If there is one thing historians should know, it is that “things change.” After all, without change, history would have no meaning. And historians would have no jobs. Face it. Everyone may love history. But the reason some of us collect paychecks, practically speaking, is that we perform the unique and essential service of helping people understand history—not so we can all venerate the past but so that we can change the way things are and make history ourselves.
I bring this up, because there is some irony to the way in which historians themselves deal with changes in their own lives. New York University’s Thomas Bender recently observed that many professionally trained historians are still pining for the good old days of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s—what he describes as the “Golden Age” of academic history—when the best option for historians was to pursue a Ph.D., land a job at a prestigious research university, and produce quasi-scientific research for small groups of their peers. Things change, however, and those days are clearly over. Today, the academic job market has all but dried up, and it is becoming increasingly clear that historians are most relevant—and employable—when they communicate with audiences other than themselves. Even so, the people teach at those prestigious (and competitive) research universities often bury their heads in the sand and refuse “to take the first step toward reducing their graduate enrollments [simply] because reduction smacks of entropy and loss of face,” according to James Axtell of the College of William and Mary.
Some historians working outside the academy seem also to be having a difficult time adjusting to change. Not too long ago, Pete Daniel, a history curator at the National Museum of American History, complained about the constraints being put upon him by his museum’s management. As Brown University’s Stephen Lubar wrote at the time, however, Dr. Daniel was stuck in a “Golden Age of the Museum” that, in fact, had never been particularly golden—except of course for privileged curators who had grown accustomed to choosing their own very academic research topics, collecting artifacts which they deemed significant, dictating the topics for exhibitions, and overseeing program development. But once again, things have changed, and the curator-as-king model is being replaced, in Lubar’s words, “by a much more interesting, if more complicated, approach that involves not only curators and academics but also educators, the public, and, yes, even donors, as stake-holders in shaping interactive learning experiences that are very different than the academic books and articles so appealing to scholars-turned-curators.” In other words, we are all in this together, and curators and academics turn out better products when they listen as well as lecture.
This message is not being lost in New York. There may still be historians, curators, and others who seek their Utopia in the past—but there are also professionals here who want to create their golden age in the future. And happily for this latter group, the state’s Office of Cultural Education (OCE) recently gained Board of Regents approval to move ahead with a plan that should keep State Museum, Library, and Archives professionals—and the New Yorkers with whom they work—looking to the future. Research will continue, certainly, and at a high level—but it will be more open and support direct service to public audiences rather than to small groups of like-minded peers. Collections, which have grown substantially in recent years, will continue to get sufficient maintenance but will also have their educational utility reviewed in light of changing public needs. The bottom line will be that OCE professionals will share authority with the public and provide people with more and better educational services, information, exhibits, and programs than ever before. Simply stated, collaborations and cooperation are now in.
This new focus should become apparent soon. OCE is currently in the midst of planning a major exhibition, entitled “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State and the American Civil War.” It is scheduled to open at the State Museum in the fall of 2012. This will be an exhibition that features not only the extensive museum, library, and archives collections in Albany but scores of artifacts and documents from more than twenty-five museums, historical societies, town historians, and private individuals all over New York. Likewise, the exhibition will highlight stories contributed by New Yorkers from many different places and backgrounds. Independent scholars will be playing a part, too, thanks to a grant from the New York Humanities Council which enabled a panel of distinguished professionals to critically review the exhibition script. The exhibition will stay open to the public for at least a year, during which time it will be supplemented by cooperatively developed public and school programs.
Other changes are in the works, too. And we in Albany are looking forward to working with old and new friends and to making good things happen, not just in the Capital Region, but from Plattsburgh to Jamestown and from Montauk to Massena. Stay tuned.
For more on the changes taking shape in university history departments, see http://ncph.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Engaged-Historian-Report-FINAL1.pdf.
Photo courtesy Tom H. C. Anderson.