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Delaware Humanities Forum Celebrates 50 Years

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Conceived a half-century ago and birthed in 1973, the Delaware Humanities Forum has been around long enough to have made an impact but, in some quarters, it still hasn’t made a lasting impression.

“A certain demographic knows about us, but the regular folks, probably not,” admits Susan West, chairwoman of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors.

That “certain demographic,” according to board members and staff, both past and present, includes historical societies, libraries, academics, museums and community organizations.

And who are the regular folks? They include everyone who occasionally visits a library or museum, checks out an exhibit or listens to an interesting speaker, where they see or hear the words “this program was brought to you in part by the Delaware Humanities Forum.”

“When someone from our speakers’ bureau comes out, yes, you get that 15-second commercial up front, but people don’t recognize all the things the forum does,” says former board chair Larry Josefowski. “We’re definitely an unknown treasure.”

The premise behind all that the forum does is a concept that is simple, yet often neglected: to get us to think—about who we are, about what we do and about what we, as a society, want to become.

Marilyn Whittington, executive director of the
Delaware Humanities Forum, says the nonprofit
examines issues from a national and local
perspective. 

“Our objective is to help us understand ourselves so we are better as we progress,” says Marilyn Whittington, the forum’s executive director since 2002.

“Thinking is one of the most profound forms of doing,” West says. “I’m really interested in bringing philosophy and the humanities out of universities and into the streets. These are human pursuits.”

The forum has, for example, examined environmental issues, religious issues, racial issues and women’s issues, and it is beginning to look at issues of social justice, Whittington says. “We look forward and backward. We look at the big, broad national conversations, and we do it through our own prism, so we don’t miss any local concerns.”

Not all the topics are as weighty as those Whittington mentions. Over the years, the forum has supported programs on such everyday subjects as fences, tools, tombstones and ghosts.

The forum has its roots in the National Endowment for the Humanities, established in 1966 during the halcyon days of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

At the time, Whittington says, “we were a very rich and powerful nation. There was a desire to enlarge upon who we were and what we are about, to enhance our legacy in the arts and the humanities.”

Following the creation of NEH, a network of councils in the states and territories was established. Delaware Humanities Forum, incorporated in 1973, is one of 56 state and territorial councils.

Rona G. Finkelstein, a former chair of the philosophy department at Delaware State University, guided the organization as executive director for its first nine years.

From Finkelstein through Henry Hirschbiel, who served from 1982 through 1999, to Whittington, with a few others in between, the forum’s executive directors have led a lean team of three to seven staffers. They have developed their own programming (often based on themes suggested by the National Endowment for the Humanities), awarded grants to local organizations to develop their own programs, and established a speakers bureau and visiting scholars program. 

To its grant recipients and program participants, the forum is often an essential partner. Ask them about the organization’s impact on their projects, and they will sing in unison, “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Kim Burdick, a folklorist, historian and preservation advocate who served as the forum’s chair from 2005 to 2008, had her first involvement with the forum as a participant in a project funded by one of its early grants.

It was around 1980, shortly after she arrived in Delaware, and Cleveland Morris, then the head of the Delaware Theatre Company, was looking for a project to keep the organization active while it sought a permanent home. After the group secured grants from both the forum and the Delaware State Arts Council, Burdick lugged a bulky tape recorder up and down the state, visiting libraries, historical societies and senior centers, telling ghost stories and asking her listeners to tell their own. After a year and a half, she had enough material to create a booklet titled “Once of a Night: Ghost Stories Told in Delaware.” Morris later convinced a playwright friend to turn the text into a musical, which was subsequently performed at many of the venues where Burdick had collected her stories. 

During his tenure as executive director, Hirschbiel put an emphasis on designing programs that would broaden Delawareans’ exposure to the humanities beyond the events available at libraries and through historical societies. One of his first steps was to create a speakers bureau, recruiting academics and other experts to give one-hour presentations on Delaware’s history, government and culture. Once that program established itself, Hirschbiel and his team built a visiting scholars program, extending the lecturers’ reach into the state’s public and private schools.

“We thought it was important for students to get a sense of how a historian thinks, how a philosopher discusses an idea, how a political scientist examines a government policy,” he says. These initiatives made the forum “more of a programming organization, offering dozens and dozens of talks, not only to community groups but also in hundreds of classrooms.”

Neither program is quite as strong as it was in Hirschbiel’s day, Whittington says, but its speakers make more than 200 presentations a year, plus another 70 or so in schools. (Organizations pay the forum $50 for each speaker they engage. Speakers receive $150 plus travel expenses. There is no charge to schools for hosting visiting scholars, who receive $200 per presentation.)

Supporting local museums is another integral part of the forum’s mission.

“From the perspective of a small museum, DHF is crucial in helping to implement programs that would not otherwise happen,” says Melinda Huff, former executive director of the Milton Historical Society. (She is currently the museum operations manager for Historic New England.)

One example is the forum’s role in booking the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibitions in its Museums on Main Street program into museums in Delaware’s small towns. The Smithsonian boxes the exhibition materials, the forum pays shipping charges, and local museums mount the exhibit and supplement it with items from their own collections, Whittington says.

To elaborate on the Smithsonian’s “Between Fences” exhibit in 2008, Huff assembled artifacts of the types of fences used to border properties in Milton in the late 19th century. 

Three years ago, the forum brought the Smithsonian’s “The Way We Worked” exhibit to tiny Bethel (population 180), where the historical society displayed shipbuilding tools, photographs and artifacts from the Sussex County town’s shipbuilding heyday. 

“The exhibit fit really well with our museum,” says Kevin Phillips, president of the Bethel Historical Society. The forum, he says, “is easy to work with. Whatever you ask for, they provide.”

For the past three years, the forum has awarded grants to the Delaware Shakespeare Festival to support its Community Cornerstones program, which engages the community in a dialog related to some aspect of the festival’s summer presentation.

When it presented “A Comedy of Errors” last summer, festival organizers decided to focus on viewing the play as an example of three newcomers in a foreign land. They used that concept as a springboard for an eight-week playwriting workshop at the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington. 

Workshop participants created one-scene plays based on their experiences as immigrants, says David Stradley, the festival’s producer and artistic director. 

One person wrote about her first experience with law enforcement—“getting a speeding ticket and not realizing this was a bad thing,” Stradley says­—while another described the misunderstanding that occurred when she used the wrong word for ballpoint pen when attempting to make a purchase.

Through earlier grants, the festival explored other issues with Delawareans: how the themes of soliloquies from “Hamlet” relate to our daily lives and, for “The Taming of the Shrew,” how stereotyping can have a negative impact on individuals.

Another steady beneficiary of DHF grants is Berkana, Center for Media and Education, a nonprofit filmmaking organization based in Arden. “About 25 percent of the cost of our projects is covered by the grants,” says Jeanne Covert, the company’s president. 

The group has received six grants, starting in 2007, that helped create documentaries like “Cluck, Pluck and Luck,” chronicling the early years of Delaware’s poultry industry, and “White Gold,” the story of oystering on Delaware Bay. Berkana’s current project, titled “Delmarva Dirt,” explores the culture surrounding dirt-track auto racing in Sussex County.

Some programs the forum has launched have been placed in the hands of other organizations. The most notable is the Chautauqua program, an outdoor summer lecture series named for the town in upstate New York where the concept originated. “We did it for six years ourselves, but it got too big to handle,” Whittington says. Now it is run by the Lewes Historical Society and the Delaware Public Archives, with financial support from the forum.

West, the current board chairwoman, hopes to implement some new initiatives later this year and in early 2017.

One program, tentatively titled Movable Feasts, would blend cuisine and culture by using a meal or a tasting as the centerpiece for a discussion of the tradition and religion of another culture. Another would assist small nonprofits in digitizing their collections so they would be accessible to broader audiences online.

Whatever the forum does, it will be working on an annual budget of about $600,000, with roughly $500,000 coming from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the rest from a state grant-in-aid, foundations, private donations and fees from the speakers bureau.

“We’re very frugal with our money,” West says.

Yes, the forum’s website could use an update, she says, but the organization would rather spend its money on programming. The same goes for fundraising. Rather than battle other nonprofits for charitable donations, she says, “it’s better to focus on doing more with what we have.”

Hirschbiel, the former executive director, acknowledges the challenge organizations like the forum face when they’re competing for government and private grants.

“The humanities are important,” he says. “But when budgets are tight, are the humanities as important as food stamps?”

He asks the rhetorical question: “Is learning about history and philosophy not as important as public services?” But he knows how funders would likely respond.

And that’s one more reason the forum keeps chugging along.

“There is very little support out there for the exploration of ideas,” Stradley says. “That is something we need as a culture.”


The Delaware Humanities Forum has never been big on self-promotion, but its leaders believe one of its best opportunities to toot its own horn comes in October, when it presents the annual Joseph P. del Tufo Lecture, named in memory of an early member of the Delaware Humanities Council who was also a professor of philosophy and English at Delaware State College (now Delaware State University).

This year’s lecture, scheduled for Oct. 20, will be presented by Dr. Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins University, the author of “A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida.” Connolly has received several awards, including the Organization of American Historians’ Liberty Legacy Foundation Award and the Institute for the Humanities’ Emerging Scholars Prize at the University of Michigan.

Admission to the lecture, to be given at Arsht Hall on the University of Delaware’s Wilmington Campus, 2700 Pennsylvania Ave., is free and will be followed by a ticketed reception. For ticket information, visit www.dehumanities.org.

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