Herman J. Viola

Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries


Herman J. Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, received his B. A. (1960) and M.A. (1964) in history from Marquette University and his Ph.D. in history from Indiana University (1970).  A world-renowned historian, editor, and educator, his scholarly focus for nearly 60 years through public service, publications, and museum exhibits has been the3 exploration of the American West and the American Indian experience from contact to the present time.  Currently, he is the historian on the Citizens’ Coinage Advisory Committee for the U.S. Mint and the senior advisor to the National Native American Veterans Memorial to be opened at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in November 2020.

Among Dr. Viola’s major contributions to history is launching the first internship program for Native Americans at the Smithsonian in 1972.  The program, which encouraged Indians to become tribal librarians, archivists, and historians mentored some 65 inters from 55 tribes.  One of them, Lorraine Bigman (Navajo), became the first accredited Native American librarian; another, George Horse Capture (Gros Ventre), retired as a senior curator at the NMAI.

Dr. Viola began his career as an archivist with the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the National Archives in 1967 and then, in 1972, became director of the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution, a position he held until his retirement in 1993.  The Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives traces its origin back to western explorer John Wesley Powell, and has custody of one of the world’s largest and richest archival collections related to North American archaeology and ethnography, indigenous art work, and historical photographs.

Dr. Viola has published and edited extensively, first as assistant editor of the Indiana Magazine of History (1964-1967) and then as editor of Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives, which he launched in 1968.  In addition, he has authored, co-authored, and edited some 50 books according to the Library of Congress Card Catalog.  Among these are Thomas L. McKenney:  Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy, 1816-1830 (Sage Books, 1974); The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976); Diplomats in Buckskins (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), The National Archives of the United States (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1984); and Warriors in Uniform (National Geographic Society, 2007).  Little Bighorn Remembered:  The Untold Story of Custer’s Last Stand (Times Books, 1999) was selected by both Book of the Month Club and the Quality Paperback Club and was a primary selection of the History Book Club.  His most recent publication, co-authored with Ralph Ehrenberg, is Mapping the West with Lewis and Clark (Levenger Press in association with the Library of Congress, 2015).

Dr. Viola curated several major museum exhibitions.  With Peter Marzio, he co-curated in 1977 and co-wrote the catalog for Perfect Likenesses, an exhibit at the National Museum of American History that compared early 19th-century oil portraits of American Indian leaders by Charles Bird King and Henry Inman to lithographic copies.  It was the first time the paintings and lithographs from one of the country’s most ambitious 19th-century publishing ventures—History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836-44)—were reassembled to examine the project’s accuracy and historic value.  At the National Museum of Natural History, he curated Magnificent Voyagers:  The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, which opened in October 1985.  Dr. Viola, a naval veteran himself, welcomed the opportunity to tell the story of the round-the-world naval expedition credited with discovering Antarctica.  After its closing a year later, the exhibit then traveled to Wisconsin, Alaska, and Hawaii.  Dr. Viola also co-authored the exhibit catalog, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1985.  This was followed by Seeds of Change, which opened at the museum in 1991.  The exhibit 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.  Dr. Viola also co-authored the exhibit catalog: Seeds of Change:  A Quincentennial Commemoration (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).  For the National Museum of the American Indian, Dr. Viola curated Patriot Nations, which highlights the role of Native Americans in our nation’s armed forces.  Five copies of the poster exhibit are currently touring the country to raise public awareness of the forthcoming memorial.

In addition to his literary and curatorial work, Dr. Viola has authored a middle school social studies textbook, Why We Remember:  United States History (Addison-Wesley, 1997; Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007), and he has taught courses on archives, western exploration, and American Indian history and culture for the University of Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody and as an adjunct professor at George Washington University, American University, the University of Virginia, and the Catholic University of America.

In addition to his classroom work, Dr. Viola has conducted some 30 summer field trips in the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone national park, and Grand Teton national park in association with the Smithsonian Institution, the Snake River Institute in Jackson, Wyoming, the Yellowstone Institute with the University of Montana, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.  These field trips followed the routes of western explorers, including Lewis and Clark’s epic crossing of the Lolo train over the Bitterroot Mountains on horseback, and portions of the Oregon Trail.

In recognition of Dr. Viola’s lifelong public service and scholarly achievements, Wittenberg University (Springfield, OH) awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1988; and in 20016 he received the Helen Way Klingler College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award from Marquette University.

Dr. Viola’s association with our Society has been a long and productive one.  It began with a keynote address, “The Wilkes Expedition,” at the Society’s 27th Annual Meeting in London in 1987, and he organized and chaired sessions, notably “The First Explorers:  The Unrecognized Role of Native Peoples in Discovery and Exploration,” at the 45th Annual Meeting in Cody, Wyoming.

Last, but not least, Dr. Viola has made his mark as a marathon runner.  He started running marathon’s young—at the age of 50!  After completing seven full 26.2 mile marathons, he retired to half marathons, where he is frequently among the top finishers in his age group.  His last competition was this past May at St. Michaels, MD, where he came in second in the above 80 years old group.  Herman is currently training for his next event, the Outer Banks Half Marathon on Veteran’s Day this coming November.  One of his running buddies, Ann Bennett Schoper, reports that “He is a beast!!!” during a race.

Dr. Viola is the son of Italian immigrants who believed strongly in education as the key to achieving the American Dream, and he credits much of his academic and scholarly success to two of his academic advisors, Frank L. Klement and Father Francis Paul Prucha of Marquette University, and to his wife Susan, who not only encouraged him but also accompanied him on his many excursions in search of historical discoveries.

For his contributions to the Society for the History of Discoveries and for his years of public service and scholarship related to the histories of the American West and the American Indian, we honor Herman J. Viola and name him a Fellow of the Society of the History of Discoveries.

Fifty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Golden, Colorado
September 21, 2018

Prepared by Ralph E. Ehrenberg
(Photo of Herman Viola by Marguerite Ragnow Campion, 2018)

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