A specialist on the history of the American West, he served as director of the Museum's National Anthropological Archives in addition to organizing two major exhibitions for the Smithsonian. "Magnificent Voyagers" told the story of the United State Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, and "Seeds of Change" examined the exchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old and the New Worlds as a result of the Christopher Columbus voyages of discovery. Prior to joining the staff of the
Dr. Viola's research specialties include the American Indian, the Civil War, and the exploration of the American West. He has authored numerous books on these topics, including Exploring the West, After Columbus, Warrior Artists, Warriors in Uniform, The North American Indians, and Little Bighorn Remembered: the Untold Indian Story of Custer's Last Stand. He is also the author of the middle school social studies textbook, Why We Remember.
Dr. Viola received his B.A. and M.A. from Marquette University, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University/Bloomington.
1. How did you get hooked on history?
As a child I was very asthmatic and so I could not play sports. There was no television then—I was born in 1938. A cousin got me a library card and I began to read and I learned to love books and reading. My favorite books were about animals and history, especially Indians. I loved to talk about the books I read and I would tell my teachers what I learned.
I went to a Catholic grade school and my teachers were nuns. One day just before the dismissal bell rang my 3rd grade teacher asked me if I had read anything interesting that I could share with the class. I got in front of the class and told one of the stories I had read. I think it was about the knights and King Arthur’s court. Thereafter, every once in a while, I was asked to tell a story. Looking back on it now I realize the teacher had run out of things to teach and used me to fill in the time till the dismissal bell rang, but that got me started as a historian, a teacher of history.
2. How has history affected your personal life?
History has been a vital part of my life. If I had any talents, it was as an artist. I would often draw pictures of the historical events I read about. The nuns at my grade school recognized my artistic skills and I often was assigned the task of drawing scenes from history on large sheets of paper that other students would color. These would be hung on bulletin boards in the hall ways for parents to see during school visits. I would be absent from class days at a time doing these drawings. I received my best grades despite my absences from class.
Perhaps the most remarkable use of history in my personal life was during my navy boot camp. After my graduation from college, I took a wrong turn at a recruiting office and ended up at Great Lakes Navy Boot Camp instead of Officer Candidate school. Needless to say, I was one of the few college grads in my company. Most of the recruits were high school dropouts from the
It was this experience that convinced me to go for a master’s degree in history after I left the navy. My original plan had been to go to art school. The rest, as they say, is history. This experience also led me to get involved in writing history text books for high school because I was convinced a well told story would interest students and enjoy history no matter how dysfunctional their backgrounds.
3. How has history been a part of your professional life?
My original academic goal was to work at a museum as a curator. While in college at
4. Why is history important?
The knowledge of history is vital. History, in a sense, is the memory of mankind. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot full understand current events and that knowledge, ideally, helps us from making similar mistakes that bedeviled people in times past. I titled the middle school social studies textbook I wrote, Why We Remember, because youngsters always ask, why do we have to know that, why is that important? So the book outlines why it is important to know facts and to remember them.
5. What is the role of curators in preserving and promoting history?
Curators are scholars who specialize in certain subjects. Usually, they have several advanced degrees and work in museums or art galleries. Their specialties can seem very narrow, like the study of aquatic beetles or 18th French portraiture, but they fill an essential role in science and the arts. Usually curators are responsible for a museum’s collections in their subject areas and so they control access to these collections by other scholars and the public. Often, they are called upon to participate in exhibits that showcase the treasures in their custody. At the Smithsonian’s
There is some belief today that the role of curators is dying, but that is erroneous. The role of curator is evolving, adapting to the major changes in museum research and publication brought about by the technological revolution. Curators are becoming more public figures through educational programs, especially in the arts. Thanks to the internet, curators are empowering a wider audience through collaboration and innovation not only within their institutions but also in the virtual world.
6. What incomplete stories of American Indian or Western history are left to be told?
At first glance anyone interested in these topics would think there is nothing left to research and write about. The key is to find a topic of interest and then study what has already been told or written about it. This should raise questions. What is missing? Is there another side to the story that has been missed? One area of research that has many possibilities is biography. Even very famous people often have not had a biography written. My whole career as a historian evolved from a term paper topic I was assigned. My professor, Fr. Prucha, was writing a book and needed to know about Thomas L. McKenney, the man who started the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When I got the assignment I was very upset because no one had ever written his biography so I had to do considerable original research in archival materials and this was before the computer. My term paper received an A and I became fascinated with McKenney. Fr. Prucha suggested I write my master’s thesis about him, which I did. I then made him the topic of my doctoral dissertation. My dissertation then became my first book. That book led directly to my next two books because I discovered no one had written about two important topics that McKenney dealt with: the portraits of American Indians by Charles Bird King and the story of Indian chiefs who came to
All this resulted from a term paper assignment I did not want to write. Now, when I speak to school students, I tell them to always be happy with their assignments because they could open a door to their life’s work.
7. What accomplishments in history have been most rewarding to you personally?
I am proud of many things of the things I have accomplished during my career.