NEH grant to support survey of West Tennessee historical records collections

The University of Tennessee at Martin will receive a $126,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency supporting research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities. The grant money will support a survey of West Tennessee historical records collections.

The project, titled “Surveying the Impact of COVID-19 on Cultural Collections in Western Tennessee,” will be led by Sam Richardson, chief archivist and curator of the J. Houston Gordon Museum, as well as numerous other UT Martin faculty and staff members. Work for the survey, which will begin in January, will continue through the year. The project assesses the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on heritage collections in 21 counties across the historic Western Grand Division of the state, a geographic area stretching east from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River and from the Kentucky border south to the state of Mississippi.

Often overlooked as a rural and agricultural region with little cultural significance, West Tennessee is rooted in key aspects of American history, including Native American pre-settlement activity; the colonial and early settlement period; tobacco and cotton production during the antebellum, Civil War, and post-war periods; significant clay mining; river and rail transportation, and important pathways in the country, rockabilly, and R&B music industries. Large portions of the region’s cultural collections are held by smaller nonprofit organizations with minimal budgets, volunteer staff, and aging structures. The coronavirus pandemic has adversely impacted this sector, and it is unclear which agencies will emerge from a sustained period of closure and lost revenue.

In support of the survey work, a workshop on basic preservation techniques and disaster preparedness will be repeated in three UT Martin regional centers in spring 2022. A concluding one-day conference in fall 2022 will share results of the survey project and highlight the rich heritage of West Tennessee. These events will assist in identifying and engaging with survey respondents and provide learning and networking opportunities for employees and volunteers at these institutions.

“We want to thank the NEH for supporting this project. It will allow us to build a directory of local historical associations, their contact information, and a list of their collections for use by historians, genealogists, and other interested users,” Richardson said. “This project will highlight the important work done by many agencies to preserve local records. These organizations continue to protect these vital parts of our heritage.” For more information, contact Richardson at sricha12@utm.edu or 731-881-7094.

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