One of the most frequently asked questions about the American Heritage Center is how and why we wound up with such a large and significant collection relating to the history of popular entertainment in the U.S.—film, television, and radio in particular. “How did such material, mostly created on the two coasts, wind up in Wyoming of all places?” is often how such questions are phrased.
The short answer is, “Because we asked for it first.” As far back as the mid-1960s, then AHC director Gene Gressley, along with his counterparts at Boston University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Texas, noticed that these major industries, so crucial to understanding American popular culture, were not being aggressively pursued by repositories in their own back yard. So these four archives began actively soliciting the papers of (in the AHC’s particular case) writers, directors, producers, composers, and some actors.
So despite Wyoming’s distance from New York and Hollywood, some well-known figures in these industries agreed to donate their papers because our Center was the first to ask. And once having acquired the papers of prominent personalities, others associated with these industries were increasingly apt to agree to place their papers here. Approximately the same process occurred in Boston, Madison, and Austin as occurred in Laramie. Of course long since archives at California universities such as UCLA and USC, along with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also have been extremely active in documenting the television and film industries.
For this reason I have frequently had occasion to explain to visitors that anyone studying popular entertainment might be advised to start in New England and work west, beginning their work in Boston, heading west to Wisconsin, then southwest to Texas, northwest to Wyoming, and finally southwest to California. Not quite the geographic journey most people expect.
Even long after some of the early acquisitions at the AHC, they served as magnets for other donations. For example, Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman, the X-men, Fantastic Four and other globally popular comic book characters, was a huge fan of Jack Benny, and agreed to donate his papers here because Benny’s papers had been acquired years earlier.
But celebrities have also chosen to entrust the AHC with their papers for other reasons. Television journalist Hugh Downs, long-time co-host of both the Today Show and 20/20, was approached by the AHC for his papers (as part of our national collecting of the history of journalism) and promptly asked members of his staff to investigate the best place for him to entrust with his archives. After sufficient research, his staff reported that the Center was the best place. Naturally, we agree.
We invite you to learn more about our various collecting areas, including, of course, our single largest set of collections, documenting Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West. Our current collection development policy can be found online if you’re curious about the ways in which the AHC builds its extensive body of collections. And while it came a few decades too late to have made the work of Hugh Downs’ staff easier, in 2010 the AHC received the Society of American Archivists’ Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor available to a U.S. repository.
–Mark Greene, AHC Director