The program grew out of discussions between historians at Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary, all of whom had an interest in public history and material culture.
“A number of people at both institutions were talking about how to take advantage of all the resources in the area,” said Julie Richter, who was then a Colonial Williamsburg historian and is now NIAHD’s director.
Congressional awards of $1.4 million got the program off the ground.
“When we began, public history was just coming to the fore,” said Jim Whittenburg, a William & Mary professor of history who became NIAHD’s first director. William & Mary, in cooperation with Colonial Williamsburg, offered an archaeology experience through the anthropology department, and the history department offered apprenticeship programs in museum management, historical archaeology, archives management and scholarly editing.
“These served as something of a model,” Whittenburg said, “for the new NIAHD program.”
NIAHD’s Pre-College Program in American History, a summer program for high school students, launched in the summer of 2002, and classes for college and graduate students began that fall.
The initial curriculum was divided into two types: “Input” classes covered artifacts, architecture, topography and written documents, and “output” classes focused on ways knowledge of the past could be presented, in places as varied as museums and movies. Though NIAHD classes are no longer formally divided in this way, the program still employs the idea behind those classifications.
The curriculum has changed to keep up with the times. Today’s students, for example, might learn about the ground-penetrating radar being used to excavate the site of Williamsburg’s 18th-century Black church. Archaeologists in 2002 did not have access to that technology.
After the congressional award money ran out, NIAHD worked to become self-sustaining, said Carolyn Whittenburg, who became the program’s director in 2005. Tuition and support from alumni, parents, students and several foundations have kept the program going.