Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 3

by Eleesha Blackwell

Eleesha at the U.S. Presidential Inaugural Parade this past January.

Eleesha at the U.S. Presidential Inaugural Parade this past January.

As my time as an intern at the National Endowment for the Humanities comes to a close, I realize I made a fantastic decision in applying here.  When the NEH internship announcement came to my inbox, I had fulfilled the internship requirement for my degree and already had a full course load.  But as I read the internship description, I remember thinking that I had always imagined that I might end up at the NEH someday—and maybe that time was now.  So despite having a full schedule and graduation requirements that I needed to complete, I decided to work at NEH. I know now that it’s a wonderful institution, so I couldn’t be happier about my decision.

I had already done six internships when I came to NEH. In my previous internships I repaired Roman ceramics in Portugal, wrote exhibition text for a museum in Houston, and helped rehouse hundreds of historic objects at the National Air and Space Museum.  I had no idea what to expect when I began work at NEH. All I knew was that for the first time I wouldn’t be handling objects in a museum. Instead I would be assisting in making a big impact on museums and other humanities institutions, which was really exciting.

On my first day at the NEH each of the interns was tasked with a work plan designed to take advantage of our previous experience and skills, so as to help achieve the goal of the office. I was going to help the Office of Congressional Affairs by developing a more effective outreach to Congress and congressional staff. This was perfect for me, as I had previous experience in outreach and recruiting for my university. When I started, I was given a short outline of what the office was currently doing and how a typical meeting with congressional staff went. I immediately understood that the meetings with congressional staff would be short. I also realized that the reading materials we handed out would probably be what would stick—plus it would give us something to reference during meetings. So I took it upon myself to design and create engaging and informative handouts. I’m proud of the handouts that I created, such as fact sheets, informational handouts, and program-specific highlights. Best of all, I got to use my creativity and my design skills.

In addition to working on strategy in the office, I also met with members of Congress, whom I introduced to the NEH. In the meetings I highlighted one of our newer programs: a series of four films about civil rights called Created Equal. Capitol Hill was a completely different environment for me, but I caught on quick.  By the last few meetings, my quick description of NEH (my “elevator pitch”) seemed almost second nature. I was able to ad lib and add facts about interesting programs I had heard about. I also felt comfortable praising an organization I had grown to truly care about.

Another great part of the internship was getting to meet with the various program offices within the agency. As a Museum Studies graduate student, I had heard about the NEH in almost all of my classes and had even written two mock grant proposals. What I didn’t know was how the NEH works, how it gets its federal money, the effort that program officers put into their work, and the vast impact the agency makes on institutions across America. During lunches I attended, program officers and assistants would talk about the great things each of their divisions was doing—in particular the great work their grants were doing for the nation. I was amazed to hear about the educational programs that were being hosted by Ivy League schools, community colleges and tribal colleges. I was enamored with the work of the Office of Digital Humanities, whose grants have produced amazing apps (several of which I’ve downloaded). I also came to love the great work done by the Division of Preservation and Access. Each meeting made me more passionate about the field and more excited to share what I had learned with anyone who would listen.

As much as I enjoyed meeting with congressional staff and developing strategy, all my time wasn’t spent behind a desk—there was a ton of fun things, too! The other interns and the NEH staff I worked with were absolutely fantastic, and we often found ourselves laughing together in the office. Courtney, our director, was a very supportive boss who gave me great advice when I got some bad news while waiting to hear from schools to which I’d applied for my second masters. I also attended some interesting briefings at the Capitol and the Executive Office Building, was within arm’s reach of Martin Scorsese at the 42nd Jefferson Lecture, and was fortunate enough to meet some of the fantastic women who made up the panel at the screening of the NEH-funded film, No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII.

Had you told me a year ago that I would find myself awake at 2 AM on a weeknight watching a film called The Dust Bowl about America’s worst man-made ecological disaster, I would not have believed you. But in fact, you would’ve been right.  During my time as an intern, I grew to love everything the NEH stands for and works to promote. I now find myself in constant awe of the great work that NEH grants produce— even the films that air on PBS in the early morning hours.

Eleesha Blackwell (as of today!) has a MA in Museum Studies from the George Washington University. She holds a BA in Anthropology from Texas A&M University and will be pursuing a Masters of Public Service Administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M this fall. A native Texan, she enjoys Fightin’ Texas Aggie football, wildflower season, barbeque, iced tea, and everything vintage. She plans to pursue a career in community-based arts and humanities work.

Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 2

by Kevin Donnelly

Kevin, pictured left, enjoying the company of one of his fraternity brothers after receiving the President's Cup for best Greek organization on campus.

Kevin, pictured left, enjoying the company of one of his fraternity brothers after receiving the President’s Cup for best Greek organization on campus.

As my internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the experience as a whole. This being my first internship experience, I really had no idea what to expect. I had heard all of the classic intern horror stories: Scurrying to get coffee, make copies, answer phones, respond to emails, the monotony goes on. I was determined that my internship experience was not going to be like that, so when my program coordinator at the University of Maryland sent out an email about an internship opportunity in the NEH’s Office of White House and Congressional Affairs, I took immediate interest. Being a government and politics major, an internship at a federal agency seemed like the perfect match for me. Moreover, working in a Congressional affairs office presented me with the opportunity to interact with policymakers on the hill, something I sought from an internship from the beginning. To say my curiosity was piqued is an understatement, and the fact that I didn’t even know what the National Endowment for the Humanities did wasn’t going to stop me for trying to become a part of it.

Needless to say, when I was offered an intern position at the NEH I was thrilled. Arriving in the Old Post Office Pavilion for the first time was quite an experience, one I would come to appreciate as time went on. The tourist-filled food court and bombastic lunchtime performances gave the old place a unique character I won’t soon forget. The first meeting I had with the three C’s (All three women I worked with had names beginning with C) and my fellow interns demonstrated to me that this office was somewhere I wanted to be. Even though I came into the internship wary of what might be I immediately felt welcomed by colleagues and the staff. Each of us interns was assigned to a specific task, mine being the development of content for reports highlighting how the NEH serves certain constituencies. Writing has always been a passion of mine, and it has played a huge role in my academic career. I appreciated being given an assignment that took advantage of my existing skills while simultaneously teaching me new ones.  In looking up grants, images, and other data for each report, I was able to enhance my research skills and utilize methods of inquiry previously unavailable to me. Often I had to maintain email correspondences with program directors, museum curators, artists, and nonprofit staff, and I enjoyed the opportunity to fine tune my professional communication skills. I was also able to learn so much about how NEH programs benefit people across the nation. From family literacy programs to veteran-related projects, the NEH funds initiatives serving every demographic in all of the humanities fields. In researching the NEH’s broad spectrum of grants I gained a better understanding of the agency’s immense purview and impact.

I was also responsible for setting up meetings with the offices of freshmen members of Congress, a task I had looked forward to since I arrived in the Office of White House and Congressional Affairs. Don’t worry – it’s not that I actually enjoy the logistics of setting up meetings, I’m not crazy – but I do support what the NEH does and jumped on the opportunity to spread the word on Capitol Hill. Because I potentially want to pursue a career in public service it was especially interesting to experience a Hill meeting firsthand. Though I’m not always the most organized person, scheduling meetings on the Hill taught me respect for an organized schedule, an invaluable skill if I want to succeed in the future.

I was also fortunate enough to have some great times thanks to my colleagues and the agency in general. Being able to attend the 42nd Jefferson Lecture featuring Martin Scorsese was a truly enlightening privilege, and one I won’t soon forget. Seeing the reports I had worked on for three months come to life before my eyes was totally gratifying. Covering our Director’s office in googly eyes on April Fool’s Day on the other hand was 100 percent fun. I can safely say that all of the internship myths about fetching coffee or answering phones did not apply to my experience at the NEH, which provided me the best of both worlds.

I have really found a place in my heart for the NEH. I’m so thankful that I was able to better myself and the agency, and am even more appreciative to gain the knowledge that I have. Before interning at the NEH I barely knew what the humanities were. Now I’m left with a deep and lasting respect for the humanities that will stay with me forever. I’ll miss the NEH and I’m so happy knowing that I’ve made lasting relationships with great people at a great agency. Thank you all!

Kevin Donnelly is working towards his Bachelors of Arts in Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. He is planning to pursue a master in Public Policy, focusing either on International Economic Policy or Education Policy. Originally from Rockville, MD, Kevin is a local who loves D.C. but resents taking it for granted. He loves cars and hopes to one day have a garage the size of Jay Leno’s. He plans on graduating in May of 2016 and pursuing a career in public policy.

Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 1

by Katherine Kipp

Katherine posing with a very photogenic camel in India, 2011. After her NEH internship ends, Katherine will head back to India for a six-week trip.

Katherine posing with a very photogenic camel in India, 2011. After her NEH internship ends, Katherine will head back to India for a six-week trip.

As I approach the end of my internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities, it occurs to me that the internship’s end coincides with my fourth year in graduate school, equaling the amount of time I spent as an undergrad. By the time I graduate with my Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing next May, I will have spent more time in graduate school than as an undergraduate.

It also occurs to me that my time at NEH, while my third time working as an intern, comes after a five-year gap from my last internship. Coincidentally, my last internship was also in D.C., when I was studying at the Washington Journalism Center for a semester.

I entered the NEH internship with really no idea of what to expect. Would I be stapling papers? Making coffee? Hailing taxis? My last two internships had been at newspapers, and I had spent most of my time interviewing, transcribing interviews, and turning interviews into stories.

Plus, up until the point I received an email from the Academic Coordinator in my Master’s program, advertising the internship, I had never heard of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I wasn’t even completely sure what the humanities were, and I’m an English major three times over! All I knew for sure was that my internship would be in the Office of White House and Congressional Affairs, the three women I would be working with all had names that start with a “C,” and the offices are located in the Old Post Office Pavilion, floors above where hordes of middle schoolers gather to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and cookies during their school trips to Washington, D.C.

I learned quickly that I, and my fellow interns, would all be assigned specific tasks to work on. Each task made use of a particular skillset of ours that we were already bringing to the table, and pushed us to expand that skillset and apply it to our day-to-day work at the NEH. I was charged to develop and write material for the new Congressional Affairs blog. I’ve been writing in some form or fashion since 2nd grade. This interest of mine has taken me from writing for my college’s newspaper, to writing short stories for local competitions, to freelancing for small-town newspapers, and, most recently, to obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing.

Even though writing the blog would allow me to use part of a skillset I’m comfortable with, I was tasked with developing material for blog posts in a field I was mostly unfamiliar with just a few months ago. Luckily, I work with some amazing people (not just in my office, but the whole of NEH) who were happy to share ideas for potential blog posts. Through this, I was able to learn about the Division of Education Programs’ Summer Institutes, the many documentaries and radio shows Public Programs has funded, and the ways people and institutions are combining humanities and technology to provide updated and innovative ideas. So, while I was writing blog posts informing congressional staff members and constituents about the amazing contributions NEH has made and continues to make to the humanities world, I was also able to truly understand the great impact NEH has had on society—and it was right underneath my nose the whole time. I even went so far as to research NEH-funded programs and events in my hometown: there have been 36, dating back all the way to the early 1980s!

In addition to detailing the good work NEH does on our blog, I was able to do so in person as well through visits with the staff of freshmen members of Congress. Of all the experiences I have had since beginning my time at the NEH, those meetings were the most unexpected for me. I had not been seeking out a Congressional affairs position, so meeting with Congressional staff on a regular basis was a pleasant surprise. I’m glad to be able to communicate the good work NEH does to congressional staff members, knowing they’ll pass the message along to fellow employees and constituents in their districts.

And then there was the fun stuff! I became friends with my two fellow interns, people I probably would never have met otherwise, and with them (and a little help from our advisors as well) covered our Director’s office in googly eyes for April Fool’s Day. I attended the 42nd Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities, featuring Martin Scorsese, and an event centered on the NEH-funded documentary No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII, featuring Soledad O’Brien. I trekked to the Executive Office Building for a meeting and came within inches of meeting Joe Biden. (Kidding—I just like to imagine that he was there.) From days with special events like the White House briefing to trekking through mazes of 8th graders on my way to grab Indian food, working at the NEH was always an adventure.

But the biggest skill I gained was a newfound respect for the humanities, an educated understanding of what NEH does, and admiration for the people who work every day to make the NEH great. I will miss this place once I’m gone!

Katherine Kipp is working toward her Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing at the University of Maryland. She has a MA in English from Southeast Missouri State University (Cape Girardeau, MO), a BA in English and Journalism from Union University (Jackson, Tenn.), and worked for several years as a freelance journalist. A Tennessean at heart, even though she lost the accent (or never had it to begin with), she loves drinking coffee, smelling old books, running, and, obviously, writing. She plans on graduating in the spring of 2014 and pursuing a career in education.

National Student Poets Program: High School Poets Serve as Literary Ambassadors to Poetry

In continued celebration of National Poetry Month, here is an exclusive interview with the founder of the National Student Poets Program (NSPP), which awards the country’s highest honor for young poets. Currently in its first year, the NSPP will annually honor five poets selected from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards national medalists. The awardees will serve as literary ambassadors for poetry. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) partnered with the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers to make the NSPP possible. Below, founder Olivia Morgan gives us insight into the NSPP’s creation and purpose.

NEH: How did you get involved with the National Student Poets Program?

MORGAN: I founded the NSPP. My professional work centers on women and girls, and when I was appointed to the PCAH I really wanted to do something with that honor. I felt called to engage youth in the work of the committee, and the PCAH has been really focused on the impact of arts education on kids in schools. Research shows that students engaged in school through the arts have better attendance, have better performance, better likelihood of graduation. So I thought about how we could do that in a way that doesn’t require great resources, and the amazing thing about poetry, or writing of any kind—you don’t need musical instruments, you don’t technology, it’s just a pen and paper. So anybody could do it, and it could translate into a life skill that would benefit you for a lifetime: that ability to recognize something, to observe the world in which you’re living and communicate it, whether to yourself or others.

From its inception, the program has had two goals: to recognize the value of the existing talent of our most dedicated teen poets and then to use their unique voices and experience to reach students and whole communities that don’t already have outlets and programs and pipelines to national support and recognition. Because what we realized in developing the program, the students that by and large are already writing poetry, they have great resources. Not all, some of them will say it was their school program that brought them to poetry, and others will say there was no poetry in their school, there were community programs. Or some of them will say it wasn’t their school or community, it was their parents. But the people I carried with me in my mind through the development of the program—I had this visual image of teens that have notebooks cramped with writing, but they’ve never shared it with anyone. They have these colorful images in their brain, but they’ve never yet put pen to paper, or their fingers to the keyboard to let them take shape on the page. We really want to reach those students, so their ideas have an outlet, so they learn the craft of writing and expression. And our culture is made more relevant and complete with the addition of their perspective.

From right to left: Susan Hildreth IMLS, Olivia Morgan PCAH, Mary Schmidt Campbell PCAH vice chair, NSPP Claire Lee, NSPP Luisa Banchoff, NSPP Natalie Richardson, NSPP Lylla Younes, Jon Carson, Margo Lion PCAH Chair, NSPP Miles Hewitt, Ami Aronson, Bernstein Foundation, Virginia McEnerney, Alliance Young Artists & Writers.

From right to left: Susan Hildreth IMLS, Olivia Morgan PCAH, Mary Schmidt Campbell PCAH vice chair, NSPP Claire Lee, NSPP Luisa Banchoff, NSPP Natalie Richardson, NSPP Lylla Younes, Jon Carson, Margo Lion PCAH Chair, NSPP Miles Hewitt, Ami Aronson, Bernstein Foundation, Virginia McEnerney, Alliance Young Artists & Writers. Courtesy of the PCAH.

NEH: What was the process in getting the program underway?

MORGAN: It was a long process. We started with a series of workshops with 826 DC. 826 was founded by the novelist Dave Eggers in San Francisco, and they now have programs around the country. They had literally just opened a storefront in Washington, D.C. in Mt. Pleasant, called the Museum of Unnatural History. In the back, there’s a writing workshop. It’s where teens from anywhere in the city can come for help with their homework, with writing, and they also hold writing workshops. Together with 826DC we put together a three-month series of workshops with students from four area schools. Students from each of those schools came every Wednesday night, and we did a poetry workshop. It was led by a poet-professor from Georgetown University, Carolyn Forche, and Kyle Dargen from American University; they put together the curriculum and they would lead the workshop, and other local poets would also come on Wednesday and help lead the classes.

So we did this workshop for months and ended with a book of their poems that culminated in a reading at the Library of Congress. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came, and Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and Washington poets. The poets came and talked to these kids about how they came to be poets, and what that life looks like and what their inspiration is. Two of our student poets from 826DC read and just blew them away. It was such an amazing, heartfelt experience, they just poured themselves out. It was so moving.

Then we worked with the White House and put together a poetry workshop in the State Room, so we got our students from 826DC, and we contacted similar programs around the country and invited them to bring their students. We had 80-100 students from writing programs around the country in the State Room for a workshop with Billy Collins and several other poets. It was good to be recognized for the time they spent learning a craft, and honing their skill as writers. One of the students who read that evening in the East Room—the White House had a formal poetry reading that night—was a Scholastic Award Winner, and I had spent some time with her on the phone, inviting her to perform at the White House. Then when she nearly fainted, I was working with her to prepare to read. This is someone who had won a poetry award, but she had never read her poetry; it had never existed except in her mind and on the page, so we worked on how she was going to vocalize it, and she pulled it off. It was amazing.

I got a letter form her mother afterward thanking me and saying it had changed her daughter’s life because she now saw herself as a writer—that was her identity, and she had so much more confidence. That really inspired me to see the NSPP through. It felt like a good indication that we were on to something. We partnered with the Scholastic Awards, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers that oversees the awards. They already had a system in place, where they get over 8,000 submissions from student poets every year. That was the toughest nut to crack, looking for that partner. Poetry out Loud is a great model, but we knew we didn’t have the same resources as them. So partnering with the Alliance—the light bulb went on, because they already had the system in place.

So what we’re able to do: they get their submissions, and then they send to us their top winners—their Gold and Silver winners—and we decided not to have one national student poet, but to have five, and make it regional. First of all, being the only national awardee was a lot to put on the shoulders of a 16-year-old. Secondly, we didn’t want it to be just a title, but for it to be an active position and for the awardees to be engaged with their communities. We wanted to spread that across the country. We do it regionally, and we took the scholastic winners and found five just extraordinary young poets for our first class of NSPP awardees. And they are amazing, they’re so earnest and talented and excited about the opportunity. They come from all over the country, and all different backgrounds. From a military family to NYC to rural Louisiana—just all over the place. We didn’t choose them based on their geography. We assembled the talent into five regions and selected a winner from each region. Their charge had been to look for communities where there isn’t already a flourishing poetry scene and to bring it there.

I have to say, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, along with the Alliance, have been equal partners with this. And the Institute really gave us a home for this. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. And the Library of Congress has been extraordinarily supportive.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the 2012 National Student Poets, Luisa Banchoff, Natalie Richardson, Claire Lee, Lylla Younes and Miles Hewitt in the Diplomatic Room of the White House following a Christmas holiday reception, Dec. 14, 2012. The First Lady is an Honorary Chairman for the PCAH. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson. Courtesy of NSPP's Facebook page.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the 2012 National Student Poets, Luisa Banchoff, Natalie Richardson, Claire Lee, Lylla Younes and Miles Hewitt in the Diplomatic Room of the White House following a Christmas holiday reception, Dec. 14, 2012. The First Lady is an Honorary Chairman for the PCAH. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson. Courtesy of NSPP’s Facebook page.

NEH: How do you see this award compared to the Poet Laureate program? Does it stem from the same idea?

MORGAN: Well, certainly the Poet Laureate program was a model, but it’s very different. That’s recognizing someone for remarkable contributions they have made and continue to make to American culture. What the NSPP is doing is really encouraging students—recognizing students who are already writing—and valuing that work, and really looking for the finest student writers. It then engages these young writers in the work of finding other students who aren’t yet writing. The awardees have gotten amazing experiences. They were invited to the Dodge Poetry Festival, which is the largest poetry festival in North America, which had never had high school students read before. All of them are doing community projects as part of their service. In April each of them participates in a National Poetry Month event in their region. Then they also take on a service project to bring poetry to a community that doesn’t already have an outlet. They’ve done that in totally different ways.

For more on the NSPP’s individual work and service, please return to the blog Friday for a post about the five NSPP awardees.

These young poets now realize that they have a responsibility. They have a gift, and resources are being invested in it. So they have to encourage others to develop their gifts as well. They each have organized one community service event somewhere in their region. The students are so different, and their regions are so different, the projects have taken on different characteristics.

NEH: Other than the connection to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, were there other deciding factors to give this award to high school students instead of college students?

MORGAN: We were really focused on K-12 education, and helping students at that age level, and actually the award only goes to 9-11 graders. The reason for that is we wanted our Ambassadors to still be in high school. We’re in the process of selecting 2013-2014’s winners now, because the Scholastic awards were given in March, so we know who the top poets were this year. The new NSPP’s will begin in the Fall of 2013, and the award ceremony takes place during the National Book Festival this coming September. That kicks off their year of service. We’ll do workshops with them, with the new NSPP awardees, around that weekend, when they’re inaugurated. So that they’re comfortable on the stage, and they understand the opportunities and obligations of their roles, and then they do their first reading on the mall. We wanted the students to still be in high school because we thought they’d have the most credibility with their peers, and again this comes back to the idea that the more engaged students are in their academic work, the more likely they are to stay in school and graduate. It wouldn’t be possible without the Library of Congress, they put it all together, the Center for the Book and the Poetry and Literature Center.

NEH: How do you see this award affecting these students as they graduate high school and move toward college?

MORGAN: I’m sure it has given them respect for themselves as writers, and certainly an understanding that, as they have this talent, and these resources have been invested in them, with that opportunity comes an obligation. I go back to the idea that artists and writers really add to the fabric of their communities. In this case, we were asking them to work with their peers, with other students, and help them hone their own writing skills and see the benefits of written expression. I hope they will take that forward in their lives. They are talented writers, and with that talent there’s some obligation to contribute to the greater good.

Olivia Morgan is the managing editor of the Shriver Report and the founder of the NSPP. Morgan is a Private Member of the PCAH.

Please visit our blog again next Tuesday (April 30) to learn more about the five NSPP awardees.

Happy Earth Day!

Throughout the year, the NEH funds libraries, colleges, and media programs that often have an environment focus. In honor of Earth day, here are two recent projects that promoted the spirit of preservation in different ways.

John Muir Documentary

The documentary John Muir in the New World takes a brilliant and in-depth look at one of America’s first environmentalists, John Muir. Narrated by Jane Alexander, Academy Award-winning actress and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, the film features Muir’s personal journal entries as well as interviews with historians dedicated to studying his legacy.

The NEH’s Division of Public Programs funded the documentary, which aired on PBS on Earth Day in 2011 and is still available on The film went on to be featured at D.C.’s 2012 Environmental Film Festival. It is a beautiful and insightful homage to one of the founders of America’s national parks system.

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John Muir as portrayed by Howard Weamer.
Photo courtesy of Bob Roney, Global Village Media.

 Eco-Friendly Museum

Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library holds an unparalleled collection of American antiques from as early as the seventeenth century. Its sprawling grounds bloom all year, thanks to founder Henry du Pont, who wished to present nature as a work of art. After receiving a Cultural Heritage grant from the NEH, the Museum now protects its collection with updated, energy efficient heating and cooling systems.

The Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections allows museums such as Winterthur to improve the preservation of their collections and save on energy costs. Museum directors can then put money towards better programming and continued research. Visitors benefit from the richer exhibits and the environment benefits from lowered energy use.

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An example of the gorgeous artifacts on display at Winterthur Museum.
Photo courtesy of

Martin Scorsese: Film Preservation and the Importance of Cinema

The NEH awarded film director Martin Scorsese with the Jefferson Lecture this year, the highest honor the federal government gives for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. On April 1st, Scorsese gave his lecture to a full audience at the Kennedy Center. Titled “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” Scorsese spoke about the history of cinema and the movies that first inspired his love of film.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

History of the Jefferson Lecture

The award, although given annually since 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has never before been received by a filmmaker. NEH Chairman Jim Leach commented on this notable decision in his opening remarks, and mentioned the increasing importance of digital humanities, and the need to acknowledge the groundbreaking and influential work of film-making.

Scorsese’s Remarks

Scorsese began his lecture with images from cinema’s infancy, including Lumières’ train footage and Thomas Edison’s video of  two cats “boxing.” He also discussed the contributions of filmmakers such as Georges Méliès, D. W. Griffith, and Stanley Kubrick. With humor and a clear gift for storytelling, Scorsese regaled the “Golden Age” of the 1950s film industry and spoke on the challenges of the 21st century.

Today’s Film Industry

Scorsese cautioned his audience that today, classical cinema is at odds with the great influx of available media; we are “overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere.” In another quote, Scorsese reiterated his point:  “We’re face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

The Importance of Preservation

Just as Chairman Leach encouraged digital humanities projects, Scorsese stressed the significance of preserving films. As Chairman of the World Cinema Foundation and Director of The Film Foundation, he has been instrumental in helping restore and preserve dozens of films. His lecture clearly reflected his dedication to this endeavor: “We need to say to ourselves that the moment has come, when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.” Like books, films have the ability to “tell us who we are.”

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Photo courtesy of NIcholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

For those interested in hearing the lecture in its entirety, it is available courtesy of the NEH on its website.

Happy April Fools’ Day!

April Fools’ Day  – though not a national holiday – has long been synonymous with practical jokes and hoaxes. One of the earliest mentions of a foolish April 1st is in the “Nun Priest’s Tale” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the spirit of April Fools’ Day, here are a few NEH projects that celebrated authors known for their trickster characters.

Shakespeare Uncovered

 “Shakespeare Uncovered,” is a six-episode series that takes a fresh approach at the study of Shakespeare by combining a close look at Elizabethan England with interviews and performance clips from the passionate actors inspired by Shakespeare’s plays today. The show received an America’s Media Makers production grant from the NEH, and was positively reviewed by both the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

The hour-long segments focus on the multitude of stories behind the production of Shakespeare’s works and feature actors such as Jeremy Irons, Jude Law, and Ethan Hawke. Funded by the Division of Public Programs, “Shakespeare Uncovered” also includs opinions and stories from local community productions. Full episodes are available on the show’s website, as are accompanying classroom materials.

Jeremy Irons talks shop at the Globe with Dominic Dromgoole.

Jeremy Irons talks shop at the Globe with Dominic Dromgoole.
Photo courtesy of Alex Brenner and NEH.

The Mark Twain Project

Two of America’s favorite young tricksters – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – have been revered for decades through The Mark Twain Project. Started in the 1960s, the Project is an ongoing initiative to publish the definitive editions of Twain’s fiction, letters, and journalism. In the over forty years since its inception, the NEH has supported the Project through multiple grants from the Division of Research Programs.

To date, The Mark Twain Project has published 37 volumes of Twain text, and the complete first volume of Twain’s autobiography is now available online. As the project continues to expand online, it will offer wider access to Twain’s texts, editors’ notes, and newly discovered letters until there is a fully annotated digital edition of everything Mark Twain ever wrote.

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of NEH.

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of NEH.

A Chaucer Seminar

Last summer, Eastern Illinois University held a four-week seminar at the University of London centered on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Funded by the Division of Education Programs, the seminar explored the relevance of Chaucer’s ideas on artistry, philosophy, and emotion to modern society.

NEH 2012

Photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois University.

No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII

This month, NYU’s DC campus will be celebrating Women’s History Month with a screening of a documentary funded by the NEH: No Job for a Woman.

The documentary – written, directed, and produced by Michele Midori Fillion – follows three female reporters during World War II and their efforts to gain access to stories on the front lines. Dickey Chapelle, Ruth Cowan, and Martha Gellhorn all refused to agree with the common opinion that women were incapable of writing about the violence of the war, and consequently their determination led them where few women had gone before.

Female war correspondents during World War II.

Female war correspondents during World War II.

The Stories of Female Story-tellers

Dickey Chapelle convinced a press officer that her “woman’s angle” required photographs of combat from the front lines. Ruth Cowan took such care in her interviews of nurses and female army personnel that she became the first accredited female war reporter for the U.S. Army. Martha reported about the war’s impact on ordinary citizens, and left her post in London when she finally gained access to the front.

A DVD copy of the documentary is available for purchase on the film’s website and is available online through World Channel.

The screening at NYU’s DC campus will be held March 28 from 6-8pm and will be followed by a panel discussion about the role of women in government, politics, military, and the media. The panelists include Michele Fillion as well as Admiral Ann E. Rondeau, Missy Ryan, Leisa Meyer, and Kristen Rouse. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien will moderate. Register for the screening here.

Ticket Update for the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Martin Scorsese, Academy Award winning director of The Departed, will present the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday, April 1, 2013, at 7:30 PM at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The NEH’s annual lecture is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. During his lecture, Scorsese will discuss film history and preservation, the importance of the humanities, and the art of storytelling. The lecture is hosted by the National Endowment for the Humanities and funded by generous donations from American Express, HBO, and other private sources.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

This year’s lecture has yielded an unprecedented demand for tickets. One hundred general admission tickets were distributed to Congressional staff on a first-come,first-served basis. The process began with an email alert to staff members who focus on the arts and schedulers in each Congressional office. A short wait list is being maintained.

Those who did not receive a ticket or a spot on the wait list were invited to register for tickets through the website for the general public, which went live shortly after the Congressional ticket distribution. Members of the general public were able to register for tickets as of 11 AM on March 11; all tickets were reserved in about three hours.

Reserved tickets will be held by the NEH at a will-call station in the Kennedy Center until 7 PM on April 1. At that time, unclaimed tickets will be distributed to members of the general public on a first-come, first served basis. If you are interested in attending the lecture, but do not have a ticket, you should get to the Kennedy Center early on April 1, to wait in line for a ticket.

The event will be live streamed for those unable to attend, and the link will be available at on April 1.

Clemente Course Provides Pathways to Success

March 17-19 marks the National Humanities Alliance Annual Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day. Members of the National Humanities Alliance—a nonprofit dedicated to improving national humanities policy in areas of research, education, preservation, and public programs—will arrive in Washington, D.C. to promote their work.Though most of the weekend will be spent on the Hill, the members will also attend presentations on a variety of humanities-related projects. One of the featured projects is the Clemente Course, described below.

Founded in 1995 and funded by the NEH, the Clemente Course in the Humanities offers college-level courses to adults living with low incomes. College and university faculty educate students through dialogues on “moral philosophy, literature, history, art history, critical thinking, and writing.” The classes mirror seminars at a small  liberal arts college.

Earl Shorris, founder of the Clemente Course, meets with students and faculty from the University of San Andres in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2010. Shorris passed away in 2012; Warren will speak about his legacy at the March 18 event.

Earl Shorris, founder of the Clemente Course, meets with students and faculty from the University of San Andres in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2010. Shorris passed away in 2012; Warren will speak about his legacy at the March 18 event.

The Features of a Clemente Course

There is no tuition for the courses, books are provided, and child care and transportation offered when needed. Most credits transfer to local community colleges and universities. Many of the over ten thousand students around the world who have taken a Clemente class have continued their studies, improved their careers, and gotten their own children through school.

The first Clemente Course was offered at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in Manhattan, but courses are now offered in several states and in countries on five continents. Students have access to courses in Melbourne, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; indigenous villages in rural Mexico and Alaska; and even an Internally Displaced Persons camp in Darfur. Although each course maintains the integrity of a Clemente Course, they also carry the influences of the local community.

The National Humanities Alliance Conference

The Clemente Course presentation on March 18 will be a powerful example to the National Humanities Alliance of how how important their work is, and the successful projects it can support. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will speak about successful Clemente Courses in their respective states, and both will reflect on the fact that Clemente Courses provide opportunities for people who previously believed higher education was unavailable to them.

Clemente Courses, or variations on them, are available in the following states: Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. For more information, please use our handout to visit their websites.