What is the "History Relevance Campaign"?

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Vulcan statue, Birmingham, Alabama, built in 1904 to help brand the city and reflect the importance of its iron and steel industry.  Source:  Flickr user Katie Bordner.

Vulcan statue, Birmingham, Alabama, built in 1904 to help brand the city and reflect the importance of its iron and steel industry. Photo credit: Flickr user Katie Bordner.

The History Relevance Campaign (HRC), for lack of a better name, is a grassroots movement made up of public historians who say it’s time to show why the study and practice of history develop life skills that contribute to a stronger citizenry and are crucial to our nation’s future. We can say it and write it all we want, but as every writer knows, it has a more powerful impact if we show it.

Certainly the topic of history’s value to society is not new. It has been discussed many times before. This particular effort was sparked in a conversation at the Seminar for Historical Administration (@SHA) last year. A small core of people then instigated an initial working group meeting of twelve people during  American Alliance of Museum (AAM) Museums Advocacy Day last February which brought together representatives from the Smithsonian, American Historical Association (AHA), NCPH, National History Day, American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), and three state history organizations. A lively conversation ensued, and it continued at last year’s NCPH conference, AAM annual meeting, at National History Day’s national competition, and most recently at AASLH’s annual meeting, both at the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Forum and in general session. The HRC working group is trying to seize opportunities to gather history folks of all shapes and sizes to hold discussions that will eventually lead to an action plan. Let me provide a brief overview of what the group has done and what it is and isn’t.

First, it is not connected to any one history organization. From its start in early 2013, the group has striven to be as inclusive as possible.

Second, it does not see its main audience as decision makers and public policy makers. It is not a lobbying group.

Third, its focus so far has centered on the need to raise the profile of history in the general public.

Fourth, its intent is not to minimize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) but to show that history skills are just as important and that balance should be a goal for curriculum.

The idea of a branding campaign for history has come up in most, if not all, of the discussions. History, like any other discipline, has a brand. In this context it is defined as the way people perceive the value of history. If this perception is negative, how do we change it? How do we demonstrate the value? At the moment STEM has a very strong brand. History does not.  Or if it does, the history brand or image is diffuse and too often negative.

At NCPH in Ottawa last spring the HRC working group gathered twice to ponder the topic: at dinner and at a more formal conversation with a small group of NCPH board members and others. The groups attempted to start defining the “problem” and possible solutions. Who are the audiences? What change needs to occur? Should the effort be at the state level or national level? So many starting questions.

At the recent AASLH conference in Birmingham, participants in various meetings reflected on why history is relevant, heard an overview of three national studies that looked at how the general public perceives the past (United States, Australia, and Canada), and considered branding as one method.  Pherabe Kolb, Associate Director of Strategic Communications at the Smithsonian, shared her experience at the Smithsonian. The Institution has recently embarked on a national branding campaign and received some eye-opening feedback when the public was asked, “If the Smithsonian were a person, what kind of person would it be?”  Finally, the participants at the AASLH meetings looked into the future 15-20 years.  Fifteen years from now Americans would demonstrate that history is important to them by knowing…, feeling…, and doing…  fill in the blanks.

You may be aware of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) report this summer, The Heart of the Matter, which outlines the vital role of the humanities.  Or the AHA Tuning Project, which, among other outcomes, aims to communicate to a broad audience the significance and value of a history degree. We see these as allied efforts to the History Relevance Campaign.

The group’s ultimate challenge is how to define where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. If there is widespread agreement among most history organizations that the discipline of history does not have the best public perception, then perhaps the time is now to plan a course of action, get broad buy-in from the spectrum of professional history organizations, and effect change so that future generations will recognize the value of history. Whenever we have raised the topic, we have been affirmed by the overwhelming response of enthusiasm and passion.

The effort has a LinkedIn group – History Relevance Campaign – open to anyone. The conversation continues there and in other locations. If you want to be part of the conversation, and we hope you do, please join the group in order to be notified of future efforts. And, we plan to continue the discussion at the 2014 NCPH meeting in Monterey next March.

And, we’re open to suggestions for a better name.  Please post suggestions on the LinkedIn group page.

~ Tim Grove is Chief of Museum Learning, National Air and Space Museum and member of the HRC working group.


  1. Thanks for starting this discussion. Last year in Ga., the relevance of history to a wide array of constituencies and professions made headlines when the state archives was threatened by extreme funding cuts that essentially would have shut it down. For the first time many people were exposed to the reasons why old geological maps and court cases play key roles in the state’s economy, courts, and social life. One question about the HRC LinkedIn group: I just searched for it and nothing was returned. Can you post the URL?

  2. Tim Grove says:

    David, thanks for sharing an excellent example.
    Try this url:

    1. Thanks! That did the trick.

  3. Sara Palmer says:

    Too bad to see this conversation happening in a “walled garden” like LinkedIn (or Facebook, or Google Groups, or any of the other closed, privately-owned places I have seen “community organizers” opting to use lately) rather than somewhere open and accessible. You have an open, nonprofit-owned web space right here — why then are you moving the discussion to a privately-owned closed social network?

    1. Tim says:

      Sara, thanks for the comment. LinkedIn is free and open to anyone. Also, anyone can request to join the group and will be added. It is important at this stage that this effort is not perceived as connected with a specific organization, we are trying to include participation from across the spectrum. Finally, the LinkedIn group is only one place for the conversation, we hope to encourage many more conversations.

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