By John Marks, Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives, AASLH
Earlier this month, the United States Semiquincentennial Commission published its report to the President laying out their vision, framework, and recommendations for the United States’ 250th anniversary commemoration. The report on “America 250,” as the national commemoration effort will come to be known, offers new insights into ongoing preparation for the 250th by the Commission and many federal agencies. It also contains some important information for state and local history organizations beginning to consider how they might acknowledge the anniversary.
Urgency and Schedule
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the report is the urgency of advancing commemoration plans. Although the full commemoration period extends from 2020 until 2027, the report makes clear that July 4, 2026, in many ways marks the end, not the beginning, of the commemoration. The schedule in the report indicates that the Commission’s planning phase will end in mid-2021, about eighteen months from now. While state and local history organizations will have longer than that to plan programs, exhibits, and other new initiatives, the time is now to begin in earnest any planning for the 250th.
Themes, Guidelines, and Frameworks
The report outlines three major themes for America 250: to Educate, Engage, and Unite. They also define the commemoration as including all of American history and expansive geographic scope. These align well with AASLH’s collaboratively-developed goals and ongoing emphasis that the 250th represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to present history that is inclusive and relevant, to use collections and educational programs to engage the public in new ways, and to build the capacity of history institutions. AASLH working groups dedicated to these goals had many of their ideas included in the report, such as the “History Is Still Happening” initiative proposed by our collections group (p. 88), or the “Sites of Revolution” idea conceived by our relevance group (p. 58).
More specifically, the report presents several “participatory frameworks” to guide and align the thousands of programs and other commemoration efforts that will be part of America 250, which the Commission envisions will be a “largely decentralized” effort (see Section V). AASLH members should look in particular at the “State and Local Programs Framework,” outlined on pages 41–44. We encourage all history organizations to consider how your programming might fit with these frameworks, goals, and themes, and to work with colleagues in your community, state, and region to begin identifying shared goals and coordinating plans.
The report also includes new details about funding for state and local projects. The Commission estimates that the full America 250 commemoration, including major “signature programs” from the Commission and major federal agencies, is likely to cost between 3 and 5 billion dollars. Less than $600 million of that, however, is likely to flow directly through the Commission, and only a portion of that amount for state and local grants. The report makes clear that “The Commission will not be the most significant source or conduit of federal investment in America 250,” with larger sums flowing through existing federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, and others. While many grantmaking agencies might expand their efforts to provide funding for 250th-focused projects (like NEH has through their agency-wide “A More Perfect Union” initiative), history organizations should probably not plan to rely on major new funding from the Commission itself.
In the coming years, AASLH will continue to provide leadership and resources to advance the history community’s impact through the 250th. We’re conducting field-wide research, like our National Visitation Survey, to help understand current trends and provide a baseline for measuring future impact. With the help of grant funding, we are creating new resources, like our annual report on 250th planning, to help history organizations understand the national and state-level landscape and to begin preparing. And we will continue to work with our committees, affinity communities, and all members to make sure we understand the needs, concerns, and goals of a diverse and dynamic field.
The 250th anniversary might be six years away, but the time to prepare is now.
For more information on AASLH’s 250th anniversary planning, visit: aaslh.org/250th
For more information about the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, visit: america250.org
To view the report in full, visit: america250.org/pdf/America250_Report_to_President_12-31-2019_S.pdf