National Humanities Conference Highlights Innovative Public Outreach by Learned Societies


A special panel at the 2017 National Humanities Conference in Boston brought together the executive directors of four ACLS member societies to discuss their associations' efforts to increase public engagement with humanities research. The society directors presented a diverse array of initiatives, from a major traveling exhibition and interactive website that explore the fraught topic of race to a US government supported effort to monitor and remediate the destruction of cultural heritage sites in the conflict zones in the Middle East.

The panel made clear that the traditional role of learned societies, to advance scholarship and to support the careers of educators and researchers in their fields, is increasingly coupled with a new mandate: to broaden the understanding of their subjects among the general public.

Ed Liebow of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) presented the association's Race Project, which has produced a traveling exhibition, interactive website, and package of education materials that helps the public understand how race, a relatively recent cultural and political concept, differs from the biological phenomenon of human variation. The success of the multi-platform project led AAA to begin a similar effort, entitled World on the Move, that educates the public and dispel misconceptions about human migration and displacement. 

Pauline Saliga highlighted SAH Archipedia, a growing, interactive digital encyclopedia produced by the Society of Architectural Historians that catalogues the built world with histories, photographs, and maps. Saliga also pointed to SAH's award-winning book series, Buildings of the United States, which offer state-by-state guides to the rich architectural heritage of the United States for a variety of audiences, including community planners, elementary and secondary school classrooms, and the general public. 

Ann Benbow of the Architectural Institute of America described three of the AIA's outreach efforts: Archaeology magazine, a popular and colorful compelling narratives about the human past from every corner of the globe. Edited for a general audience, our news, features, and photo essays employ in-depth reporting, cogent analysis, and vivid storytelling to provide an accurate and often surprisingly intimate look at the record of human existence; the AIA Lecture Program, which each year mounts over 100 free, public lectures by AIA scholars on a range of archaeological topics; and International Archaeology Day, which this year featured over 900 archaeology-themed events for people of all ages in communities across the United States and in 14 other countries.   

Finally, Andrew Vaughn, executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), presented ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives, which are designed to document, protect, and preserve the cultural heritage in conflict zones across the Middle East, with special focus on Syria and Northern Iraq. Through weekly online reports and social media engagement, ASOR provides the public with satellite imagery showing destruction of sites and an up-to-date perspective on the state of cultural heritage in Syria and northern Iraq. 

The discussion and Q&A session that followed the panelists' brief presentations focused on the challenges and opportunities for scholarly associations interested in bringing their members' knowledge and expertise into the public domain. The panelists stressed that dialogue and solid partnerships with community groups and organizations were essential to the success of their work.

Speakers: Ann Benbow, Archaeological Institute of America; Ed Liebow, American Anthropological Association; Pauline Saliga, Society of Architectural Historians; Andrew Vaughn, American Schools of Oriental Research