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Making History: How the American West Center and Utah Humanities are Working Together to Improve People’s Lives

By Maximilian Werner

Utah is home to several organizations whose missions prioritize education, research, and community outreach, but the long-standing partnership between the American West Center (AWC) and Utah Humanities (UH) in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s Travelling Exhibitions Services (SITES) Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program, has been especially fruitful. By combining their individual strengths, they have cultivated an approach to “doing history” that not only demonstrates the discipline’s importance, but also its ability to help people and communities more meaningfully connect to the past, each other, and to their own time and place.

Since its founding in 1964, the AWC has amassed an impressive and diverse body of work encompassing community engaged research for Native Nations and land management agencies, curricular development, public programs, and numerous oral history projects. The center’s oral history collections (accessible through the Special Collections Department of the Marriott Library) feature over 7,000 individual contributions, including 2,000 Native American interviews. “Today,” writes AWC Director Greg Smoak in his introduction to Western Lands, Western Voices, “the center’s mission is threefold: researching and interpreting the history and cultures of the American West in collaboration with community partners and clients; providing enlightening and accessible programming for public audiences; and training the next generation of publicly engaged humanities scholars.”

Similarly, Utah Humanities’ mission is to “strengthen Utah communities by cultivating connections, deepening understanding, and exploring our complex human experience,” which it has been doing ever since its founding in 1975. And as the world’s largest museum, research and education complex, the Smithsonian Institution has used its stature to shape “the future by preserving heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing [their] resources with the world.”

Even under the best of circumstances, however, one of the greatest challenges historians face is helping people understand history’s relevance to their lives. That is, of what value is historical discovery if the only people who know about it are academics? It’s an important question. Fortunately it is also one that the AWC, UH, and SITES have answered in multiple ways by collaborating on a variety of projects. According to UH’s website, “[s]ince 1994, Utah Humanities has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service to bring Museum on Main Street (MoMS) exhibitions to communities throughout Utah. Together with local partners, we have collaborated on nine exhibitions, toured 45 communities, and reached more than 450,000 people in Utah with this programming.” According to Smoak, “the idea behind MoMS is to bring Smithsonian programming to small town America through collaborations with state humanities councils.” This arrangement benefits everyone involved by creating an opportunity for UH to partner with scholars to shape local and statewide content to accompany the SITES national exhibits. 

In recent years, UH and the AWC have used Museum on Main Street tours to implement some especially exciting, public facing ventures aimed at engaging audiences in honest and substantive discussions about history while at the same time providing professional and educational opportunities for current and former history students. According to Megan van Frank, director of UH’s Center for Community Heritage, the goal is, at least in part, to “use public history projects to develop academically trained historians in public history skills and introduce local historians to methods, people, resources, and skills that can elevate their own practice. We invest in everyone in order to strengthen the humanities ecosystem in the state.”

Smoak, who is also a history professor, has served as “state consulting scholar” on two MoMS tours since 2014 (“Journey Stories” and “Think Water Utah”), while his history department colleague (and former AWC director) Matthew Basso took on that role for a third tour (“The Way We Worked”). As state consulting scholars, Smoak and Basso worked to develop the state and local stories that accompany the national exhibitions. Their work included writing extended essays that provided state and local context, consulting with the staffs of the local host venues as they developed their own exhibits and programming and giving public talks during the exhibition tours. But perhaps most importantly, the projects have allowed Smoak, Basso, and van Frank to give students hands on training in publicly engaged scholarship.

“Think Water Utah,” which ran from 2020-2022, has been the most complex collaboration yet between UH, SITES, and the AWC. In addition to van Frank and Smoak, the “Think Water Utah” team included four former and current U history graduate students; Megan Weiss, Nate Housely, Mikee Ferran (who previously worked with Basso on “The Way We Worked”), and Lisa Barr. The collaboration began simply enough with planning for the tour of the MoMS exhibit “Water Ways.” But then, van Frank saw the opportunity to create an even larger conversation on the critical topic of water by adding a second Smithsonian touring exhibit, “H2O Today.” The result was “Think Water Utah,” which ultimately reached visitors at nine locations across Utah. Housley, who is a program assistant for the UH’s Center for Community Heritage and holds an MA in history from the U, and Weiss, who is working on a Ph.D. in history at the U and is the inaugural Utah Humanities Graduate Fellow at the American West Center, worked with Smoak to develop additional content, select illustrations, and edit his essay “Utah Water Ways.” Weiss, Housley, and Ferran then worked with van Frank to create a Utah-focused exhibit for “H20 Today,” while Barr, a U history MA who is a curator at the Utah Historical Society, developed K-12 curriculum guides for the exhibits.

The MoMS collaborations are examples of how academic and community organizations like the AWC and UH’s can bridge the public/academic divide. By joining forces, Smoak—an academic—and van Frank—a public administrator—created opportunities of lasting value that are at once nuanced, dynamic, and accessible to a much broader audience than either Smoak or van Frank could reach on their own. “We have to work together if we hope to elevate all the stories in the state,” van Frank said.  “We need each other.” Van Frank cites this cooperation as further evidence of the partnership’s success in bringing together what are often viewed as disparate worlds. 

Indeed, Smoak and van Frank have spent the better part of their careers working to resolve this tension.  “The goal,” for van Frank, “is to give people the skills to ask better, larger questions, which in turn promotes a greater sense of context and connection.” It’s here, in the context of teaching critical thinking that the contributions of humanities academics are most felt. Whether those contributions take the form of giving public lectures, facilitating public discussions, consulting with state, local, or tribal leaders, or offering workshops, van Frank says that Smoak, Basso, and their colleagues and students in the History Department have provided an invaluable, public-facing “intellectual framework” to Utah Humanities’ and other historical organizations’ efforts to do what the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) calls “good” history.  Indeed, the Utah tour of “The Way We Worked” won of both the 2018 AASLH Leadership in History Award as well as the Utah Museums Association Award of Excellence for Statewide Collaboration, while “Think Water Utah” was recently recognized with an Outstanding Achievement Award by the Utah Division of State History and Bear River Heritage Area’s local exhibit for “Think Water Utah” garnered yet another AASLH award.

As relative newcomers to the field, both Housley and Weiss are grateful for the opportunity to gain invaluable experience as working historians, which is more important than ever. Doing good history means creating a connection between people who all share deep roots in Utah. Weiss and Housley see history as one of the most powerful mechanisms for doing precisely that, not only between their own and the broader human community, but between people and the places where history continues to play out. For Weiss and public historians, the key lies in creating “shared authority,” which describes the awareness that one’s stories are part of a larger web of stories. But sharing hasn’t been easy. For although the AWC, UH, and various other historical organizations are working to offer a more complete, representative picture of the state’s long and complex history, much of early Utah history was preoccupied with telling the Mormon pioneer/settlers story. 

People grow attached to and internalize their histories, no matter how incomplete they may be, which can be a challenge. “If you poke at their story,” Housley said, “you are poking at their identity.” This conflation of identity with history lies at the heart of people’s disagreements about the past and its meaning. For Weiss, these challenges come with the territory and she’s learned to take them in stride: “When people’s personal perspectives don’t match up with the evidence, it can take some adjusting, and that takes time,” she said. 

Thanks to the partnership between the AWC and UH, burgeoning historians like Housley and Weiss will continue getting much needed experience facing the challenges of their profession. A fourth collaboration for the Smithsonian MoMS exhibition “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” is in the works and will travel Utah from September 2023 through December 2024. Smoak will again serve as UH’s state scholar on the project. In keeping with the AWC’s commitment to providing professional and educational experiences for its students, the accompanying essay “Rural Utah at the Crossroads,” will be co-authored by Smoak, Housley, and Weiss.


Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities | 801-213-0866

Published February 17, 2023

Last Updated: 3/2/23