This article is from Volume 78 #1 of History News, AASLH’s quarterly magazine. Members can access the full issue in the Resource Center.
By Barb Howe, Professor Emeritus of History at West Virginia University, former AASLH Council member, and SHA graduate
It has been fifty years since I was lucky enough to participate in the fourteenth Seminar for Historical Administrators (SHA) in Williamsburg, Virginia, in summer 1972. When I told AASLH CEO John Dichtl and COO Bethany Hawkins in 2022 that COVID would keep me from attending the Annual Conference as the “old timer” at the SHA/History Leadership Institute reception, they suggested I share my reflections about the program in writing. My article cannot be comprehensive, but I hope it complements Bill Tramposch’s 1984 thesis entitled “The Seminar for Historical Administration: Companion to Change” and Denny O’Toole’s 2004 article in this same magazine.
The SHA was initially conceived as the Seminar for Historical Interpretation but, before the first session, became the Seminar for Historical Administrators. Then it became the Seminar for Historical Administration, Developing History Leaders @SHA, and now the History Leadership Institute. Participants also changed, from graduate students to mid-career professionals to mid- and advanced-career professionals. Sponsors and coordinators changed. Content evolved from basic site interpretation procedures to leadership skills. The seminar “became the model for delivering short-term workshops and was adopted by national, state, and regional associations that offer entry-level, mid-career, and senior-level training.” It moved from Williamsburg to Indianapolis, went from six weeks in the summer to three weeks in November,then back to the summer, and is now an online/on-site hybrid. Scholarships replaced generous fellowships for graduate students.
Dr. Edward P. Alexander, Colonial Williamsburg’s Vice President for Interpretation, envisioned the SHA and persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation “to join it in an experiment to provide better personnel for historical agencies.” At the time, it was increasingly difficult to find “suitable directors, administrators, and other scholarly, trained personnel for the agencies” because academia was hiring somany people to teach the baby boomers entering college and paid more without “the heavy load of responsibility placed on administrators in our great historical agencies,” so “scholarly administrators” were fleeing to a less hectic life in academia.
In addition, “restoration, preservation and reconstruction projects” similar to Colonial Williamsburg (CW), Mount Vernon, and Sturbridge Village “were mushrooming at an unprecedented rate and the public is flocking to them as fast as they can open their doors.” These projects, plus the “increased activity among all historical agencies in the field of historical interpretation” pointed to the need for “competently trained personnel to take responsible positions in this new dynamic field.”
There were, therefore, two main purposes for SHA: 1. To recruit promising young graduate students into the historical agency field as potential historical administrators. 2. To convey an understanding of the purposes and activities of historical agencies to promising young graduate students, who, even though they may choose to remain in academic work, will appreciate the worth of historical agencies, use agency resources to improve their teaching and research, and direct potential historical administrators toward this new profession. A third purpose for in-service members (SHA’s term for those employed in history organizations) was “to provide in-service orientation for a small number of promising youngadministrators who have already entered the field.”
CW and the National Trust co-sponsored the first six week seminar in Williamsburg from June 15 to July 24, 1959. CW provided administrative support, made the restoration a living history classroom, and provided faculty from its staff. The curriculum was divided into four parts: background, administration, research, and interpretation. It was “a concentrated course of training in as many phases as possible ofthe administration and interpretation problems of the indoorand outdoor museum,” including “evaluation, analysis and development of the types of resources necessary for successful restoration and reconstruction programs; the planning of interpretive techniques, such as exhibit installation; administrative problems of finance, public relations, publications and trustee relationships; and the history of historical education and the philosophy of historical interpretation.” Afternoons were for laboratory work and field trips to museums and organizations in Richmond, Norfolk, and Fredericksburg. There were National Trust case histories, assigned readings, and a final written examination. Leading graduate schools agreed to send participants to secure “historical interpreters for a steadily growing field” and to introduce “a higher degree of professionalism … for a better interpretation of subject matter and a greater understanding of the administrative problems of historic agencies.” Twelve graduate students “in American history, American studies, American art and architectural history, or allied fields” were eligible for the $500 stipends ($5,099.79 in 2022 dollars) and were known as National Trust Fellows. Participants stayed in College of William and Mary dormitories and used its cafeteria.
In October 1959, AASLH joined with a commitment of $3,000 as “a preliminary step in the Association’s effort to train qualified personnel for responsible positions in historical agency work.” The American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) became a sponsor in 1963. The National Park Service nominated its first “in-service representative” that year. William J. Murtagh, Director of the National Trust’s education department, was the coordinator through 1964. William (Bill) Seale, Jr., of Beaumont, Texas, attended the 1964 program while finishing his MA degree at Duke University. He remembered, “The seminar altered my career direction by making me realize that I could redirect my history work towards buildings and interiors in one form or another.” He was the coordinator in 1971 and 1972 when working with architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock on Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A.
By 1965, the seminar featured lectures by nationally respected professionals “from some of the nation’s finest historical agencies,” visits to area museums and preservation projects, and “behind-the-scenes activities of Colonial Williamsburg” for four weeks. Each student presented a problem like a case study during the last two weeks. There were loudspeakers on buses to facilitate discussions on field trips, evening informal discussions between speakers and students and in the dormitory, eating together at local restaurants, and a final social event.
By 1965, SHA graduates were employed across the country and internationally. The seventy-two grantees (graduate students) represented thirty-six universities and Mexico. Thirty-five in-service participants had completed the program. Thirty “young scholars” (graduate students when attending SHA) worked in historical agencies while twenty-two in-service participants had had “their horizons broadened and their determination stiffened to follow such careers.”
I must have seen the notice for the 1972 seminar posted in the Temple University history department during my first year of the PhD program. I wanted to do something other than teach college, but Robert Kelley would not coin the term “public history” at the University of California–Santa Barbara until 1975, so it was hard to know where to look for ideas. I was volunteering with Philadelphia’s Spring Garden Civic Association to document the mid-nineteenth-century rowhouses where I lived and would have a graduate assistantship in Temple’s Urban Archives Center the next academic year.
1972 was the first year that the eighteen fellowships were equally divided between graduate students and “working professionals.”
There were just seventeen of us, including myself as a last-minute substitute not on the official list: Mary Ann Amacker (Oregon Historical Society), Carol Bohdan (New York University), Michael Crawford (Washington University), Marie Deacon (University of Arkansas), Edwin Dooley (Virginia Military Institute), Steve Elliott (William & Mary), Barb Howe (Temple), Marion Huseas (Wyoming State Museum), Kathleen Kirby (Grand Portage National Monument), Antoinette “Toni” Lee (George Washington University), Dollie McGrath (South Carolina Department of Archives and History), Duncan Muckelroy (Texas Tech University Museum), Mary “Ranny” Nichols (William & Mary), Marcella Sherfy (Gettysburg National Military Park), Brit Storey (State Historical Society of Colorado), Joan Thill (University of Delaware), and Edmund Winslow (New York Office of State History). The graduate students were in history departments except Toni (American Studies) and Carol (architectural history).
We had lectures by leaders representing the four sponsoring organizations, described as “an intensive overview of historical administration, dealing with such problems as evaluation and development of resources, forms and methods of interpretation, finance, public relations, and publications, staff and trustee relationships, curatorial, research, and administrative practices.”
Murtaugh, then keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, explained the concept of historic districts as a place where you knew when you entered it, and you knew when you left it, a definition I used throughout my career in historic preservation.
We toured all the buildings and learned how docents managed crowds as we slipped in and out between tour groups. We discussed the importance of the Bodleian Plate from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the copperplate engraving of key buildings in eighteenth-century Williamsburg that was a critical resource in reconstructing the Governor’s Palace and the first Capitol, which burned in 1747. Did visitors understand that the Capitol was not a reconstruction of the building where Revolutionary-era legislators debated? Gardeners were backcrossing plants to get closer to varieties grown in the eighteenth century. We walked to meetings in the early morning with costumed docents before tourists arrived. We rode down Duke of Gloucester Street to appreciate how the streetscape changed when seen from a car at night instead of on foot in daytime. There was no final written examination, but we had projects. I think mine was on cast iron architecture. We toured nearby sites. I particularly remember the Confederate Museum in Richmond (now the White House of the Confederacy) where United Daughters of the Confederacy chapters had filled rooms with cases of artifacts. Visiting friends were impressed that our identification cards allowed VIP access everywhere.
Williamsburg’s interpretation focused on white men, especially politicians. African American history was yet to come. No one talked about gender identity or sexual orientation. There was no first-person interpretation. This was long before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, so I do not remember any discussion of providing access to buildings or interpretive materials.
Those six weeks were life-changing. They started my fifty-year membership in AASLH, provided the experience I needed to see some career opportunities, and introduced me to the language of historical organizations.
I asked new questions when visiting historic sites. I gained my first professional network. I stayed in touch with Bill Seale sporadically and with several others for the first few years. I have remained friends with Joan (now Joan Wells). She remembered that “The connections I made at the AASLH summer seminar in Williamsburg were invaluable. I still keep up with just a couple. … But while at Denver’s Molly Brown, where I was director as my first job after the seminar, I put many of the things I learned into practice, and used the connections in my job as executive director at the Victorian Society. I remember it was a fabulous summer.” I reconnected with Brit through the National Council on Public History while I was chair (1988–89), and he was president (1991–92). He remembered:
“We received a blue pass that let us into anything at Colonial Williamsburg we were interested in experiencing or looking at. We had a good deal of down time as well as an assigned project; in my case, the APVA—the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. I rode the bus over to Richmond to interview staff at the APVA and wrote a report on that association. I also visited the Museum of the Confederacy in that town. The APVA was an interesting story of a private organization that did a great deal in terms of preservation of historic sites in Virginia, including Colonial Williamsburg. I really exercised my blue pass. I toured most of the open houses several times, visited the library, etc. I really enjoyed my time at Colonial Williamsburg. One of my favorite evening activities was to go the Wythe House where I would sit in the grape arbor at the back of the garden and enjoy the peace and quiet—the tourists were not out and walking the historic district.
A major part of my fun was spending a lot of time with Bill Seale. Bill was fun to talk to, and I spent many evenings with him.We visited most of the museums in the area—like the maritime museum. Marion Huseas made a big hit with that museum and went back to offer comments to the staff. Bill’s extensive knowledge about the sites added great depth to the seminar. I particularly remember the Richmond fine arts museum where they had little AV booths that interpreted the gallery, and they had a nice collection of Faberge eggs. I asked on a weekend to drive with someone who had a car to Monticello and the University of Virginia.
I was fascinated with some of the issues Bill raised about Colonial Williamsburg (often privately with me, since Colonial Williamsburg was one of the seminar sponsors)—that even the wealthy houses had sparse furnishing and fabrics, the wills of some of the property owners (in the library), and the distinction between real historic fabric and reconstructions. It was a really great learning experience, and I soaked everything up as best I could. One of the staff members at Colonial Williamsburg was interested in when various imported plants arrived in America—and when they could have been found in the historic district. I don’t remember how much money was involved, but it was the same for everyone. … It seemed inequitable to me that the money was not distributed based on expenses rather than being based simply on acceptance into the seminar. I’ve run across a few of the participants over the years: Toni Lee, Barb Howe, Joan Thill, and Marion Huseas are some who come to mind.”
Neither Steve nor I remembered each other when we introduced ourselves at the 2015 founding meeting of the AASLH Emeritus Council of former council members. Several years later, glancing through old issues of History News, I found his 2010 comments as incoming AASLH chair, and emailed him. He called the seminar the “portal to my career,” which started at Colonial Williamsburg and ended at the Minnesota Historical Society. He was delighted the seminar continued to thrive.
SHA sponsors focused on mid-career museum professionals for the first time in 1976. Shifting from graduate students who needed stipends to professionals paying to attend, SHA leaders assumed that nonprofit organizations (private and public) could afford to provide financial support for professional development. The seminar evolved to attract this new audience. The six weeks included “the evaluation and development of resources; forms and methods of interpretation; programs of major historical institutions; and curatorial, research and administrative practices,” plus “a thorough study of historical administration at Colonial Williamsburg” and field trips. The National Museum Act of 1966 and the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding.
By 1979, the now four-week program focused on “staff members already employed in private and public historical societies, museums, restoration and preservation projects, historic sites and parks, and other historical agencies,” while “a few graduate students who plan to enter the field may also be included.”
Bill Tramposch coordinated the seminar from 1981 to 1988 while Director of Interpretive Education for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In 1982, the program gave “specific attention to crucial aspects of administration, including long-range planning, and personnel management and policy in historical organizations.” The “eighteen of the finest young minds in our profession” (or so they were told and believed) included Jim Vaughan, then Director of Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and, by 2012, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He reminisced that “Most of us were in our twenties or early thirties, with only three to five years’ experience on the job,” at mostly “small institutions, historic house museums, and historic sites.” It was a “total immersion experience” that was “the most critical event in shaping our careers.”
It was probably inevitable that opinions would differ about how to educate historians. When Bob Kelley argued in 1983 that “no one had ever done before what we were trying to do” with public history at Santa Barbara, Alderson responded that “there is very little that is really new about public history except the term itself,” citing the SHA, AASLH, and other programs which all “provide precedents and parallels” to Santa Barbara’s program. By 1986, “new graduate students were generally excluded” from SHA as “there were many graduate schools training students “for work in history beyond the classroom and the campus.”
A steep decline in the number of applicants led to a March 1989 self-study. “Changes in curriculum, potential audience, time of year, and length of program” began in 1990, shortening the program to three weeks in November. The program would focus on “the historical administrator as cultural leader, as executive, and as career professional” by offering “up-and-coming professionals the opportunity to learn from and get acquainted with luminaries in the historical agency field and one another” through “panel discussions, case studies, workshops, and field trips.” It was “an opportunity for the historical organization leaders to deal effectively with important problems facing their home organizations and in their professional careers.” Now the seminar was for “full-time, paid members of a staff for at least three years,” providing “an unrivaled opportunity for those in positions of administrative responsibility or those who are preparing for such leadership roles.” CW provided administrative support, and participants could meet Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff and visit sites in the historic area and Carter’s Grove. The “untapped resource” of over 500 alumni would “be encouraged to provide their support in recruiting, serving as faculty, maintaining current addresses and positions, and financial contributions.”
Bill Alderson, a revered and respected member of the history field, coordinated the SHA from 1991 to 1996. Still, his leadership and the changes were not enough. By 1993, applications declined again. Sponsors improved marketing, and applications increased. I do not know if there was a correlation, but AASLH barely survived then.
The seminar continued to evolve during Terry Davis’s two decades at AASLH from 1994 to 2014 as Executive Director and then President/CEO from 1995. Each sponsoring organization provided senior staff to serve on an annual planning committee to evaluate the success of the current seminar, plan curriculum and choose presenters for the upcoming seminar,and participate in a wrap-up session the last day of the seminar where sponsors and attendees would discuss the most pressing issues in the field. Davis represented AASLH on the planning committee and became a faculty member in 2003. Davis and the AASLH Council understood the association’s responsibility to provide professional development at the senior level to help grow the next generation of leaders in America’s historical organizations.
O’Toole was the coordinator from around 2001 through 2009. In January 2003, CW ended its site sponsorship but continued as a “contributing sponsor” and on the sponsors committee with the National Trust, AASLH, AAM, and the National Park Service. There was no seminar that year. While sponsors were very grateful for CW’s leadership for forty-four years, they also felt the responsibility for professional development for the field fell much more squarely in AASLH’s mission than CW’s. All sponsors agreed, and administrative leadership shifted to AASLH.
The decrease of dependence on CW brought new responsibilities for SHA, and therefore for AASLH. For the first time, SHA did not have access to the seemingly unlimited resources of CW, so sponsors adopted a new business model that included a balanced budget and the search fora new host. Under the administration of AASLH, SHA put out a call for proposals for a new host site, and, in 2004 moved to Indianapolis with the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) as host. The curriculum focused more on “the nature and responsibilities of nonprofit organizations,” the importance of a mission, leadership, and management, finances, and “self-renewal and development.”
When Denny received AASLH’s Award of Distinction in 2011, Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr., noted that “Perhaps Denny O’Toole’s greatest legacy has been his remarkable oversight of the Seminar for Historical Administration (SHA). Under his leadership, SHA flourished and he has strengthened the professionalism and enriched the lives of scores of men and women in our field. While the seminar students benefited from Denny’s guiding hand, the real beneficiaries have been the people these students served when they returned to their institutions.” AASLH later established Denny O’Toole Scholarships for the SHA and solicits donations from SHA/HLI alumni in honor of Denny’s contributions to SHA.
John W. Durel was the SHA director from 2010 to 2017. By 2012, the seminar was called Developing History Leaders@SHA (formerly the Seminar for Historical Administration), reinforcing the fact that sponsors wanted to focus on trainingthe next generation of leaders in the field. There had beenover 900 participants, and Jim Vaughan’s survey of his 1982 class showed the impact of the seminar on the careers of those eighteen, including on future AASLH leaders like Jim.
Max van Balgooy became director in March 2017 and led his first seminar for twelve participants that November. While Davis remembered that leadership was already an emphasis and had been discussed for a long time, van Balgooy noted that “Enrollment had dropped, and it was time for change.” His long-range plan included “Affirming its focus on organizational leadership and personal leadership,” changing the name “to shift the emphasis to leadership,” moving back to June, and changing the format by adding online courses, which the pandemic accelerated. He characterized the new focus as moving to “Are we doing the right things?”from “Are we doing things right?” Participants would consider topics like “decolonization, strategic planning, community engagement, mission and vision, and deaccessioning.” AASLH formally adopted the HLI as an association program to provide “the stability and resources required for growth.”
The HLI is now a suite of programs: the four-week seminar, online courses, the History Leadership Forum at theAnnual Conference, and a proposed History Leadership Symposium. Advisory Board Partners include state and national history organizations. In February, Andrea Jones was announced as the new director of the program.
AASLH President and CEO John Dichtl summed up HLI’s current state thusly:
HLI is in a strong position, which makes the next few years an exciting time in its evolution. … The program is supportedby an increasingly integrated set of professional development offerings within AASLH. And this fall , the Association of African American Museums has joined the HLI partners group, which includes the Indiana Historical Society, Conner Prairie, History Nebraska, Minnesota Historical Society, Missouri Historical Society, and National Association for Interpretation. Moreover, with the partners’ help, your assistance, and support from the multi-year Making History Matter fundraising campaign we are initiating at AASLH, we will be expanding diversity and small organization scholarships for HLI.
What has not changed through the years is the graduates’ loyalty. We sport lapel pins and ribbons on our conference badges. History News authors identify as graduates. Alumni have become leaders in the field and seminar faculty. They maintain contacts. The Seminar Update was advertised in 1990 for “alumni, faculty, and interested persons.” AASLH had a Seminar for Historical Administration Alumni Committee by 2010. There is a History Leadership Institute Facebook group. We get periodic emails from John, as above, to fund scholarships. I hope its evolving configurations will continue to be as impactful for future participants as those six weeks in 1972 were for me.
Learn more about the History Leadership Institute here.