November is New York State History Month. The purpose, according to Section 52.02 of the state Arts and Cultural Affairs Law is to “celebrate the history of New York State and recognize the contributions of state and local historians.”
State Historian Bob Weible’s very informative October 22 post on the history of History Month reminds us that “its fate really depends on us.”
That’s certainly true for History Month, and true for the future of the historical enterprise generally.
We have some impressive advantages. For instance, New York is the only state to have a full-time State Historian. We’re the only state with officially designated local government historians. The New York History Blog regularly reports on outstanding programs and achievements, but it also demonstrates the vast potential that might be achieved through more concerted action.
Are there any “State History Month” events anywhere in the state? For instance, exhibits, official proclamations, newspaper articles or editorials, interviews with local historians, politicians citing the value of historic preservation in their election campaigns, or heritage tourism initiatives tied to History Month?
Here are a few things we might be doing, either individually or collectively as the state’s history community, either during State History Month this year or in preparation for next year.
Except for the first one, they are no-cost.
- Support and contribute to the “Keep the NY History Blog Alive in 2014” initiative outlined by John Warren. John has been maintaining this blog with his own talent, dedication and resources for nearly six years. This site is invaluable, the only place for keeping up to date on developments in New York state and local history.
- Ask Governor Cuomo to issue a proclamation noting New York State History Month and commending the dedication, work, and contribution to community history of the state’s officially appointed local government historians. It should be an easy request to make since the Governor is very interested in state history and the month is already designated in law.
- Issue a statewide news release on New York State History Month, suggesting that local media outlets may wish to interview local historians about their work and contributions.
- Work with and through the New York State Association of Counties, the Association of Towns, and the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials to encourage articles in their newsletters, resolutions and activities in support of local history and local historians during New York History Month, citing, for instance, heritage tourism and the positive impact of historic preservation and historic districts in elevating property values (and thereby increasing local resources.)
- The appeal for resources for this New York History Blog is another demonstration of both needs and opportunities for statewide coordination and common action. What is needed is for an organization to call a meeting, or a series of meetings, or build a temporary website, to seek input and discussion on how to strengthen the capacity of New York’s historical community to carry out the preservation, interpretation, teaching, learning, research, publication, study and use of New York’s history. The appeal for such an initiative dates from the plenary session of the 2009 state history conference and the need has been demonstrated many times since then. There are a number of useful models, including a Canadian site My History Museum, used to solicit input for planning for a new national history museum.
- Keep advocating for the teaching of New York state and local history in New York’s schools (a good place to start is by reviewing the latest draft of the “New York State Common Core K-8 Social Studies Framework“, expected to be finalized soon). As Bob Weible pointed out, student essays are specifically suggested in the History Month statute.
- Revisit the state guidelines for chartering historical societies to strengthen advice about mission, sustainable resources, collecting policies, cooperative programs, and other strategies described in the Museum Association of New York’s What Comes First: Your Guide to Building a Strong, Sustainable Museum or Historical Organization (With Real-Life Advice From Folks Who’ve Done It).
- Call attention to New York’s neglected Civil War leadership during New York History Month by writing and speaking about the state’s three Civil War governors whose roles are under-rated by historians and mostly unrecognized by the public: Edwin Morgan (first chair of the Republican National Committee, strong supporter of the war effort particularly at the beginning when Lincoln had a critical need for troops and support from the states), Horatio Seymour (prominent opponent of Lincoln’s civil rights policies and the draft), and Reuben Fenton (advocate for wounded soldiers, transitioned the state back to a peacetime economy).
- Start planning now for historical anniversaries coming up in the next few years, e.g., through developing a template and guide for local anniversaries and planning celebrations, for instance, of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the first state constitution, 1777, tying plans to study in the schools, heritage tourism, and promotion of state and local history. Two states that are partial models for calling attention to their historical accomplishments: New Jersey, celebrating its 350th anniversary next year (New Jersey 350) and Florida, celebrating its 500th anniversary this year (Viva Florida 500). Both states are pushing their own historical prominence and accomplishments. “Contrary to popular belief, Florida was the first place of European arrival in the Continental United States in 1513 and it has the longest recorded history of any state in America,” says the Florida website. “Florida’s 500th anniversary presents a unique opportunity to strengthen tourism, spur economic development and educate the world about the state’s significant history and heritage,” said a press release issued to kick off the celebration. “Viva Florida 500 is a once-in-our-lifetime opportunity to reposition and rebrand Florida by highlighting 500 years of history and unmatched cultural diversity. “
- Establish a “New York History” channel on You Tube for posting, for instance, of videos of events during History Month, presentations at the annual state history and state historical research conferences, etc.
Of course these are just a few possibilities. There might be many others.
Who should take the lead in pursuing these or other initiatives? The state’s history community is large and robust. There are many possibilities. It could be any of the following, or a combination of them, or other groups. All of the programs listed below have statutory or charter responsibility in the area of state or local history:
*Association of Public Historians of New York State
*Greater Hudson Heritage Network
*Museum Association of New York
*New York Council for the Humanities
*New-York Historical Society
*New York State Council on the Arts
*New York State Historical Association
*State Archives/Archives Partnership Trust
*State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation/State Historic Preservation Officer
*SUNY Albany Public History Program
*Other college and university history departments
As Bob Weible’s noted, “New York’s history community is large and diverse. It has more power than many of us recognize. But it’s up to us—and no one else—to find a way to realize that power. Together, we can live up to our responsibilities, and we really can make a difference.”