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Conference on Cultural Heritage Now

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Rutgers University
83 Somerset Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
United States

April 10, 2010

President McCormick, wife Deba, friends. I am honored to join this conference jointly sponsored by Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey Council on the Humanities.

What, I suspect, everyone in this room has in common is that cultural heritage is a topic that carries personal as well as professional significance. In my case, some 3½ decades ago as a fledgling candidate for Congress I found myself on a series of occasions sharing the podium at local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs with a young woman who was our state’s first architectural historian. She would give a talk about what was then the National Trust’s initial “Main Street” program and then I would pontificate about the merits of a balanced budget. Audiences would yawn at my comments, but everyone would come up to the preservationist afterwards and thank her for her interest in their towns.

Not being a total fool, I figured out that people frequently cared more about understanding their heritage than the ephemeral nature of politics. After the case I presented as a candidate was deemed inadequate that year by the electorate, I concluded that I had better exhibit more breadth and imagination if I were to try again.

The first step I took in preparing for the next election, which I assumed would be my final political effort, was to ask the preservationist, whose thoughtfulness everyone seemed to prefer to my superficiality, to share my last name. A year later my alert campaign staff came to the conclusion that the public would rather hear from her than me, so we shot a video of the loveliest young woman in Iowa standing in front of a Victorian structure suggesting that “old buildings imply old values.”

There was no other explanation for a different electoral result than what I came so often in my life to recognize as the “Deba” effect.

Bride-taught, I came to appreciate old things and, accordingly, I could not now be more pleased to head an agency that funds the preservation of our cultural heritage—whether it be a language, a painting, a manuscript, a dress, a building, or a recording.

Protecting and reflecting upon cultural heritage are fundamental elements of NEH’s mission. The enterprise that we and so many in this room have taken on is to understand the impressions and expressions of civilization at various points in time in order to better comprehend and advance civilized values today. As small as our social niche may appear to be, this enterprise has never been more important. A citizenry that does not understand its unique national heritage, as well as foreign cultures, will not benefit from the lessons of history, the stimulus of literature, the values that philosophy can illumine and clarify. It will struggle in a global economy and be susceptible to foreign policy mistakes.

In this context, I have become concerned about increasing breaches in civility in our culture today. How we lead or fail to lead in an interdependent world will be directly related to how we comprehend our own history, values and diversity of experiences and how deeply we come to understand and respect other peoples and other societies.

As preservationists know, one of the most respectful cultural moments in our history came at a signal moment at the end of World War II when a small cadre of American military officers came to be cultural heroes. Subsequently dubbed the “Monuments Men,” they led in cataloguing and returning works of looted art from Nazi hands to countries of origin. It is only in the last dozen years or so that historians and filmmakers—one supported by the NEH—have begun to bring perspective to the unprecedented displacement of cultural artifacts that the Second World War precipitated. Unlike other nations that have too frequently absconded with art treasures as booty of war, the American military wisely recognized that cultural objects belonged to original owners rather than conquering armies. It would have been a public insult of unpardonable dimension to have taken a culturally punitive tack.

As chairman of a House Committee with jurisdiction over banking matters, I held four years of hearings in the mid-1990s on the greatest mass theft in history, a subject which for decades had been historically slighted because Nazi avarice was so overwhelmed by its accompaniment with the greatest mass murder in history. What we unearthed in stories of victims and from perspectives applied by historians and philosophers to the shadowy corners of the Holocaust where greed reined was an axiom about the nature of evil: The genesis of evil may begin with perpetrators of violence and injustice, but complicity too frequently lies beyond the perpetrator with those who cloak themselves in the legitimacy of private business and genteel society. Indifferent to the most unpardonable ramifications of human prejudice, many of the seemingly best and brightest in civilization’s most advanced cultures manipulated with little compunction manifestly oppressive circumstances in furtherance of self-interest.

Our Congressional hearings helped galvanize many European parliaments to hold comparable reviews and led to an international conference which I chaired at the State Department on Holocaust era displacement of art. These hearings and the art conference, as well as the work of an extraordinary Under Secretary of State, Stuart Eizenstat, sparked increased attention not only to the war-time role of international banks and insurance companies where symbolic additional victim compensation packages were developed, but led to the drawing up of new national and international art provenance standards for museums.

It is in the context of a newly challenged America, one that has a mid-20th Century model of noble cultural instincts as well as courageous military sacrifice, that NEH has launched an initiative called Bridging Cultures. The initiative is designed to help American citizens gain a deeper understanding of our own rich and varied cultural heritage, as well as the history and culture of other nations.

There is abundant evidence of the need for a Bridging Cultures initiative. Numerous reports indicate that many Americans lack even cursory knowledge of other nations, not to mention our own history. Such lack of knowledge has serious and ultimately dangerous ramifications: incivility and disharmony at home; misunderstandings detrimental to our national security abroad; and an inability to compete effectively in the global economy. As President Obama said in his address last June to students at Cairo University: “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other, to respect one another; and to seek common ground.”

As a key component of this initiative, I have begun a fifty-state civility tour to try to make clear that coarseness in public manners can jeopardize social cohesion. Civilization requires civility. Words matter. They reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels of our nature, sometimes baser instincts. Stirring anger, for instance can inflame hate and even impel violence. Healing approaches, on the other hand, such as Lincoln’s call in his Second Inaugural for a new direction “with malice toward none,” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.

To some, the connection of “civility” to the humanities may not be immediately apparent. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully reminds us that among the original definitions of civility is “training in the humanities.” Through the study of the humanities, it was believed, citizens could acquire a depth of understanding of history and philosophy that more readily allows civic engagement free of the rancor that often characterizes the expression of opinions lacking cultural context.

The notion of calling on citizens to put themselves respectfully in the shoes of others is the backdrop for the civility tour. Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square. The exchange of ideas and consideration of other viewpoints are central not only to understanding the disciplines that fall under the rubric of the humanities, but to improving the human condition.

Part of the breakdown in civility can be attributed to the challenging economic environment that the country is weathering. The traumatic irony that government at all levels faces is that demand for social programs increases in trying economic times—i.e., when the governmental resource base weakens. This is as true for the programs that provide perspective and uplift for citizens as those that provide other basics. Indeed, hard times have increased demand and utilization of many cultural institutions at the same time resource capacities have been reduced.

There is historical precedent for consideration of the humanities during other difficult periods in American history. In the middle of our country’s most challenging conflict, President Lincoln in 1862 signed the Morrill Act establishing land grant universities in every state in the union. Likewise, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt foresaw that support for the humanities and the arts—via the WPA, the Federal Writers’ Project, and other federal programs—would be a unifying act, providing work for some and enlightenment for all.

The universe of individuals working in institutions engaged in the humanities in the United States today is significant. The nation’s 4,400 institutions of higher learning employ approximately 125,000 humanities faculty who teach millions of students. An additional 3.7 million teachers—many, if not most, teaching humanities subjects—are hard at work teaching the millions of school children who attend the more than 127,000 K-12 schools in this country. Just as importantly, America’s 17,500 museums and historical societies, which each year greet 2.3 million visitors per day, form the cultural backbone of cities and towns across the country. Collectively, these humanities institutions, and the practitioners they employ, form a critical part of the American economy.

A complicating trauma in the humanities today is the recent loss of asset value of the endowments of many colleges, universities, museums, libraries, historical societies, archives, and the philanthropic organizations that support them. In addition, state support of higher education and cultural endeavors has precipitously declined in most states. And at the institutional level there has been a general erosion of education dollars away from areas of inquiry like history, literature, languages, and philosophy that provide context and perspective to issues that confront the nation and individual citizens.

Even though globalization requires cross-cultural knowledge, respectful understanding of peoples and their problems, and such basics as the ability to speak other languages, colleges and universities are increasingly emphasizing what some consider more intensively job relevant studies. Hence as modest as our budget is, the role of the NEH in supporting humanities research and humanities disciplines is increasingly critical.

For example, more than half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken are in danger of extinction. Documenting Endangered Languages, a joint program with the National Science Foundation, is helping to preserve these dying languages by funding fieldwork and the creation of lexicons, grammars, and databases. One example of this effort is the Klallam Dictionary and Electronic Text Archive, which is documenting Salishan, a Native American language spoken in Washington state.

Other grants are preserving the sounds and sights of culture. Ten thousand 45-rpm records in UCLA’s Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings are being digitized and placed on the web. Twenty-six hundred hours of Radio Afghanistan analog tapes created from 1960 to 1980 are being cataloged and digitized.

Likewise, the Carnegie Museum of Art is mounting a searchable online database of 80,000 photographs by African-American photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who chronicled the black experience for the Pittsburgh Courier from 1966 to 1975.

And the Frick Collection is digitizing 15,000 large-format black-and-white glass plate and acetate negatives, made between 1922 and 1967. The negatives, which are falling victim to the ravages of time, document works of art in private homes and small public collections. In some instances, the negatives are the only extant images of works that have been subsequently lost, stolen, or destroyed.

This year, NEH is celebrating the tenth anniversary of our Preservation Assistance Grants program. These grants help small museums, libraries, and archives bring in the expertise they need to craft a long-term preservation plan, buy equipment vital to preserving their collections, or provide staff with essential training. This program is an example of how a small grant can make a big difference in the future of an institution.

The programs just mentioned focus on preservation and access, but cultural heritage also involves scholarship and education. Some of you might have had the chance to visit the “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art” exhibition at the Asia Society in New York City. The exhibition, which runs through June 10, looks at the influence of Buddhist pilgrimage—both physical and mental—on Asian art over the past two millennia. Or you might have caught The Buddha, which aired this week on PBS. Directed by David Grubin and narrated by Richard Gere, the film examines the man, the religion, and its influence on contemporary life.

In addition to supporting a review of Buddha, who was born a prince, initially led a life of indulgence and then became an ascetic two and a half millennia ago, we also have helped support a wondrous exhibition currently at the New York Historical Society of an aspect of the life of one of our greatest secular icons—a President born in a log cabin—and his political involvement in New York politics a century and a half ago.

The exhibition includes an unusual oil portrait of Lincoln by Edward Hicks (not the better known Pennsylvania folk artist with the same name) and a small group of photographs related to the 1860 presidential election. Two are particularly searing: one, a glimpse of a rally of 30,000 so-called “Brooklyn Soporifics” who opposed Lincoln; the other, a snapshot of brown-clad marchers carrying lanterns called the “Wide Awakes” who championed Lincoln and his cause.

It would be unfair to make philosophical analogies between the “Soporifics” and the “Wide Awakes” to the tea and coffee parties today. What is relevant is that spontaneous citizen activism is not new in American history. And what is analogous is that media innovations have precedents. By the time of Lincoln’s presidency, newspapers had begun to experiment with more pictorial images and several New York papers had come to enjoy a national political audience with regional reporters and daily distribution in Washington, D.C.

Motivations are never precisely clear or the same for participants in political movements like the tea and coffee parties. But what appears to motivate citizens to join political rallies of one kind or another today ranges from concern for social values to job losses to government bail-outs to levels of public spending to public manners, some preferring spunky outbursts and some a lower key, more respectful dialogue.

At a time of a 20 percent or more decline in real asset values of America and American families, many citizens are disappointed with government and can identify with aspects of new political movements. The challenge for public officials is to recognize the legitimacy of public angst and for citizens to come to grips with reality within a framework of our country’s traditional values and ideals.

Reality is that public confidence in government has waned over the past several decades in no small part because of increasing systemic problems in our political system. The dominance of money considerations in campaigns, exacerbated by the recent Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, and the trend of both parties to choose candidates at the philosophical, sometimes ideological, edges make governance a rambunctious art, prone to rapid pendulum swings.

It is always difficult and usually misguided to project electoral results. Yet if this spring’s winds are maintained, it would appear that a more closely divided Congress is likely to come into being after this fall’s election.

The result that matters most is not which party may come to be in the majority, but whether the two parties can work together for the common good in the wake of divisive campaigns.

There is a question whether the 2010 mid-term election will have analogies to 1994. An even bigger question is whether 2011 will be a repeat of 1995 when our national governance structure was tested with brief government shut-downs, and whether states will have similar traumas in reaching budgeting consensus.

A greater problem existed during Lincoln’s first term, when he was challenged in the North by some for being too slow to advance emancipation, by others for being obsessively anti-slavery, and by “states’ rights” advocates who considered him capriciously nationalistic for advancing a draft and wanting to deny governors, especially a partisan foe in New York, control over militias drawn from their states.

Challenging times have brought confused values. Samuel F.B. Morse, for instance, stood out in the 19th Century as a seemingly Renaissance man—an inventor, painter and founder of the National Academy of Design—but in politics he might be considered a regressive intolerant, advocating nativist, anti-Catholic, pro-slavery causes. A prominent New York leader of a multi-state, anti-Lincoln movement known as the “copperheads,” he argued in 1862 that “It may be necessary to destroy the Administration to preserve the Government.”

In the middle of our most traumatic war, Morse’s logic was brazenly dangerous. It is similarly un-compelling today.

Citizens should be expected to disagree vigorously with each other and take their disagreements to the ballot box. But after the election we all have a vested interest that a government of, by, and for the people doesn’t implode. Nihilism is not the American way.

Thank you.