Albert H. Small Honored with Lifetime Humanities Achievement Award

National Endowment for the Humanities fetes 50 years of striving for a “great society.”

George Washington University President Steven Knapp, Albert H. Small and National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William Adams (Photo by David Scavone)
November 20, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum opened its doors after hours Wednesday evening to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The occasion also served to honor famed collector and GW Presidential Humanities Medal winner Albert H. Small, who received a Lifetime Humanities Achievement award for his ardent support of NEH and tireless passion for preserving Washington ephemera.

Ever the collector, Mr. Small told the crowd that following a meeting that afternoon with the National Trust for the Humanities, he placed an initial bid over the phone for a photo at the gallows of the conspirators who assisted John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The photo hopefully will join the selection of more than 1,000 letters, rare books, maps, drawings, prints, photographs and other items that comprise the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection held by the George Washington Museum and The Textile Museum.

“I placed a bid, but it might not be the highest bid, so I’ll have to call back tomorrow,” Mr. Small said to laughter from the audience. “That’s how it’s done—you should always try to get a bargain if you can.”

George Washington President Steven Knapp—an advocate for the humanities and former professor of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley—recounted how Mr. Small’s vision seeded the transformation of GW’s historic Woodhull House into a home for the Washingtoniana Collection.

Dr. Knapp also thanked Mr. Small for his “passion and skill” in collecting, a hobby that became a lifelong pursuit thanks to a stop in a bookshop after Mr. Small was discharged from his service in the U.S. Navy following World War II.

“It’s the best collection there is,” Mr. Small said. “These items will be on display here forever, for the school to see, for the country to see and for the world to see.”

NEH Chairman William Adams said that Mr. Small’s work and the work of the NEH is an example of the dedication to the arts and humanities that will usher in the “great society,” as envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act into law in 1965.

“These items will be on display here forever, for the school to see, for the country to see and for the world to see.”

- Albert H. Small,  Lifetime Humanities Achievement award winner

“We have brought history alive, we have brought culture alive, and we have brought millions of people into the presence of great ideas, great thinking and great culture,” Dr. Adams said. “The country is richer as a result, our organizations and institutions are richer as a result, and we are a better people.”

Attendees included friends and long-time supporters of NEH. Many reflected on the mission and success of the organization and followed volunteer docents for tours of the Washingtoniana Collection, whose entrance is marked by a quote from Mr. Small: “Once you are bitten, collecting is a disease that is hard to cure.”

The National Trust for the Humanities, Federation of State Humanities Councils and National Humanities Alliance cohosted the event.

Among the guests were Carole M. Watson, Ph.D. ’78, former acting chairman of the NEH and 2015 GW honorary degree recipient; Robert G. Perry, chairman of the National Trust for the Humanities; Esther Mackintosh, president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils; and Stephen Kidd, president of the National Humanities Alliance.

Ms. Watson thanked GW and the NEH for “keeping the faith” in supporting the preservation of American culture.

“That principle has been a guiding light in my career,” Ms. Watson said. “My work at GW as a Ph.D. student of American cultural history directly led to my work with NEH, and I couldn’t be more proud of both institutions.”

Cokie Roberts, journalist and member of the National Trust for the Humanities, echoed Dr. Watson and praised NEH for giving a voice to previously untold histories in America and for keeping pace with the rapidly changing media of art.

“The NEH is a culmination of America’s history and its future because it looks toward those who will create the great works of the future,” Ms. Roberts said. “It’s been a wildly successful 50 years.”