And pick it up I did. In the Seminar.
I’ll immediately reveal my vintage. I attended the Seminar way back in the day when it was a 6-week summer program in Williamsburg, comprised of 9 professionals and 9 graduate Fellows. I was a graduate fellow, attending in 1972 midway in my doctoral coursework at William and Mary.
For me, the Seminar was not only introductory, but affirming. I had headed to William and Mary for graduate school on the recommendation of James Morton Smith, one of my undergraduate professors at Cornell. A scholar of American civil liberties and 18th-century America, Smith was an Ivy League academic who also bridged to the world of museums, historical organizations, and archives. He subsequently served as Director of the Historical Society of Wisconsin, and later as the head of Winterthur. I had discussed with several of my professors that I had always loved history – biography, historic sites and historic house museums, collections, architecture – and teaching, but was less enthralled with research and writing. While the classroom would be fine, I really wanted to be with the real stuff and the public, in museums. Smith had been at the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg earlier in his career and recommended William and Mary for graduate school. While there was no partnership program in place with Colonial Williamsburg, Jim suggested that maybe I could “pick something up.”
And pick it up I did. In the Seminar.
The Seminar was a dream come true — great readings and class discussions about everything museums; rubbing elbows with the heads of the National Trust, AAM, and AASLH; amazing field trips to behind-the-scenes at the Smithsonian to historic houses and museums, several of which were helmed by retired admirals who poured afternoon sherry for us. Surely these places would be ripe for a new generation of professionally trained historians and administrators! The class mix also was a plus, and the coordinator was a genial Texan named William Seale, who would become White House historian.
Most importantly for me, I met Jim Short, the Vice President for Preservation and Research at Colonial Williamsburg. Jim was a highly respected leader in the field, the Colonial Williamsburg lynchpin, with AASLH’s Bill Alderson, for the Seminar and the well-connected colleague of others advancing the professionalism of nonacademic history.
Shortly after the Seminar Jim called to ask if I could come talk about a job at Colonial Williamsburg. An opening was coming up in Archives, and part of the work would be to carry on the oral history program he had started in the 1950s. I was dying to do it, and we worked out a schedule that enabled me to complete my coursework as well.
I owe my subsequent career of 40-and-counting years to the Seminar and to Jim Short, who also was a leader in the American Association of State and Local History. I stayed on at Colonial Williamsburg for 28 years, becoming Executive Assistant to the President and Foundation Secretary, linking my work with two exceptional Board Chairs, Associate Justice Lewis Powell and Charlie Brown, then also CEO of AT&T. I moved through several Vice President and division head posts, including Corporate Planning Officer, VP for Quality Performance and Information Management, VP and Chief Administration Officer, and the VP for Education overseeing all of the mission-delivery divisions of the Foundation (research, preservation, collections and museums, Historic Area interpretation and programs, publishing, and educational outreach). Over the years, after Jim Short’s untimely death, I assumed the mantle of working with the other Seminar sponsors to maintain its strength, appeal, and value.
Subsequently, I have had the good fortune of leading The New York State Historical Association, with its significant museum of American art and culture, and the outdoor living history Farmers’ Museum, all joined with the State University of New York in mounting the country’s premier graduate program in museum studies, the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
And since 2011 I have been privileged to be the Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, whose truly amazing staff administer an incredibly rich and diverse collection that includes the state’s archives; a network of thirty state historic sites and museums; the state’s History Center with its innovative exhibition program and library; and Minnesota’s State Historic Preservation Office. The Society’s field services, museum education programs, and statewide educational program, including the largest (and best!) state History Day programs, are exceptional, as are its ground-breaking initiatives working with American Indian nations, communities of color, and new immigrant communities.
It’s great to wake up every morning and come to work in a history organization!
And I have had the pleasure of paying back to AASLH and the Seminar by chairing the AASLH Council. What a delight to see the strong content of the Seminar experience in recent years under former CW colleague Denny O’Toole and now John Durel! And what fun to sense the excitement at AASLH receptions for SHA alumni and prospective attendees!
While the Seminar experience has changed since 1972 (what hasn’t!), it is every bit as dense, engaging, thoroughly enjoyable, and valuable as it was then. And I know that those experiencing the Seminar of the 21st century also come away better equipped to deal with the steep challenges facing history organizations in today’s world. They emerge smarter, with a stronger network of resources and collegial support, and energized. And they go right back to work.
How important is their good work in a country whose educational policy is leaving all its children behind when it comes to the social studies, humanities, and the arts?
If we place any value on Americans’ ability to understand our country’s distinctive history, ideas, culture, development, and context; to find and assess information and to think through issues; and to chart a course for sustainability and success on an ever-shrinking planet, then we have to believe it is huge!
D. Stephen Elliott, Director and Chief Executive Officer, Minnesota Historical Society