The Purpose of Historical Societies:
The Westchester Experience


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Westchester CountyWestchester County decided that historical heritage is not important. It is too insignificant to waste any time, energy, and effort supporting.

I was reminded of this reality in a recent article in the local paper entitled “Hotels Get Upscale Updates.”  Coincidentally, the hotel is where the annual conference of social studies teachers in the Lower Hudson Valley had been held until this year. In fact, according to the article the $15,000,000 renovation followed the $12,000,000 renovation at the hotel where we will be meeting this year.

One reason cited for the renovation was the increase in travel and tourism and Westchester which totaled $1,700,000,000 last year. Note the distinction between travel and tourism. County Executive Rob Astorino is quoted as saying, “The reinvestment shows the strength of Westchester as a business and leisure destination…” Again notice the differentiation.

A previous article entitled “Economy Sparks Local Tourism” clarifies the point. This time Astorino said, “ We want more visitors. So we go after them and last year we launched Meet Me in Westchester.” The campaign worked, local taxes are up, jobs increased, and renovations followed.

Meet Me in Westchester to do what? According to the article, the county launched a new shuttle bus service twice a week to serve a dozen hotels. To take the guests where? To Yonkers gaming halls, restaurants, and performances. Again, history tourism is not important in Westchester. The situation may be different in other counties.

The County has a VisitWestchester website. On it there is an itineraries section under “Plan Your Trip”. I did see quite a few historic sites listed in various sections, but the heading for the site is revealing:

Whether you’re here with a bus tour, attending a family reunion or participating in a corporate retreat, you might want to have a few options available for interesting side trips. Here are a few itinerary ideas and a sampling of places to discover.

The county doesn’t have any bus tours itself to offer, but if you are in the neighborhood for whatever reason and have some free time and need to keep the kids occupied here are a whole bunch of places you might go, including historic sites and family fun locations.

So the primary reasons for “Meeting me in Westchester” are for a business meeting, a conference, a family event (wedding, high school or college graduation, etc.), to gamble, to shop, and to dine and maybe if you have time for a side trip to visit an historic site or ecological/recreation site/trail to hike and bike. One would never know from this website that the Path project exists. I wonder if that is true on the websites of other counties and boroughs in the state.

Yes, there should be organized paths in Westchester.

There should be a Yonkers Path through History.
There should be a Rivertown Path through History
There should be a Croton Aqueduct Path through History.
There should be an American Revolution Path through History.
There should be a Route 22 Path through History.
There should be a Mad Men Up-the-River Path through History

These and others aren’t that hard to put together. There’s just no interest.

When people from the Big Apple meet people in Westchester to dine on the Hudson River in Yonkers, no one cares if they walk up hill along the now day-lighted Saw Mill River to visit Philips Manor Hall.

When people from the Big Apple meet people in Westchester to dine on the Hudson River in Hastings-on-Hudson, no one cares if they walk (or drive) uphill to visit the Hastings Historical Society.

When people from the Big Apple meet people in Westchester  to dine on the Hudson River in Dobbs Ferry, no cares if they walk (or drive) uphill to visit the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society.

When people from the Big Apple meet people in Westchester to dine on the Hudson River in Irvington, no cares if they walk (or drive) uphill to visit the Irvington Historical Society.

When people from the Big Apple meet people in Westchester to dine on the Hudson River in Tarrytown, no cares if they walk (or drive) uphill to visit the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Historical Society.

Why should they? Is that why historical societies exist? The history community is in danger of falling into the trap that the purpose of historical societies is to be a tourist attraction for out-of-state and foreign visitors. I am sorry but not all 1600 communities in the state are quaint or of global importance.

Do libraries have to cost-justify themselves as tourist attractions or are they considered an essential part of the fabric of the community?

Do schools have to cost-justify themselves as tourist attractions or are they considered an essential part of the fabric of the community?

Then why should historical organizations which are chartered by the same NYSED have to? Why should history sites be forced to compete with shopping, gambling, and recreation?

Is it really the purpose of historical organizations to be a revenue provider for the community or should they be considered just as essential to the community as the local library and school?

A nationwide corporate ad by Benjamin Moore made this very point:  “Our community is a place where we gather and where memories are made. As a proud local business owner we want to help it thrive.”

Benjamin Moore knows what the Governor, county executives, mayors, and town supervisors do not. The lesson for some vibrant and some desperate historical societies in the many communities in Westchester is that their purpose is to help define and maintain the community in which they are located.

The Governor isn’t listening to this because the history community is too fractured, too divided, too impotent, and too weak to deliver the message. If the history community can’t collectively make the case for its existence in the state, why should anyone care?

“(I)f I have a lot to do [on the plane] and not much time to talk I’ll tell someone I work for a small history museum in upstate New York. That’s a conversation stopper.” Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown.

 

15 thoughts on “The Purpose of Historical Societies:
The Westchester Experience

  1. William Hosley

    Thank you once again. Its gotten to the point where I know immediately when its going to be a Feinman essay right from the titles which often evoke a “say what?” “this sounds interesting” response. Nothing any professional group does or publishes this year or next will be as to the point, provocative and insightful as what you seem to do each time out. I am really trying to keep up with you and its hard – not as prolific and not as consistently spot on. But I know the difference and you, friend, are the king – not just of NY history – but our national history and why it matters. That said, my Housing Our History site on FB isn’t bad and I will immediately post this link there. Thanks for all you do. https://www.facebook.com/HousingOurHistory

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thanks Bill. I appreciate what you write and say on the phone. When you write these posts, which do take time and effort, you always wonder if they have any meaning or if they are like the tree falling the woods that no one hears or does anything about.

      Reply
  2. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez

    As a matter of fact Peter, this past Sunday, September 22, The Ossining Historical Society Museum held a tour called “Mad About Ossining.” We took 60 people to the various places in this Village that gave this fictional drama the sense of authenticity that makes any piece of fiction believable. In this regard we connected each tour stop to Pulitzer Prize author, John Cheever who lived here for many years and who the show’s creator, Mathew Weiner credits as his inspiration for the show. Anyway we do four historically oriented tours each year that includes churches, cemeteries, homes and other places that are architecturally and historically significant. The local media has been very helpful in publicizing these events and this year we got help from the Historic Hudson River Towns organization. We have reached out to the Westchester County Tourism Office but with no success. I have heard that the ter County Office of Tourism has received a grant from NYS for development of a plan but they have not reached out to the various historical societies here, as far as I know.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      As it turns out on Sunday I was in Ossining for the inaugural Rochambeau River Crossing. I had the opportunity to meet the Ossining mayor and town supervisor and speak with them about Paths. The Mad men tour was mentioned which I already knew about. I think there is interest in creating a local path that might include nearby communities of Peekskill and Croton and I intend to follow up on this. With your walking tours already developed, it probably would be pretty easy to create an Up-the-River Mad men path.

      Peter

      Reply
  3. Valerie LaRobardier

    “Benjamin Moore knows what the Governor, county executives, mayors, and town supervisors do not. The lesson for some vibrant and some desperate historical societies in the many communities in Westchester is that their purpose is to help define and maintain the community in which they are located.

    The Governor isn’t listening to this because the history community is too fractured, too divided, too impotent, and too weak to deliver the message. If the history community can’t collectively make the case for its existence in the state, why should anyone care?”

    No words of wisdom of my own to add right now…I just think these lines deserve being repeated! Let’s all give some thought on how to use the first to rectify the second.

    Reply
  4. Mimi Sherman

    As a consulting curator I have worked professionally both directly and indirectly for and with a good many Historical Societies In Westchester and have seen the lack of interest in both content and preservation. It is generally deplorable – with some notable exceptions – but, frankly, not different from experience in other parts of the northeast. The interest needed to both support and advance the missions of these sites is simply lacking.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thank you for your comments from the front line. It seems like there are some significant issues to discuss for the history community at the appropriate state conferences and with elected officials.

      Reply
  5. Jim "Zak" Szakmary

    This Feinman article causes me to reflect on Michael Crichton’s famous quote, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” I think the governor could possibly make some “historical” headway by employing the SUNY system throughout our state in order to project the importance of historical sites, landmarks and societies. Furthermore, every community college could follow suit in their counties as well. Let’s all begin to acknowledge that we’re part of a much larger tree.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Your comment by coincidence directly connects with what I just wrote in response to a comment by Rosemary Vietor. In fact, we are using some of the same words! Although the Queens conference is at a CUNY and not a SUNY, the same opportunity applies. Certainly it would be great if the governor actively supported history in New York State after a year we know that actions speak louder than words and the history community is not sufficiently organized to speak the words to the governor he needs to hear.

      Reply
  6. Rosemary Vietor

    Well said. I grew up in Westchester near the Jay House. I don’t recall going there until I was an adult. My impression is there was not much outreach. In Queens, the elected officials have been very supportive of preservation and of cultural organizations in general. They are well aware of the benefits to the community. I believe that the Queens County Farm Museum, the last farm remaining is Queens, is the most visited historic house in the city. Education is very important in the borough; many of these historic sites are visited by local school groups. The Louis Armstrong House, a national historic landmark, has very good attendance any many international visitors.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      As it turns out, this Friday there will be a conference on Queens history at Queens College and historic organizations have been invited to set up table displays. Many in Queens have accepted. So instead of it simply being an academic conference to extoll Queen’s position as the fourth largest city in America, we are also using as a chance to bring the Queens history community together and develop plans to better reach out into the community. I will be writing about this event in a future post. Imagine if every SUNY and CUNY held such an event in its county!

      As for the Jay Center, I have had teacher programs there and expect it to participate in the social studies conference 12/6 in White Plains.

      Reply
  7. Darwin Stapleton, Executive Dir. Emeritus, Rockefeller Archive Ctt

    History ain’t what it used to be. Collections of old china of dubious ancestry and muskets that might have been used in the Revolutionary War are not going to draw visitors when the public can see the real things on Antiques Roadshow. Unprocessed manuscripts that are not accessible on the web will not feed the public imagination when History Detectives can be viewed anytime. Local”memory institutions” need to get into the 21st century. There’s a huge population out there in love with history; new strategies are needed to get them off the couch.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      You are exactly right. The times, they are a changing and the local memory institutions do need to become part of the 21st century. This also includes recognizing that the history of their community wasn’t limited solely to colonial and revolutionary times but continued on even after the Civil War. Perhaps the Rockefeller Archive could participate in discussion at the annual social studies teacher conference in White Plains this December on how to do that at least with the schools.

      Peter

      Reply
  8. Gary Berton

    The new Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle is interested in developing an educational link to local historic sites, especially related to Paine and the American Revolution. The Thomas Paine National Historical Association is part of this Institute, and we hope to be working with them and the Paine Cottage in the near future to develop work on two fronts: a destination point as part of local history in conjunction with the above institutions, and a curriculum initiative around Paine and the local history which I hope to be presenting at the December WLHCSS Conference. Hopefully this will provide an organizational impetus for expanding historical tourism in the area, and integrating that with school programs.

    Reply

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