In 1963, a group of university presidents, professors, art experts, businesspeople and even the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission came together to form a national commission.
Their goal: study the state of the humanities in the United States. Their leader: Brown University president Barnaby Keeney. Their charge: report findings and recommendations on how to proceed to three sponsoring bodies: the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa.
In their report, they wrote that Americans—and U.S. democracy—needed the humanities as a way of gaining wisdom, vision and world leadership: “Upon the humanities depend the national ethic and morality, the national aesthetic and beauty or the lack of it, the national use of our environment and our material accomplishments," they wrote.
The commission recommended that the federal government begin to support the humanities—and in 1965, the National Endowment for the Humanities was established via an act of Congress along with the National Endowment for the Arts. But though the NEA is well known for its investment in arts education and community theater, visual arts, and music, the NEH's work is less known.
Today, the endowment writes, it "serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”
Since being founded, the NEH has awarded more than $5 billion in grants and helped organizations raise an additional $2.5 billion in private funds—awarding more than 63,000 grants in all.
This funding is dispersed through several divisions and programs: education, public programs, preservation and access, research, challenge grants, digital humanities, the bridging cultures initiative and federal/state partnerships.
For 2017, the NEH has requested an appropriation of nearly $150 million. But that funding could be in danger, reports The New York Times’ Graham Bowley. Though the current administration has not put forth its budget, it is widely expected that the proposed budget could cut spending or eliminate the agency altogether. NEH opponents say cuts would help address the United States' budget deficit and that individuals, not the federal government, are the best investors in the humanities.
So what kinds of projects would be in jeopardy if the endowment's budget was cut? Here are five things you may not realize were built with NEH grants:
Ken Burns’ Most Famous Documentary
When documentarian Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” debuted in 1990, it riveted audiences with its immersive storytelling and its extensive look at both sides of the War Between the States. Hailed as a masterpiece, the documentary miniseries featured Northern and Southern historians, stark photography by Mathew Brady and what could be one of the catchiest theme songs of all time.
Love it or loathe it, “The Civil War” was a defining moment both in documentary filmmaking and national perception of the war. It was also funded by the NEH—the agency writes that about 30-35 percent of the film’s budget came from a $1.3 million grant. Burns went on to receive NEH funding for other projects and was honored as the agency’s 2016 Jefferson Lecturer.
That Blockbuster King Tut Exhibition
In 1976, the United States fell in love with a golden boy—a long-dead, mummified boy king named Tutankhamun. "Tut" may have been dead, but the exhibition that first brought his lavish sarcophagus to the United States on a six-city tour is a thing of living museum legend. As Meredith Hindley reports for NEH’s magazine Humanities, the exhibition was the result of a diplomatic truce between Richard Nixon and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who promised one another to trade American money to rebuild Cairo’s opera house for a chance to view the world’s most famous mummy.
It took months to negotiate the terms of the loan, but it was worth it. The three-year tour captivated more than 6 million people, and a $300,000 NEH grant helped it all happen. Today, largely thanks to Tut’s American debut, the king still holds immense cultural influence in the U.S.
The Library of America
Chances are you’ve seen or even read a book from the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher that specializes in classic American literature. But you might not know that the NEH helped the LOA come to be with a $1.2 million grant in 1979.
From Whitman to Baldwin, Welty to McCullers, the Library of America has now published more than 300 volumes, keeping American classics in print long after the people who wrote them are gone. Each volume is overseen by scholars and is printed on acid-free paper that’s designed never to fade or become brittle—much like the books they seek to preserve. Revenue from the books sold go toward the publishing operation and help keep prices low, according to the organization.
The Rediscovery of Jamestown
The first permanent English settlement in the United States, Jamestown, fell off the radar after America’s first permanent colonists starved to death. But we wouldn’t know what had happened there if the search for the long-lost settlement had stopped before 1994. That’s when Preservation Virginia and a team of archaeologists set out to find what nobody had yet discovered.
Using historic information, a lot of perseverance, and $348,410 in NEH grants, archaeologist William Kelso and his team of scrappy historical detectives found Jamestown's location. They’ve been digging up its remains for more than 20 years now, and Jamestown is no longer a historical mystery, but a thriving dig that’s still turning up secrets.
The Recovery of a Lost Language
The Tlingit language has been spoken by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. But after the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia 150 years ago, the language began to die out. Alaska’s native children were forced to attend English-only boarding schools far away from home in an attempt to coerce assimilation. As a result, Tlingit became endangered and was nearly eradicated. Today, only 175 people speak Tlingit.
But the language is anything but dead: It's being revived thanks to decades of efforts by scholars and Tlingit people. The NEH has awarded $480,000 in grants to the cause, helping the coalition dedicated to making sure the language is not lost. Now, kids in southeastern Alaska learn Tlingit culture and language in school and in 2017, a planned immersion preschool will seed the next generation of Tlingit speakers.
Editor's Note: Smithsonian.com is part of Smithsonian Enterprises, a non-profit division of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Institution partners with the NEH for various initiatives, including most recently, the History Film Forum.