The Mastheads, a public humanities organization in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was founded in 2016 with a goal of connecting Pittsfield residents to the literary heritage of the region, cultivating pride in place, and supporting the production of new creative work. This mission grew out of the challenges Pittsfield has faced since General Electric, the major employer, left the region. To bring together diverse groups to celebrate Pittsfield as a site of cultural and artistic production, the organization has collaborated with a variety of community organizations—from the library to the local farmers market, to groups looking to support and improve their local neighborhoods—since its inception.
Each summer, The Mastheads supports a month-long writer’s residency in Pittsfield for five writers and a public lecture series that compliments and coincides with the residency. In 2019, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Mass Humanities, The Mastheads held a four-part public lecture series: two programs focused on work produced through the annual writer’s residency and two themed around the Gilded Age, concentrating on five late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century cultural figures who spent time in the Berkshires.
As part of our NEH for All initiative, we partnered with The Mastheads to better understand the impact of their NEH-funded public programming during their summer 2019 season. The results make clear that the humanities are a powerful tool for cultivating pride in place and fostering community engagement with shared history and cultural heritage.
Following the lecture series, 41 lecture participants responded to our survey. Results suggest that the program succeeded in connecting participants with Pittsfield’s history and cultural heritage. Nintey-seven percent of respondents said the program “enhanced [their] appreciation of Pittsfield’s history,” and 91 percent were motivated to “learn more about Pittsfield’s history.” They described the programming as a “through-line” from writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to today’s young and budding writers. One participant stated: “The Berkshires has a history of welcoming and inspiring writers, poets, and playwrights, and it's only logical that we continue to encourage them.”
The program also fostered a sense of pride in Pittsfield as both a place of cultural production and a place that attracts writers from across the country. One-hundred percent of respondents agreed they “take pride in the fact that this program is being held in Pittsfield” and “take pride in writers from around the country coming to Pittsfield.” One participant wrote: “I think [this programming] helps establish or strengthen Pittsfield's place as a literary and cultural influence in the Berkshires.” Another wrote: “Pittsfield struggles with severe poverty and helplessness/hopelessness. Having real working writers come through is inspiring to the writers and dreamers we have here. It makes art seem reasonable and possible.”
Through their innovative programming and commitment to robust partnerships within their community, The Mastheads demonstrates how organizations can leverage the tools of the humanities to guide thoughtful conversations about place, shared history and culture, and the future of their communities.
Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of Westside Riverway.
Read more: neh for all