Concerted Action to Strengthen the Historical Enterprise: What Others Are Doing

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NYSPeter Feinman’s September 18th post describes discussions leading toward more cooperation, a more concerted approach to the historical enterprise here in New York, and hopefully a meeting to get things going.

That is a very encouraging development.

The needs, and opportunities, for cooperative action have been under discussion at least since the plenary session at the state history conference in Plattsburgh in 2009 on “Do We Need a Vision for New York State History?”

There have been informal discussions at dozens of meetings and many insights and suggestion on this web site. A special issue of the journal The Public Historian two years ago on “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights from New York” covered the same theme. A June 4 post here on the New York History Blog  summarized some of the proposals for action that have been under discussion.

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of issues where the state’s history community needed a common voice and an agenda: the status of state and local history in the state social studies standards; the “Path Through History” heritage tourism initiative; guidelines for grants via the regional economic development councils; state aid via Council on the Arts and other venues; initiatives to fend off budget cuts and strengthen local programs and local historians; and an electronic, online encyclopedia of New York history, just to name a few. In each case, a more unified vision and common voice for the state history community would almost certainly have altered the discussion and the results.

November would be an appropriate time for an initial discussion meeting – it is New York State History month!

As we look forward to the future, it might be helpful to glance beyond our own boundaries for some ideas and inspiration.

The Oregon Heritage Commission, in part as a reaction to reductions of public funding, issued a report entitled Oregon Heritage Vitality 2010: The Challenge of the Past for Oregonians Today and Tomorrow (January 2011) which identified and explained eight issues facing the state’s history programs:

*Unstable and inadequate government and private funding

*Little meaningful coordination and collaboration among heritage organizations and their communities

*The inability to measure and articulate the economic value of Oregon heritage

*Challenging educational requirements have reduced the time and respect given history instruction in primary, secondary and higher education

*Shortage of people with skills and knowledge to address issues of preservation, fund raising, leadership and technology

*Changing demographics and expectations, including developing new leadership

*Limited use of 21st century communications and advocacy strategies

*Uneven development and the use of technology

The report got the attention of the legislature, which created a “Heritage Vitality Task Force” to study the issues. The Task Force issued its Heritage Vitality Task Force Report last fall. The report advances several recommendations for funding and coordination. It also recommended strengthening the teaching of Oregon state history in the schools. The report’s website also has links to the minutes of some of the task force’s meetings and a 2006 survey of museums in the state, which are also of interest.

The Minnesota Historical Society, a model of innovation, has just opened its largest-ever exhibit, Then, Now, Wow!, designed especially for young people. The Society is developing an “app” for mobile phones that students can use to access additional resources and explore a number of themes in the exhibit. The Society has just published a revised textbook, Northern Lights  for teaching state history in the classroom. It is developing and piloting the online MNOpedia, a source of information on “significant people, places, events and things in Minnesota history.”

MHS is seeking input and advice from users in the development of the site. It has published Minnesota History: Building a Legacy on grants to historical and related programs under the state’s “Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.” The voters in 2008 approved the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution which created four Funds, including the Heritage Fund, and mandated that the resources be used “to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage.” (The fund receives about $12.5 million each year from the legislature. Based on the population difference between New York and Minnesota, such a program would mean about $45 million a year here.)

The New England Museum Association has spent much of the last couple of years trying to “anticipate trends, identify opportunities, and create innovative approaches to running a museum.” Two of their reports are particularly interesting: Museum Futures: Place Your Bet, by their Executive Director, Don Yeager, and Museums Incorporated: Mapping a Strategy for the Museum Field an articulation of the views of the region’s museum leaders on issues, trends, threats, and opportunities. It has a good deal of discussion about the impact of changing demographics, technology, changing audience expectations, and other issues which are similar to those here in New York (and in fact across the country).

The Government of Canada, preparing for the nation’s celebration of 150 years of confederation in 2017, is developing plans to transform the Canadian Museum of Civilization into a new Canadian Museum of History. The new museum “will present the national narrative of the history of Canada and its people, “says Mark O’Neil, who is heading the development effort. “With a renewed focus on the connections between past and present in the shaping of Canada and Canadians, the Museum will explore the major themes and seminal events and people of our national experience by bringing history to life and providing the public with a strong sense of Canadian identity.”

In the fall and winter of 2012-2013, the planning group used “crowdsourcing” – they solicited ideas via a website called My History Museum on “What would you put in your national history museum? What stories would you tell? How would you reach Canadians across the country?” Over a thousand people offered suggestions. The initiative has had some controversy – critics say the new museum may reflect the political ideologies of the current government – but it is a good example of leadership, a participatory process and a well-defined goal.

These and other new history initiatives have some common characteristics that may be useful to consider here in New York:

• Energetic and determined leadership.

• A broad, inclusive participatory process that widely solicits ideas and suggestions but also includes provision for evaluation and prioritization to get to a focus on key issues and action items and to build support.

• An agenda or plan and strategies for carrying it out.

• Optimal use of technology both in the process of developing the plan and in the history services delivered in the future.

• Realization that making substantial progress will take time but, given our long and exciting history and all the talented and determined people working on it across the state, New York has the potential for dramatic progress in strengthening its historical enterprise.


This entry was posted in History, Public History and tagged on by .
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 published 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). He can bereached at

5 thoughts on “Concerted Action to Strengthen the Historical Enterprise: What Others Are Doing

  1. Bill Hecht

    One thing that museums could do to “spread the word”, “reach out”, “encourage participation”, “expand membership”, “build a sense of place” and “increase donations of time, money and items” is to SHARE their collections. Share online with high quality scans of their collections that are hidden away.
    SHARE before the people who can identify these objects pass away.
    SHARE on your own or public web sites.
    I think you will be surprised that if you share then you will reach out to displaced community members from all over the world. You will build a much larger community than just those that pass through your doors. With active outreach you can expand membership, financial donations and donations to your collections. Not just objects but information and data.
    Don’t limit yourself.

    1. John WarrenJohn Warren


      Excellent advice.

      I would add that they should share their news and information with the readers of the New York History Blog, the largest audience of its kind. As always, we welcome regular contributions from history organizations and practitioners.

      This is a community effort. Participating grows the community, and the community’s awareness of the challenges and successes.

      Far more than any place else, this New York History Blog provides the history community with access to those who are interested in local history in New York State. That includes, students, advocates, professionals, and academics.

      I encourage organizations to contact me at to get involved and to spread the word about what they are doing.

      John Warren

  2. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman


    Thanks for the plug for the my post. You are exactly right. The regional meetings which MANY and APHNYS are planning are a big step in the right direction. Your call for a November discussion by the history community about the future and its direction in New York is also exactly right. I suggest a Saturday add-on to the NYS Archives conference already scheduled for November in Albany and that it should become an annual event.


    1. John WarrenJohn Warren

      FYI Peter,

      None of those meetings, nor the archives conference, have been announced on the state’s two history listerves, or sent here to the blog. None have appeared in the Google searches I track, or the various news feeds I follow.

      I guess those of us interested in attending have to use our psychic powers.

      John Warren

      1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman


        I continue to be disappointed in the absence of participation by the leaders of the New York History community in New York History. Part of the reason for my post was to share the information I received as a member of an organization with others who are not. There is no inherent reason why the information in the emails and newsletters of various statewide organizations both public and private can’t be shared with non-members. Perhaps if people knew more about what these organizations were doing, they would be more inclined to join, participate, and attend conferences, or even contribute ideas.

        For the record, while the regional meetings of APHNYS and MANY are new and/or revivals, the archives meeting in Albany is an annual November event with a call for papers.


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