Historical Societies: Getting Past Hard Times


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New York History is bringing much interesting news, mostly good, but some of it revealing needs and the potential for greater attainment through cooperation, higher visibility, and more funding. News in the popular press also reveals improvement opportunities. Historical societies are a case in point.

Saratoga County is one of the most progressive and historically significant counties in the state. Its Chamber of Commerce web site touts its “character, history and charm”, describes The Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the American Revolution, its numerous museums and historic sites, and includes a historical essay on the county and a brochure on historic preservation in Saratoga Springs.

The international firm Global Foundries is building a $4.6 billion chip fab plant in Malta, bringing thousands of jobs (and many newcomers) and also serving as “an engine for economic growth” especially along Route 9, where “buildings have sprouted up with space for offices, stores and apartments catering to the high-tech juggernaut,” according to an article in the Albany Times Union.

Saratoga emphasizes its history, is making more of it in a dramatic fashion, and presumably would like the thousands of people who are coming to live and work in the county to know something of the history of their new home and working place. But the county legislature, in a cost-cutting move last November, reduced the county’s support for the Saratoga County Historical Society in Ballston Spa from a very modest $13,000 to zero for 2012. At a public hearing on the budget in December, the County Administrator said “this has been the most challenging budget process for the County in recent memory. Due largely to forces beyond our control, including state mandates” the County was faced with “painful choices” and reductions.

The Society’s president, in an open letter pointed out that the Society provides “incredible educational opportunities for thousands of county children and adults,” sponsors public events, and has curatorial responsibility for over 20,000 artifacts. This is the organization “whose very purpose is to foster appreciation of our county’s rich heritage.” She also described the several other approaches that the Society uses to raise funds to support its work. Several people, advocated restoration of the funds at the December public hearing. The County relented a bit, restoring less than half of the funding.

Ballston Spa National Bank came to a partial rescue by donating $10,000. In a news release, the bank’s Chief Executive Officer said: “From caring for and preserving the county’s historic artifacts and memories to providing educational programs for thousands of local school children each year, the Brookside Museum is a tremendous resource to the Village of Ballston Spa and greater Saratoga region.”

Nevertheless, the Society had to close its historic house, Brookside, for January to save money. The Society’s Executive Director told the Saratogian that the county reduction comes on top of a 10% reduction in funding from the state Council on the Arts. “Brookside operates on a shoestring budget,” she noted and the reductions necessitated “extreme measures.”

But the Saratoga County Historical Society’s determination to continue its mission – “inspire community memory by telling the story of Saratoga through engaging exhibits and interactive programs” – is undiminished. That is indicative of much of New York’s historical enterprise – pride, energy and dedication to the cause keeps things moving even in very challenging times.

Of course Saratoga is not alone. Many county historical societies – and those in towns, cities, and villages – are partially dependent on public funds, and governments at all levels are being pressured to save money. Many historical societies are feeling the strain of maintaining quality programs in hard economic times. And there is a great deal of variation among them, as a recent post by Peter Feinman reminded us.
But the whole issue of support for community history programs needs discussion and consideration of new approaches. Hard times are great times to plan for better times! This is one of the reasons we need strong leadership and a consultative/action forum such as a state history council.

Some things we, the state’s historical community, might consider doing:

Contact Governor Andrew Cuomo, thank him for the unprecedented references to state history in his State of the State address and for the historical exhibits he has opened in the Capitol and urge him to build on that interest to support a state history program.
Identify a new source of state funding for history, e.g., 1 % of the income from the casinos that Governor Cuomo is advocating. “One Per Cent For New York’s History!” might be the slogan.

Develop a publication on “The Case for Public Funding for Local Historical Programs.” The “case” may be obvious to us but it is not apparent to public authorities, particularly in hard times.

In addition to approaching funding one local government at a time, as we do for the most part now, try a new path – get their associations interested: the New York State Association of Counties, New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials and the Association of Towns. Open discussions with them about historical issues, the benefits of local history programs in building strong communities, and the need for strong support for officially designated local government historians.

Develop an advocacy case for approaching businesses to fund history programs. For instance, Global Foundries might be interested in sponsoring exhibits, underwriting a history of the county, supporting a business history of the region, encouraging employees to join the historical society, or working on a records management/documentation/archival program.

Move away from “scarcity thinking” toward “abundance thinking” as described by Anne Ackerson, Director of the Museum Association of New York, in her article “The History Museum in New York State: A Growing Sector Built on Scarcity Thinking” in the August 2011 issue of The Public Historian. Approaches noted there include revisiting and redefining missions, broadening the resource base, cooperation among programs, consolidating small/marginal programs, mergers with academic institutions, taking advantage of social media and other information technologies, and other strategic approaches. The Museum Association’s publication What Comes First: Your Guide to Building a Strong, Sustainable Museum or Historical Organization (2010) provides additional helpful guidance and suggestions.

Develop a website or blog, or more than one, for historical societies (and other historical programs) to stay in touch with each other, discuss and highlight model practices, and share strategies for dealing with hard times such as budget reductions.

Revise and update the state requirements and procedures for chartering historical societies and museums to place more emphasis on strategic planning, mission, cooperation and ensuring sources of support.

Revise the state social studies curriculum to restore a full year of study of New York State history and strengthen the teaching of local history.

Revise state educational aid formulas to support cooperative initiatives with historical programs and visits to historical sites by students. But avoid calling them “field trips” which makes them a tempting target for budget cutters. Instead, recast them and call them something like “integrated social studies curriculum enhancement activities ” or something similar (hopefully, more felicitous!)

Photo: Brookside’s Executive Director, Joy Houle and President, Jeanne Obermayer with Ballston Spa National Bank’s President and CEO, Christopher R. Dowd.

 

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books forthcoming in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH).

One thought on “Historical Societies: Getting Past Hard Times

  1. Anne W. Ackerson

    Great post, Bruce, and full of great, actionable ideas! I’m sharing it with my colleagues at the NY Council for the Humanities, which is fighting right now for $450K of funding in the state budget.

    The funding for heritage organizations is like a crazy quilt — it comes from a variety of sources — none coordinated. And a good chunk of it may not be particularly reliable from year to year.

    Reply

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