the facts—even those facts that don’t fit our assumptions and intended interpretations. We also value evidence-based argumentation and critical thinking, or, really, historical thinking.  And all of us, I hope, agree with the proposition that history is relevant to modern life and that more Americans should be using historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues.

My plea to you as this association continues to strive to overcome racial barriers, economic divisions, gender divides, and other forms of discrimination is to remember that AASLH also has a duty to include and learn from a wide range of participants in this historical enterprise.

Red state, blue state; big city, small town; paid, volunteer; “We” are AASLH.

We are people with some variance in interpretation of the past who ALL must be kept in the conversation, so that greater professionalism, education, and exchange of ideas within AASLH and across the historical community continues. One of AASLH’s greatest strengths is this number and diversity of its members.

Without a doubt, the year since we met in Detroit has been another productive one for AASLH. I am grateful to everyone who has contributed dues, donations, their time, their ideas, and their support that allows us to do our collective work.

We are keeping in alignment with our five strategic goals as outlined by AASLH’s active and enterprising Council: Promoting the Relevance of History, Building Diversity and Inclusion, Acting with a Creative and Experimental Spirit, Strengthening organizational Sustainability and Transparency, and, being a Representative and Responsive Association. Here are some things we accomplished this year directly related to our strategic goals:

  • We have maintained a close and supportive relationship with the History Relevance Campaign, creating a new staff position that will provide crucial administrative stability. Also, AASLH, with the help of Sarah Sutton, has submitted a major NEH grant proposal on behalf of the History Relevance effort. As the History Relevance website shows, we have a few states where no institutions have endorsed the Value of History statement, and places like Texas, Indiana, and Virginia where History Relevance is flourishing.
  • The StEPs program, now 7 years old and reaching nearly 930 institutions, is undergoing an enhancement process. We have had input from StEPs participants who are reviewing and helping to update the program. And at this conference we are assembling groups of volunteers who will refine key topics in the StEPs workbook over the next year.
  • AASLH’s Continuing Education program has nearly tripled in size and reach in the past year, thanks to Amber Mitchell. We have expanded both the practical trainings in methods and practices of history museums and have launched a new series of connecting to scholarship webinars with the Organization of American Historians.
  • Thanks to a grant from Humanities Tennessee, we are piloting a Master Local Historians project at three Tennessee history institutions. We hope to make the program national in a couple of years. Definitely, it is a creative and experimental effort, one that helps AASLH be a more representative and responsive organization. Particularly for smaller history institutions, the Master Local Historian project will create a framework for strengthening the historical research, interpretation, and presentation skills of general audiences—who, I believe, will become more adept volunteers, board members, advocates, and allies for the historical community.
  • And within a few weeks of this Annual Meeting we will be launching a reconceptualization of the AASLH website, which staff developed over the past six months, to make AASLH resources and networks more accessible and useful.
  • Finally, I would like to emphasize this point, that the AASLH staff and I also represented the organization in 22 states over the past year. Conferences, workshops, coalitions, and projects.

In July 1941 when AASLH published its first newsletter, about a year after the association’s founding, AASLH president C.C. Crittenden stated our purpose in this way:

“Today in the United States and Canada there are more than a thousand organizations in the field of state, provincial, and local history. Publicly supported and privately financed, large and small, strong and weak, rich and poor, they all are working toward the same ends, and every one would profit by a closer association with the others.”

“Interest in the same field is manifested by many thousands of college professors, amateur historians, archivists, genealogists, antiquarians, persons engaged in the preservation of history shrines, members of patriotic groups, and other individuals. Frequently out of touch with each other and often lacking the proper tools for their work, such persons would benefit from a closer association and from a pooling of resources.”

A lot has changed in the intervening 75 years. There are far more than the 1,000 history organizations estimated in 1941. And a much greater number of people think of history makers as being people like themselves. “I AM History,” after all.

Despite what’s changed, there’s a continuity of purpose in what AASLH does. We are still striving for that “closer association.” We’re still trying to “pool resources,” develop “proper tools” and practices, and connect together a wide variety of passionate history practitioners—urban and rural, conservative and progressive, with far greater cultural, racial, gender, sexual, economic, and age diversity and inclusiveness today.

Thank you for a terrific year.

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