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Ken Burns        

Historian & Award-Winning Filmmaker

For more than thirty years Ken Burns and his collaborators have produced and directed some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made.

Burns' works are treasure troves of archival materials; he skillfully utilizes period music and footage, photographs, periodicals and ordinary people's correspondence, the latter often movingly read by seasoned professional actors in a deliberate attempt to get away from a "Great Man" approach to history. Like most non-fiction filmmakers, Burns wears many hats on his projects, often serving as writer, cinematographer, editor and music director in addition to producing and directing. He achieved his apotheosis with The Civil War (1990), a phenomenally popular 11-hour documentary that won two Emmy Awards and broke all previous ratings records for public TV.

Following the success of The Civil War, Burns then made a combination of single films, miniseries, and extended series, including the epics Baseball (1994), which won an Emmy, and Jazz (2001). Burns’s later docu-series included The War (2007),The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009),The Tenth Inning (2010), The Address (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and more.

Burns frequently employed the distinctive voices of well-known actors in the narration of his films and twice collaborated on scores with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. His documentaries continued to accrue accolades from a variety of film and historical organizations. Many of them appeared on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network, often bringing it a marked increase in viewership when they aired.

He continually impresses and engages audiences by creating even more ambitious material, including Country Music (2019), which chronicles the history of a uniquely American art form, and Earnest Hemingway (2020) which focuses on the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation, and examines the visionary work and turbulent life of Ernest Hemingway.

Burns has been the recipient of more than 25 honorary degrees and has delivered many treasured commencement addresses. He is a sought after public speaker, appearing at colleges, civic organizations and business groups throughout the country.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1975 and went on to be one of the co-founders of Florentine Films.

Speech Topics

The National Parks - A Treasure House of Nature's Superlatives

Burns discusses, in this unusually moving and personal lecture, the great gift of our national parks. Here both the immensity and the intimacy of time merge, as we appreciate what the parks have added to our collective and individual spirit. He begins the talk with a 13-minute clip - the intro to The National Parks: Americas Best Idea.

Sharing the American Experience

Ken Burns reminds the audience of the timeless lessons of history, and the enduring greatness and importance of the United States in the course of human events. Incorporating The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz, Burns engages and celebrates what we share in common. No clips utilized in this presentation.

No Ordinary Lives

Drawing on some of Lincoln's most stirring words as inspiration, this speech engages the paradox of war by following the powerful themes in two of Ken Burns' best known works - The Civil War, his epic retelling of the most important event in American history and The War, his intensely moving story of WWII told through the experiences of so-called ordinary people from four geographically distributed American towns. The presentation opens with Norah Jones' American Anthem clip (5 min) from The War.

American Lives

This combines the biographies of some of Ken’s most fascinating subjects, including Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark and Frank Lloyd Wright. He shares how biography works, and gives insight into the storytelling process. No clips.

Race in America

For more than 30 years, Burns has been dealing with the theme of race in his uniquely American documentaries. Now, in the age of Obama, he looks back from the perspective of monumental change in the country to reflect where weve been. He uses several clips from earlier films in this presentation.

Mystic Chords of Memory

The Civil War continues to be the most important event in American history. In this eloquent address, Burns paints both an intimate and bird’s eye view of the searing events of the years1861 through 1865 and the war’s profound relevance to us today.

On-Stage Conversation/Audience Q&A

This is a less formal, Inside-the-Actors-Studio type of event. Ken responds to questions from moderator on all his films (or film-specific) and issues in history and contemporary American culture. Audience Q&A to conclude if wanted.


In this presentation, Burns takes audiences through the compelling saga of Prohibition's rise and fall that goes far beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation. He discusses with audiences the vital questions raised by this era and the 18th Amendment which are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago – about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.


Ken Burns' 'measure of devotion' for Gettysburg Address

Ken Burns' newest documentary is again about the Civil War, but with a modern twist. The Address is about a Vermont school for learning disabled boys who ...

Ken Burns on Clemens, Bonds and the Baseball Hall of Fame ...

There are few with a stronger grip on the history of baseball than filmmaker Ken Burns, and perhaps no one has had a bigger hand in mythologizing the game in  ...

Filmmaker Ken Burns will be Stanford's 2016 Commencement speaker

The documentary filmmaker, who has received dozens of major awards for his work, will speak at the university's main ceremony in Stanford Stadium on Sunday, June 12.

'The Vietnam War': Inside Ken Burns' Definitive 18-Hour ...

Inside 'The Vietnam War': How Ken Burns' 10-episode, 18-hour, 360-degree docuseries will change the way you think about the Southeast Asian conflict.

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