Meet Jason Steinhauer, Director

Five questions for Jason Steinhauer, the inaugural director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest
Jason Steinhauer, Director, Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. Photo by Chelsea Gerrard, 2017.

Since January 2017, Jason Steinhauer has been the inaugural director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. He received an M.A. in History with an Advanced Certificate of Archival Management from New York University and previously worked at The John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. He sat down with Lepage Center faculty director Paul Steege to talk about his background and his goals for the Lepage Center.

Hi, Jason. Welcome to Villanova. Before becoming the director of the Lepage Center, you worked for a number of museums as well as at the Kluge Center in the Library Congress. How has that experience informed your understanding of “history in the public interest?”

I’ve been very fortunate to gain what I term a 360-degree perspective on the history profession. Our profession is so diverse and varied — professors, museum professionals, National Park rangers, archivists, government historians, think tanks… just to name a few roles historians play. To be a historian is to have all these venues to bring the past to life for people and engage around complex ideas. So whether it was putting together a museum exhibit, preparing a finding aid, or facilitating conversations between policymakers and scholars, my career has been spent uncovering intersections between the past and the interests of the public. Being the director of the Lepage Center in many ways marks a culmination of this experience.

You’ve done a great deal to promote “history communication” as a strategy to bring historical scholarship to a non-expert public. What is history communication, and how does it shape your approach the work of the Lepage Center?

Just like the sciences have Science Communication, I’ve proposed that history invest in History Communication. Historians, like scientists, communicate all the time. But a generation ago scientists realized that research and scientific understanding do not communicate themselves. Educating the public about science requires being strategic, politically savvy, creative, and fluent in the latest technologies. History must do the same.

The need for History Communication feels even more urgent in light of “fake news,” propaganda campaigns by foreign governments, and ahistorical comments by our political leaders. If historians want to have an impact on policy and public understanding of the past, our profession must not solely focus on research and analysis, but also on communications strategies and media skills. History Communication is pulling this expertise into history curriculum for graduates and undergraduates and creating a community of historians interested in grappling with these issues. I’ve been working with colleagues across the country for more than two years and already we have launched new History Communication courses, developed resources for historians, and have more initiatives on the way. I fully expect the Lepage Center will be engaged in this community: being a meeting ground for people interested in developing these skills as well as being an innovator in the communication of historical scholarship.

You also describe yourself as a “public historian.” Is that something different from a “history communicator?” How can these different ways of describing the work of historians and advocates for the study and dissemination of history help us to understand the challenges and opportunities confronting historians today?

As mentioned, the history field is very broad and diverse. There are many sub-groups, and since the 1970s one subgroup has been “public historians.” “Public historian” is a broad category of historians who work in public-facing institutions such as museums, archives, libraries, federal, state and local governments and national parks. Unlike their academic colleagues, these historians are not defined by classroom metrics or a track record of publication. We develop exhibits, finding aids, tours, curriculum for K-12 students and other creative means of delivering historical content. There are distinct challenges in doing this type of work, and it’s great to have support from organizations such as the National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History.

A History Communicator can be any historian — or a journalist, filmmaker or Internet personality. It’s an identity, not a job title. Just as Science Communicators work as journalists, museum curators, and YouTube hosts so do History Communicators work in all areas of our profession. As History Communicators, our role in society is to communicate historical knowledge to various audiences. More broadly, I think these terms are pushing our field to realize that, in fact, all history is public and must be communicated strategically. We all need to be expert communicators and skilled at engaging audiences otherwise we will not get the funding and support to continue our work. Hopefully this terminology helps move us in that direction.

Is history in crisis or is history “hot?” How do you see the study of history and history as a discipline fitting into the current cultural and political climate?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in an essay that a test of first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that History, while it functions as a profession, is both hot and in crisis (and not that I am as intelligent as F. Scott Fitzgerald).

These past two years have been a turbulent period for the United States. In these moments, it’s clear that journalists, citizens and political leaders look to historians for answers. They want to know if we’ve been through this before and what lessons we can draw from our past. Historians are best positioned to provide this perspective.

At the same time, the profession is in a delicate position. Funding is being cut for our work, and a major supporter of historical scholarship for decades, the National Endowment for the Humanities, is in existential danger. Museums and historic houses are struggling and many history departments have seen enrollments decline. So at the same we have demonstrated our value to society, we must continue to communicate that value in ways people can grasp. We also must show students that becoming a historian is a dynamic career choice that contributes to society. I’m very grateful to Albert Lepage for investing in history at this moment. Through the Lepage Center we have a responsibility to demonstrate the value of historical scholarship and historical thinking.

Why history? Is there a specific topic or time period that helps to explain how you came to feel such passion for this particular approach to the world?

Future historians will be able to answer this question better than me. I’ve always had a passion for this country. I think my love of American history (which is what I studied) is fueled by my desire to better understand our nation and contribute meaningfully towards its future.

I think it also has something to do with my heritage. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and because she rarely spoke about her experiences during the Second World War, growing up we knew very little about my family’s past. That instilled in me a curiosity to uncover evidence and piece their narrative together.

Lastly, I experience a thrill interacting with the voices of the past. Every time I read an old newspaper or an old letter, I am reminded that this was a real person with dreams, emotions, fears, and weaknesses, and who walked this same planet. It makes me feel mortal, knowing that one day I, like them, will no longer be here. It’s not always the case that people walk around with a deep sense of humility. To me, deep humility is history’s greatest lesson. We would all do well to apply that to our daily lives.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonSteinhauer