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Deep within the Women’s Museum of California’s floor-to-ceiling historical archive is a weathered leather suitcase, filled with photographs and mementos from Grace Robinson, who served in the WAVES, a U.S. Navy’s women’s reserve program during World War II.
Diane Peabody Straw, executive director of the museum, knows it’s her responsibility to preserve these items. To do so, the museum relied on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, making it one of 21 San Diego County organizations that received a total of almost $5 million from the NEH in the last decade.
“For us in particular the women’s experience really hasn’t been equally represented in history,” she said. “Making sure that this is here so that young women and men coming up can have a place where they understand the contributions of women, is invaluable.”
In the future, organizations like the museum may have to look elsewhere for funding help. On Friday, The New York Times reported that an internal memo from President Donald Trump’s budget office intended to cut funding to several domestic programs, including the NEH and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Women’s Museum’s $3,361 grant will help buy items like new shelving and technology to regulate temperature and humidity.
“Otherwise items break down over time and we lose them and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Peabody Straw said.
inewsource found funding from the National Endowment for the Arts can be a source of revenue and recognition for San Diego arts organizations. The NEH instead focuses on research, scholarship and the preservation of historical items.
Created in 1965, the NEH has helped fund projects such as a series by a then-little known documentarian named Ken Burns about the Civil War, and a digital database of travel in the transatlantic slave trade. In 2015, the agency had a total budget of $146 million.
One of the longest funded programs is a seminar for K-12 grade teachers on the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Nazi Germany who wrote about the rise of totalitarianism.
The program, which is accepting applications for its ninth seminar, is run by Kathleen Jones, professor emerita at San Diego State University. It brings together 16 teachers from around the country for four weeks. Jones said she hears from teachers years after the seminars that still use the materials and are still motivated by the experience.
“K through 12 teachers are in charge of the future of our republic and the education of its citizens,” Jones said. “I think there’s no way to put a price tag on the value of these programs.”
The seminar received a $130,161 grant for this year’s program. Much of that goes to $3,300 stipends the attending teachers receive to help pay for housing, books and travel expenses, Jones said.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego has also hosted teachers for NEH-funded seminars exploring Pacific maritime history and its place in overall U.S. history.
Many of the classes take place on the museum’s ships, including the Star of India. The seminar culminates with a trip out on the Californian, a replica of an 1840s patrol ship.
Susan Sirota, vice president of operations at the museum, said the unique setting helps create a direct connection with the history lessons.
“You can read things, you can listen to things, but until you are actually on a vessel and dealing with the environment and the forces we have to work with and actually then getting your muscles acclimated to that type of work, it’s a different appreciation for everything,” she said.
The museum’s most recent NEH grant for this program was for $171,410 in 2014. About 70 to 80 percent of that funding goes to stipends for the teachers, Sirota said.
“It’s not really a money maker for the institution,” she said. “But if we serve the community for maritime heritage, if that’s part of our mission, these grants allow us to do our mission.”
Paying for preservation
In 2015 the Imperial Valley Desert Museum in Ocotillo, about an hour and a half east of San Diego, received two NEH grants.
One, for $4,255, helped the museum display ollas, large pieces created by the Native American people of the region for 1,000 years. Neal Hitch, the museum’s executive director, said the ceramic vessels had been stored out of sight for 37 years.
The museum worked with a consultant to place the ceramic pieces on glass beads originally used for sandblasting. The beads protect the ollas in case of an earthquake, while replicating the look of the surrounding desert.
As part of that project, the museum worked with a Native American elder to ensure the project was in keeping with the wishes of the community.
“When he came in and looked at [the new display] what he said was, ‘They look like they’re sitting in the desert where they were found.’ He said, ‘They are where they want to be,’” Hitch said. “I think that was one of the things that’s the most successful part of this project.”
The museum also received a matching grant to build an endowment that will pay for two full-time positions, one in San Diego County and one in Imperial County. Hitch said two years into the challenge the endowment is at more than half a million dollars and they are able to start hiring for one of the positions.
“When I look at kind of what the National Endowment for the Humanities does for us, it preserves artifacts that haven’t been seen for a generation,” Hitch said. “And it creates jobs in one of the counties that has the highest unemployment rates in the state of California.”