Executive Director’s Message

From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

For the past six years, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has provided grants to historical organizations and cultural institutions throughout the Commonwealth for original research, exhibition develop­ment and design, collections management, feasibility stud­ies and publications. A special matching grants program also provides county historical societies with operating sup­port. More than $2,920,000 in grants to nearly 500 recipients have allowed Pennsylvania’s history community to fulfill basic institutional goals, as well as to expand in many critical areas.

Naturally, it is gratifying to see the positive impact of this fledgling grants program, but I have been struck by two some­what contradictory reactions when assessing our program. First, it is clear that we should be supporting more projects and at higher levels of fund­ing. The appropriation for such grants could afford to grow by at least 40 percent, and we would be able to ap­prove only a little more than half of the proposals. Every professional peer review panel that meets annually to con­sider applications is forced to reduce funding for worthy projects – and, in many cases, eliminate worthwhile projects because of a lack of funding. Inevitably, the smaller organi­zations lose in this highly competitive process since they lack experienced staff to de­velop successful grant pro­posals. Even the innovative efforts of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations to assist potential grant recipients cannot compensate for the basic funding shortfall.

My second response is to wonder if Pennsylvania’s his­tory community – even with increased funding – is ready and willing to accept a broader challenge to stimulate public thinking and discussion about historical issues. Rarely do we receive a proposal that sug­gests breaking new ground or taking chances in undertaking research, exhibits or public programming. Controversial issues, such as social and economic issues, are avoided. Projects such as as the Erie County Historical Society’s oral history program involving migrant workers or the Histor­ical Society of Western Penn­sylvania’s exhibition devoted to the steel mill community of Homestead have solicited­ – and received – Commission support, but they are truly exceptions. It appears that public historians in Pennsylva­nia are content to not tackle controversial subjects for fear of provoking constituents or offending audiences.

For the last year, a national debate focusing on public funding for the arts and hu­manities has raised the issue of whether funding should sup­port controversial topics. I believe that both funding agencies and grantees have been far too cautious in identi­fying and selecting projects. Furthermore, the public ex­pects to be challenged intellec­tually and emotionally by museums, just as they are by many forms of mass entertain­ment and education, including movies, television, dance, music and literature. It is heartening to know that even Disneyworld acknowledges conflicts and controversies in American history through its exhibits.

A connection does exist between funding levels and the content of the programs the Commission supports. Until museums take the lead in stimulating public debate by addressing topics of immediate concern, there will be little, if any, demand by our constitu­ents for a dramatic increase in funding. There is no question that our grants program has had a positive impact on the institutions which received support. But a larger, more crucial question looms: What kind of impact are those insti­tutions having upon their communities?

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director