Lisa Manter’s 2023 NEH Award: A Win for Public History and a Win for Students

A previous NEH grant helped Saint Mary’s create one of the only undergraduate Public History programs on the West Coast. Now, Manter’s NEH award will keep that initiative charging forward.

by Hayden Royster | April 17, 2023

A medievalist by training, English professor Lisa Manter has always seen history and story as inextricable. Only recently, though, has she begun applying her narrative expertise to public history, a field often described as “history at work in the world,” encompassing museums, monuments, oral history projects, and more. 

Very few PhDs in literature are currently working in public history, she says. “I want to change that, because I think in terms of exhibition design, museums don't often have a person who understands all the intricacies and nuances of how stories work.” 

She’s well on her way: When the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced this year’s recipients of more than $28 million in grants, Manter's project was among the 204 projects selected.

Manter received a $35,000 NEH Award for Faculty at Hispanic-Serving Institutions to travel to multiple museums on the West Coast and analyze the narrative and filmic elements used by historical museum exhibitions. Her research will directly benefit students in Saint Mary’s Public History minor, one of only a handful of such programs in California. “It’s a win for our students, and not just in any one department,” Manter says. 

Putting History to Work

Lisa Manter
Professor Lisa Manter, recipient of a 2023 NEH Award for Faculty at Hispanic-Serving Institutions / Courtesy Lisa Manter

Manter’s award will also help bolster the College’s Public History initiative, which is, she says, one of the most “exciting and fresh” things she’s seen in her twenty-five years at the College. In 2017, History professors Aeleah Soine and E. Elena Songster secured a $50,000 NEH grant to establish a Public History minor, which was equally matched by generous donors. The new program immerses students in the preservation, interpretation, and representation of historical narratives, specifically highlighting the experiences of marginalized and underrepresented peoples. 

It’s the sort of rigorous, hands-on experience that’s tough to find outside of graduate school. But at Saint Mary’s, it’s available to every undergrad, no matter the major. “We’re really proud that it’s a standalone interdisciplinary minor,” says Soine. “That, combined with the fact that we're one of the few small colleges with an accredited museum on our campus, really puts us ahead of the curve.”

In addition to their courses, Public History students are always matched with a museum or organization for a fully-funded internship. It’s another factor that sets Saint Mary’s program apart, Soine says, although she hopes to set a precedent rather than remain an outlier. “The museum industry has long relied on unpaid labor and volunteers to operate. But with our public history curriculum, we can support students having those hands-on experiences without having to give up a paycheck. That’s something I’m really proud of.”

A visitor appreciating a sculpture at the Museum of Art
A visitor appreciating a sculpture at Saint Mary's Museum of Art (SMCMoA), one the few accredited college museums in Northern California / Photography by Gerry Serrano

The Power of the Past

As Saint Mary’s students bring history into the world, they’re making an impact on it, too. In 2021, students in Songster’s Public History course were partnering with San Jose History Museum, researching a historic home named after its male owner. When the students realized the man’s wife had actually purchased the home, they wrote updated placards that were more accurate (and far more interesting). “That's just one example of how this new minor and the classes associated with public history are working to enact change in our community in the present,” says Songster.

"With our public history curriculum, we can support students having those hands-on experiences without having to give up a paycheck. That’s something I’m really proud of.”

Another example: Over the course of this spring, Soine’s students are digging into the history of Saint Mary’s High Potential Program, which celebrates 50 years in fall 2023. Although the program has been serving first-generation and low-income students for decades, this kind of in-depth archival accounting has never been attempted. “It's really exciting for students to see that their research and collections are actually going to have a permanent place in the historical record,” says Soine. 

As for Manter, who will return from her sabbatical this fall, she’s grateful that her award allows her to combine her love for story and museums while supporting one of the College’s most distinctive programs. In spring 2024, students who sign up for her Public History course will directly benefit from her NEH-funded research.

”Public history, for me, really connects the present and the past,” says Manter. “I think that makes it really powerful for students, too.”

Learn more about the Public History minor and the 2017 NEH grant that made it possible.

Apply to Saint Mary’s today.

This story was updated on May 4, 2023.

Hayden Royster is Staff Writer at the Office of Marketing and Communications. Write him.