Why humanities and culture must be part of pandemic healing

They bridge divisions and restore the social fabric in vital ways

AS THE REOPENING of Massachusetts unfolds, the health of every resident should remain the top priority. Gov. Baker’s plan emphasizes a reliance on data, vigilant adherence to safety protocols, and a commitment to working together to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19. Step by cautious step, we will reopen our economy and our public spaces.

But for a recovery that bridges our divisions and reknits the social fabric of our towns and cities, we will need to heal the hearts and minds of our residents. Hospitals provide medical treatment, grocery stores provide food, but our libraries, local museums, and cultural venues build community. Public funding for these knowledge centers is essential to imagining a better future.

The good news is that, to date, the federal government has sustained its support for the humanities during this crisis. As the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mass Humanities received funding through the CARES Act to support humanities organizations impacted by the pandemic. Last week Mass Humanities announced CARES Act grants totaling $572,500 to 123 organizations from every region of the state.

Yet more than 200 Massachusetts non-profits applied for funding, requesting more than $1 million to cover operating costs through August 1. The annual budgets for these organizations total more than $260 million, with more than 3,000 full- and part-time employees. The Mass Humanities grants are equivalent to the $1,200 checks received by many taxpayers through the same stimulus package—a much needed Band-Aid, but by no means enough.

In addition to the Mass Humanities grants, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded another $2.9 million in direct funding to Massachusetts institutions, including major support to the USS Constitution Museum, the Jewish Women’s Archive, Plimoth Plantation, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, the Springfield Museums, and the Edith Wharton House in Lenox. Those grantees reflect the significance of Massachusetts to our national history.

This support notwithstanding, months of lost ticket sales and cancelled fundraisers pose an existential threat to the entire cultural sector. As we emerge from isolation, we are in danger of finding the doors to our humanities institutions closed for good.

Why are the humanities important today? Given the damage to our economy, we’re quick to view our choices in terms of dollars. But something even more valuable is at risk: our histories.

The story of Massachusetts resonates with the ideals of the Revolution, the persistence of abolitionists, and the unparalleled contributions to the national narrative made by scientists, activists, writers and educators. As we confront structural changes around the nation, Massachusetts must remain a global leader in ideas. Our elite educational institutions are just one source of that leadership. Generations of residents have benefited from our local museums, historic sites, and libraries, public spaces that reflect the promise of the Commonwealth: that each of us is bound by a social compact that protects the common good.

The stuff of dusty bookshelves? Quite the opposite.

The crisis we’ve endured is not only a health catastrophe, but a devastating blow to the ideal of American equality. Together with the nationwide protests against police brutality, the pandemic makes clear that we live in two Americas, with two very different experiences of American history.

After decades of disinvestment in social studies and civics, Americans are awakening to the consequences of allowing only one history to be heard. Instead of decamping to our corners and missing this opportunity, we should protect the public spaces that offer common ground.

To be clear, our humanities institutions have work to do. Community members deserve to see their stories on the walls of local museums. Whether your family roots precede the arrival of the Mayflower or you arrived after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, you belong in the history of Massachusetts.

The good news is that the Commonwealth is rich with museums and libraries centered on inclusion, with exhibitions that unearth their town’s relationship to the slave trade, and programs that document the experiences of refugees. Across Massachusetts, house museums and historic sites are undergoing honest appraisals of their neighborhoods and the nation.

They are following the words of Frederick Douglass, whose home now belongs to the New Bedford Historical Society: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”

Those efforts are made possible by grants from Mass Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mass Cultural Council. If we truly want to address the forces that brought us to this crossroads, we cannot throw history to the winds of market forces. Public support makes every taxpayer a patron in our museums, libraries, and historical societies. Sustained public funding is the best way to ensure that diverse perspectives shape our views on the past so that we can imagine a better future.

Meet the Author

Brian Boyles

Executive Director, Mass Humanities
No one knows the depths of the COVID-19 recession, or its impact on state and federal budgets. The CARES Act grants will steady the humanities infrastructure for the short-term. But as Washington and Beacon Hill consider new stimulus packages, let’s make sure we include more funding for an essential component of the recovery: our history.

Brian Boyles is executive director of Mass Humanities.