Humanities Councils

This walking tour of the Greater Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore was funded by the Maryland Humanities Council in 2010. The tour was led by Dr. Ed Orser, professor emeritus at UMBC, and included as speakers members of the Evergreen Protective Association, including Kirin Smith, featured here. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage, Wikimedia Commons.

A network of fifty-six nonprofit organizations located in every state and U.S. territory, humanities councils have been a significant supporter of public history since their creation in 1971. An offshoot of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), their founding purpose was to democratize humanistic knowledge and methods by bridging the gap between scholars and the public.

Humanities councils encourage humanities activities everywhere—through museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, cultural organizations, and colleges and universities in rural communities, urban neighborhoods, and suburban towns. Their grant programs, which are locally-focused, are more accessible to many public historians than NEH grants, which are geared towards national projects. Public historians also work with councils as project scholars, grant reviewers, and board members.

Humanities Relevance

Since their creation, humanities councils have struggled with how to make their programs relevant to contemporary issues and appeal to a wide variety of audiences. This essay explores humanities councils’ current efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. It also analyzes how the definition of diversity and inclusion changed over time for the councils, showing how they responded to societal concerns at three critical junctures by creating particular kinds of programs. It concludes with thoughts about the future of diversity and inclusion for humanities councils.

In the early twenty-first century, declining funding and support for the humanities led to a wave of articles and reports on the crisis in the humanities. Councils responded by forcefully asserting the role of the humanities in helping people deal with issues of contemporary relevance. As the nation debates immigration policy and Black Lives Matter, for example, councils are offering programs to help contextualize these complex issues. In 2016, Oregon Humanities offered a program called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?: A Hidden History,” that examined how Oregon became one of the whitest states in the nation. Alabama Humanities Foundation gave workshops to law enforcement officers on the history of the Scottsboro Boys, a 1931 case in which nine African American teenagers were wrongfully convicted of rape by all-white juries. This historical context is used to answer the question of “how we got where we are today in terms of persistent social, economic, cultural, and racial issues often dividing communities and presenting challenges in terms of police/community relations.”[i] In 2016, the NEH created an initiative called “Humanities and the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” which supported a range of programming. Some councils created their own grant programs with the funding, supporting projects developed by local organizations. The Arizona Humanities Council offered a series of programs utilizing many public humanities methodologies, including writing workshops, film screenings, a history immersion tour, and panel discussions. Ohio Humanities offered speakers on topics including African American history, immigration history, and nativism to spur discussions about U.S. society today.

Key Questions

While the names of these programs are new, the questions they raise are old ones. What makes the humanities meaningful to the general public? What do we mean by the general public anyway? For decades, humanities councils grappled with issues of diversity and inclusion as they struggled to come up with answers to these questions. From 1971 to the early 1980s, diversity was defined as reaching non-academic audiences with humanities content delivered by credentialed scholars. One way this objective was accomplished was by connecting humanities scholars with public policymakers, with the hope that the scholars would shape policies being created. These policies would, in turn, affect everyday Americans. In the 1980s, multiculturalism defined diversity. Council programs delved into the pluralism of communities, celebrating heritage and culture. In response to the move to multiculturalism, conservative politicians waged the culture wars in the 1990s against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as the NEH and humanities councils. In the 1990s and 2000s, seeing the hardening of partisan political lines between conservatives and liberals nationwide, councils moved towards civic dialogue and community conversation as a noncontroversial way to find common ground. Today, councils talk about diversity and inclusion in a variety of ways. They want to attract audiences that are diverse in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age. Councils are experimenting with new kinds of programming created by nontraditional humanities organizations that takes place in community spaces and that involve people as participants, not passive audiences. The keywords today are action and collaboration—humanists are working with communities to address what’s happening around us. Councils are also looking at their own executive leadership, staffs, and boards and asking why there are comparatively few people of color, women, and LGBTQ people in these important positions.

Historical Background of the National Endowment for the Humanities

To understand the role of the humanities councils in public history, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the creation of the NEH in 1965. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union convinced the federal government to pump money into science, engineering, and technology. National reputation hinged on whether the Soviets or the Americans would land a man on the moon, for example. Humanities scholars and professional associations looked on enviously as their colleagues in science and technology benefitted from this funding. The National Commission on the Humanities, made up of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in America, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa—all scholarly organizations—released a “Report of the Commission on the Humanities” in 1964 that argued that the humanities were as important to national identity and international prestige as science and technology.[ii] It described a future without the humanities: technology without ethics, humans turned into automatons. The Cold War was being fought for nothing if the United States did not nurture its humanists, which it defined as scholars, artists, and teachers in disciplines including history, literature, philosophy, the arts, and others that were qualitative rather than quantitative. Their suggestion was to create a federal agency modeled on the National Science Foundation that would spend federal money on supporting the work of these scholars, artists, and teachers while also replenishing their ranks through graduate fellowships. The wider public would learn from these people, but the agency itself would not be in the business of reaching the public directly. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating two federal agencies, the NEH and NEA.[iii] In this legislation, the public humanities were envisioned as the foundation of democracy: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,” which could not be gained through science alone. Instead, individuals needed to “recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression.”[iv] The achievements of the past must be remembered to provide citizens with a common history and sense of pride. But, as public historians know, the devil is in the details. What do we mean by “our cultural heritage”? In articulating these goals, the legislation, which borrowed language from the ACLS report, created the public humanities that we know today.

Through the efforts of the National Commission on the Humanities and its first Chairman, Barnaby C. Keeney, the President of Brown University, the NEH was deeply tied to higher education and the needs of university-based academics. Its central activity was grant making, conducted by panels of academically-credentialed scholars, for research fellowships, publications, education, and public programs. The first funded NEH grant was to the American Society of Papyrologists to conduct a six-week training workshop for scholars who studied ancient writings on papyrus. Such a project suggests who the NEH saw as its main audience: academic scholars. The agency was not, however, entirely divorced from contemporary concerns. Other early grants supported public television programs on African American arts, Alaskan material culture, and the urban crisis. Interestingly, a substantial number of public program grants in the first five years of the NEH funded internship programs at museums.

Creating Humanities Councils

After just a few years of NEH grantmaking, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, who had helped write the legislation creating the agency (as well as the college loan program that bears his name), was dissatisfied with its impact. Rather than reaching local communities at the grassroots level, funding was supporting universities and scholarly research. If the humanities were really essential to democracy, then there needed to be a method of reaching non-academics with the insights of humanities scholars. The state humanities councils, which could work with local communities, were the solution. If the 1960s were a moment of expansion of federal power that made the NEH possible, Nixon’s New Federalism, which shifted power from the federal government to state governments, ironically created the conditions for the councils. Based on the state arts council model, the humanities councils (originally called committees on the humanities) were statewide outposts of the NEH that would offer grants and programs to smaller organizations who would be able to reach people everywhere. In 1971, the Federal/State Partnership was created as the liaison between the NEH and the network of state councils.

The mission of the humanities councils was to democratize knowledge. They wanted to connect humanities scholars with local communities in order to give people access to the research being done in universities. Over the next several decades certain trends in the public humanities emerged from these partnerships, each of which had implications for issues of diversity and inclusion. In the 1970s, when the NEH created the state councils, it mandated that they bring scholars into conversation with citizens about topics of public policy. Councils responded in two ways. First, councils created programs that gave citizens more information that would help them address the complex issues facing the nation, such as a 1977 symposium on “The Free Flow of Information: Government, Media and the Individual,” which brought 300 people, including journalists and scholars, together in Texas. In New Jersey, the council coordinated a series of talks on “The Juvenile Justice System: Who is Responsible?” Secondly, councils and the NEH paired historians, ethicists, philosophers, and literature scholars with policymakers to see if the result was better policy. In 1979, for example, the US Conference of Mayors received funding from the NEH to develop a humanities program for mayors, publishing two reports on its findings. The policy mandate felt limiting to some scholars, who didn’t see connections between their research and policy issues.

Multiculturalism and the Culture Wars

By the 1980s, the NEH and Congress had loosened the rules on what the councils could fund at the same moment that multiculturalism was bubbling up in universities. Diversity at this moment was defined through pluralism: the nation was made up of various groups with their own histories and cultural practices. Rather than melting together into something new, these groups coexisted like vegetables in a salad bowl, an oft-used metaphor. Moving away from an assimilationist model in which the humanities were defined as a canonical set of texts written by white men opened up avenues for different communities to engage and claim public space. In 1981, for example, the Illinois Humanities Council funded “Bridging the Gap.” The project videotaped a Baltic theater production and showed it to Eastern European immigrant organizations to discuss their heritage and values.[v] But multiculturalism as practiced in many public heritage programs flattened racial, ethnic, and religious difference into cultural symbols. The cultural heritage festival was emblematic of the problems with this model. Did eating a new food or watching a folk dance teach festival-goers about another race, ethnicity, or religion, or did it simply turn them into pleasurable experiences disconnected from real questions about history and power? While the acknowledgement of common humanity was valuable, the focus on heritage, folk culture, and aesthetic display seemed to argue that all groups had equal access to resources, which was simply untrue.

As inoffensive as the discourse of multiculturalism seems now, conservative government officials responded to what they perceived as an attack on American or Western values. NEH Chairman William Bennett (1981-1985) argued that multiculturalism had overtaken the canon of Western civilization. Without the shared values that the humanities, which Bennett and others defined through texts like the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare, provided, what would hold our society together? Known as the “culture wars,” these debates escalated in the mid-1990s with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb in Japan during World War II. Museum labels included the Japanese point of view, suggesting that the American narrative of the “good war” was one-sided. Politicians and commentators condemned the use of tax dollars being used to support these kinds of projects. Congress, led by Republicans, resoundingly said no, and cut funding to the NEA, as well as the NEH and state councils. Federal funding for the NEH plummeted in the mid-1990s and has never entirely recovered, though the NEH has maintained a steady level of support for the councils.[vi] Councils, however, have had to find other sources of funding through their state governments, foundations, and individual donors to deal with growing costs.

Civic Dialogue

The hardening of partisan lines during the culture wars suggested that there was little common ground for civic discussion. Congress made it clear it would use its power of appropriation to limit even slightly controversial perspectives. Councils responded by adopting civic dialogue as a major programming initiative in the late 1990s and 2000s. These community-based conversations convened people for discussion by trained facilitators. While earlier council programs like lectures or film programs encouraged mostly passive audiences, dialogue necessitated participation. Council practice paralleled discussions happening in museum circles around the dialogic or participatory museum which sought to shift authority from humanities scholars towards the audience allowing for more inclusive programs that valued the knowledge of community members as well as those with academic credentials.[vii] Community conversations centered on common issues and often utilized a shared text as a starting point. They happened in public library branches, churches, and hospitals, expanding where the public humanities took place. One long-running dialogue program is “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare,” which uses literature as the basis for conversations between healthcare professionals to help them manage burnout and develop better cultural sensitivity when interacting with patients from backgrounds different from theirs. Created by the Maine Humanities Council, it is offered by a number of councils across the country. Both Oregon Humanities and Humanities New York not only offer conversation-based programs, but train facilitators in how to lead these discussions.[viii] Showing how councils are bringing humanities programs into nontraditional spaces designed to appeal to different audiences, Think and Drink programs are held at bars. Humanities Washington’s Think & Drink offers hosted conversations on topics like feminism and protest since 1968.[ix]

Broadening Audiences

This chronology does not mean that one type of program was superseded by another. Instead, councils use all of the techniques discussed in this essay to this day. But just like decades ago, they are still trying to broaden the audience. One new audience that humanities councils and the NEH have identified are veterans. Recognizing that thousands of American military personnel were returning to civilian life after being involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NEH and councils have made a concerted effort to reach this group and help their transition back to home life. Literature, history, facilitated conversation, and creative writing are some of the ways that councils have served this community.

Since their inception, councils have used media, especially radio, television, and documentary film, to spread the humanities to broad audiences. While the reach of such programs can be huge, it is impossible to know how much impact they have on viewers or who, exactly, is viewing them. For California Humanities the goal is creating more diverse media content. Grants from the California Documentary Project support media projects that tell lesser-known stories about diverse communities and are relevant to contemporary issues.[x] Digital humanities are a new focus for councils. For some, digital humanities extends their media programs in new directions. In the War Ink project, which California Humanities funded, veterans told stories through their tattoos, which was accompanied by an online interpretive exhibit. For other councils, online state encyclopedias or digital exhibitions increase accessibility of humanities resources. Councils also use social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with their constituencies. But councils are not at the forefront of the digital humanities, perhaps because other funders, like the NEH, have more resources to support large-scale digital humanities projects. Certainly digital efforts will grow but councils, like museums, also see themselves as offering something increasingly rare in our networked world: real-life interaction.

Re-defining the Humanities Scholar

Today, diversity and inclusion is more than simply who attends programs. Humanities councils, like museums, libraries and archives, and other public history institutions, need to examine why their staff and boards of directors are often dominated by white middle-class educated professionals. One positive change is in the definition of “humanities scholar.” A humanities scholar is required to be part of every grant-funded project. Historically, humanities scholars had PhDs in humanities disciplines and university affiliations. Many councils have changed this requirement to include people like tradition bearers or community scholars who have deep knowledge, but no academic qualifications. This shift is critical because it signals to community members that their knowledge is valued and helps to counter the elitism that was present at the creation of the NEH and has dogged the public humanities since.


As this essay has argued, councils are part of a larger public humanities infrastructure. Like museums, libraries, and universities, they must critique themselves as part of debates around diversity and inclusion. Do they support neutral spaces for public dialogue or can they lift up the perspectives of economically and socially marginalized communities? Is the elitism that marked the development of the public humanities surmountable or do we need to create a new term to describe this work? What does it mean to serve all the residents of a state who have very different interests, needs, and political perspectives? Should councils take stands on public questions? These are the questions that state humanities councils must answer in the twenty-first century to become truly inclusive organizations.


[i] The Scottsboro Case and the Legacy of Law and Justice in Alabama, Alabama Humanities Foundation,

[ii] “Report of the Commission on the Humanities,” American Council of Learned Societies,

[iii] “National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965,” National Endowment for the Humanities,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Straumanis backs cuts,” Southern Illinoisian, May 10, 1981.

[vi] “National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Funding Levels,” Humanities Indicators,

[vii] Linda Shopes, “The Museum of Chinese in America: Continuity and Change,” Cross Ties,

[viii] “What is the Conversation Project?” Oregon Humanities, “Community Conversations,” Humanities New York,

[ix] Think & Drink, Humanities Washington,

[x] “California Documentary Project,” California Humanities,

Suggested Readings

Greenfield, Briann. “Making the Humanities Public: The Example of Connecticut’s Humanities Council.” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (2013): 51-66.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences For a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013.

Lynn, Elizabeth. An Ongoing Experiment: State Councils, the Humanities and the American Public. Kettering Foundation, 2013.

Rizzo, Mary. “Finding the Roots of Civic Engagement in the Public Humanities,” History@Work, National Council on Public History, July 21, 2014.

Zainaldin, Jamil. “Public Works: NEH, Congress, and the State Humanities Councils.” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (2013): 28-50.


~ Mary Rizzo is an Assistant Professor in History and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives for the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. She worked for several years at the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Currently, she is completing a book on how Baltimore has been represented in popular culture from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century. She tweets as @rizzo_pubhist and can be reached at [email protected].