On March 3, 2017, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra, the ancient city, archaeological treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site that had endured destruction and looting at the hands of ISIS. The Syrian government declared the victory “highly significant” for the morale of the army and the Syrian nation. Protecting a country’s history, as the military knew, is as precious as preserving human life. When you destroy heritage, you rob the memories and diminish the heart of a whole people.
On that same day, as it happened, the National Endowment for the Humanities was presenting a program in Washington on the importance of historic conservation and preservation against the threats of war, malice, weather or time. Professor Debra Hess Norris, an art historian, curator and conservator at the University of Delaware and director of the Winterthur Museum’s program in art conservation education, spoke about the remarkable work she and her colleagues and students have undertaken to restore and preserve the world’s artifacts.
Norris’s specialty is the recovery and conservation of documents on paper, whether the Dead Sea scrolls, the Declaration of Independence, damaged photos from early arctic expeditions or family photographs recovered from the Texas floods, Hurricane Katrina or a devastating house fire in rural Ohio where a grandmother and three young boys lost their lives. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal and private philanthropic agencies, Norris has not only saved our heritage but has also trained half of the nation’s photographic preservationists to ensure that heritage endures for future generations.
What is a country without its heritage? That question has been given new urgency now that the White House has released its budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018. This budget sets the total funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities at zero dollars, effectively proposing elimination of the agency. Is that the value we place on our cultural inheritance and its future? Zero? That is the question we must ask ourselves as a nation.
As the Syrian government knows, and as that family in rural Ohio knows, heritage matters. The cultural legacy of a nation is its memory, its heart and its distinct identity. You fight for it; you preserve it; you value it; you invest in it. Every major nation on earth publicly supports its cultural heritage. Without that, how do we maintain our identity as a people? Without our past, how do we know our values or sustain our future?
The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 states, “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” Although its budget is small by federal budget standards and relative to most other nations, NEH has delivered on this and consistently fought above its weight. In 2016, NEH received around $148 million, roughly one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal discretionary budget ($1.2 trillion for fiscal year 2016). Yet its impact on the American quality of life, sense of history and cultural heritage has been priceless.
For 50 years, NEH has been national steward of America’s cultural heritage. The NEH has supported the transcription and reprinting of American authors from Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway. The agency has supported the documentation and histories of a broad spectrum of Americans -- from the editing of the personal papers of seven founding fathers to histories of Midwestern farm families, steel workers in Colorado and coal miners in West Virginia.
NEH supports work in museums and libraries in big cities and in small towns. NEH grants have supported President Lincoln’s cottage in the nation’s capital and the Louis Armstrong House in Flushing, N.Y. NEH funded the single largest, most comprehensive digital archive of Sept. 11, and the Digging Into Data program is expanding the tools, resources and impact of humanities and social science researchers in the Information Age. The Dialogues on the Experiences of War program develops important resources about the experience of war to help both veterans and the general public to understand the experience of military service. All across America, NEH provides support that is not available elsewhere, through state, private or other funding sources.
It takes time to create a collective history. It is far easier to lose one -- through fires, floods, terrorism or politics. Saving a cultural heritage and a heart of the people was the importance of the Syrian army’s recapture of ancient Palmyra. History, identity, heritage and memory -- the heart of a whole people -- are at stake as we contemplate the continuation of the NEH.
Francine Berman is the Edward P. Hamilton Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Cathy N. Davidson is Distinguished Professor of English and director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are both members of the National Council on the Humanities. The views expressed here are their own.
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