Peter Feinman: State of the New York State Historian


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New York State CountiesNew York State Historian Bob Weible recently asked if New York State History Month was dead. History Month was born in 1997 by an act of the New York State Legislature as an addition to the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law. It designated November as the month and defined the purpose of the event to celebrate state history including to recognize state and local historians.

In addition, the Education Department was authorized to promote the month although no specific suggestions were made beyond having student essay contests. The program limped along on a scattered and haphazard basis until 2002 when it apparently died without even the benefit of a funeral.

Bob is a strong advocate of public history. Previously he was president of the National Council on Public History. He wrote an article he wrote in 2008 entitled “Defining Public History: Is It Possible? Is It Necessary?” where he notes that at one time the American Historical Association sought to professionalize history, including historical societies, teachers, and amateur historians, but that it became a professional organization for scholars. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) split from the AHA in 1940 to address the other groups. I confess to not being too familiar with this organization, but they did ask me to contribute an article for its winter issue based on my piece “Bedford Falls Historical Society”. It might be interesting to know how the other states are handling such things as state history months.

Bob’s own personal experience sheds light on what New York State might do if it were serious about promoting local history. He sent me an article he wrote in 2011 for the Public Historian entitled “Vision and Reality: Reconsidering the Creation and Development of Lowell’s National Park, 1966-1992” which draws on his own work there. He cites the Superintendent of Schools in Lowell maintaining that the city’s cultural heritage was the key to its future. Lowell’s buildings were to be props to tell “human stories” and the city itself was a living museum or “urban laboratory.” The Superintendent’s vision was to create a master narrative for the people so Lowell would be a place “that created a oneness among all the ethnic groups and a great sense of pride among all Lowell’s residents.”  Isn’t this exactly what the Common Core Curriculum and Path through History should do? This approach was even intended to “develop a lively tourist industry.”

One early advocate of this approach was Lowell City Councilman Paul E. Tsongas who would later go on to national fame. Tsongas grew up in Lowell and in a speech he declared, “What I do regret is that I never learned about Lowell.”  He didn’t know about the canals which ran through the city, the redbrick mills, or the immigrant groups which came to his city. Identity was not important in education said Tsongas or today we might say “a sense of place.” Weible quotes Tsongas as saying, “We can help many Americans rediscover a much neglected past.” The remainder of the article describes the trials and tribulations in making this vision of Lowell as a national center for the study of industrial history a reality.

This Lowell experience provides some insight into the types of things the new State Historian would have liked to accomplish in New York. It hasn’t worked out that way. The budget for the New York State Historian does not provide for the resources, including staff and travel, for the State Historian to become a leading advocate for local and state history. Much of his time is consumed by being a museum curator at the New York State Museum. There is insufficient time and staff to attend/create regional meetings that the 1600+ municipal historians can attend. He does not appear to be a lobbyist with the Tourist or Education (Curriculum) departments and your guess about his involvement in the Path through History project is as a good as mine.

For example, Bob only learned of the New York History Month through New York History when Bruce Dearstyne, formerly of the New York State Archives, wrote a post in 2012 mentioning it. Since that time 2012 and 2013 have come and gone with little being done to revive it. The Governor certainly didn’t include any shout outs to state and local historians in his State of the State address. Perhaps since municipal historians are another unfunded mandate from Albany, it is just as well. Even with all the fuss about the Path through History and the taking credit for June events that organizations would do even if the Path didn’t exist, the State did nothing about State History Month.

Bob would like to see New York State History Month revived and made healthy. In his post, he challenged the history community to work together with open minds to make it work. He referred to the dialog which began last June at the NYSHA meeting in Cooperstown in a private meeting with the heads of various historical organizations and the realization of the need to work together.

Gerry Smith, APHNYS president who participated in that meeting, expressed similar views in the newsletter to the public historians. With the upcoming APHNYS, MANY, NYSCSS, and NYSHA conferences with Bob delivering the “State of the State’s History” address at APHNYS, there are plenty of opportunities to continue the dialog. Even the Path through History Summit could be a setting for productive discussion and not just a self-congratulatory PR extravaganza. I am sure we all look forward to hearing about the results of the Cooperstown meeting and having the dialog Bob wrote about last October.

12 thoughts on “Peter Feinman: State of the New York State Historian

    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thanks for your reply. Perhaps you could submit a post about your plans and hopes for your own historic site and what you would like to see in Ulster County. I look forward to meeting you on the 25th.

      Peter

      Reply
  1. William Hosley

    I see you constantly working at this issue – why history matters. The Lowell example was a big influence on me. I wish we could have a conference on this, film the thing and get it out there – where David McCullough, Ken Burns, you and whoever else we can find that has the firepower and insight needed to smash a hole through this wall – convenes to nail it down – because its clear enough to me that civics and and especially civic attachment – the basis of socially cooperative behavior -is the answer or at least a big part of it; Critical thinking – all that is important too. But the power of local history to foster civic attachment is HUGE and a major factor in economics, community betterment, entrepreneurship – anything the narrowest of mediocrities with their MBA’s insist on measuring- it touches all of it and it is powered by a sense of place & PAST. One cannot love something they do not know. Places people care about are healthier, happier and more prosperous. To know a place one simply must know not just NOW – but what came before – the voyage. Maybe this doesn’t reduce to a bumper sticker. Maybe we haven’t found one yet. But it is a sure as the sun rising and is something most bureaucrats and academic historians with their cool detachment and coded language – do not understand or care about.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      You raise a good point, Bill. Perhaps if we did have some conferences on these subjects and taped them, they could be shown on YouTube to a wider audience. While I am a strong believer in the benefits of physical attendance at a conference, we also need to recognize the practicalities and costs of converging at one location at the same time. The history community needs to do a better job of communicating the issues. Here in New York we couldn’t use Lowell but there are plenty of other topics from thematic conferences like the existing ones on the War of 1812 or the French and Indian War to the education conferences like the New York State Council for Social Studies to issues where the APHNYS and NYSHA provide excellent venues.

      Reply
  2. Barb Benkwitt

    The APHNYS annual meeting is Sunday thru Wednesday March 16-19, 2014 in Saratoga Springs. See http://www.aphnys.org/programs-meetings-and-databases/ for further information. Each APHNYS region has been encourage to have at least one regional meeting during the year. For Region 6 (=~Northern NY. Adirondacks) – an expanded regional meeting will be in Plattsburgh on Friday June 6, 2014. Some (but far from all) of the municipal historians are represented in these APHNYS meetings.

    What about New York’s Museum Week for 2014? Has that been scheduled yet? Had been under the ‘I Love NY’ banner in the past.

    FYI – Clinton County NY is holding their 7th annual Museum Days on June 7-8; free admission to most museums in the area as well as special programs that weekend. Essex County will likely do the same on the weekend day or days prior

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Hi Barb,

      As a member of APHNYS, I plan to attend the upcoming the conference which itself is the subject of another post by the New York History editor. I hope to write posts on APHNYS both before and after the conference. I also have attended two regional meetings in the Hudson Valley where I live and expect to attend future regional meetings if they are held. It would be nice if reports from the regional meetings were included in the APHNYS newsletter or were posted to the website so we could share our experiences and learn from each other.

      I suspect we will be nearing about Museum Week/Path through History soon especially in an election year. This will enable the Governor to take credit for the events including even for your 7th annual Museum Day which obviously originated before he became Governor. Still, congratulations are in order to you and Essex County for organizing such programs on a county basis. You should consider writing a post for New York History on how you were able to achieve this.

      Reply
  3. Rosemary Vietor

    Peter,

    I have been working to promote the legacy of the Flushing Remonstrance and wanted to share with the readers of New York History how individuals can work with local Representatives.
    Check out the YouTube video listed below.

    Rosemary

    MEMORANDUM
    To: Members, Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation
    From: The Honorable Rob Bishop, Chairman
    Subject: Legislative Hearing – February 26, 2014

    On Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. in room 1334 Longworth House Office Building, the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation will hold a legislative hearing on the following bills:

    H.R. 1501 (Jeffries), To direct the Secretary of the Interior to study the suitability and feasibility of designating the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, as a unit of the National Park System. “Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument Preservation Act”

    H.R. 3222 (Meng), To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of sites associated with the 1657 signing of the Flushing Remonstrance in Queens, New York, and for other purposes. “Flushing Remonstrance Study Act”
    Witnesses are by invitation only.

    If you need further information, please contact Jim Streeter, Staff Director, Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, at (202) 226-7736 or Bryson Wong, Clerk, at (202) 226-7736

    On Sat, Feb 22, 2014 at 9:52 PM, wrote:

    Adam – I did submit a letter of support to Justin in Congresswoman Meng’s office. Good luck and we will be eager to hear how it goes. Congratulations; Jim told me you had received an award.
    Best,
    Rosemary

    Date: February 27, 2014 at 12:00:00 AM EST
    To: “RRvietor@aol.com”
    Subject: Re: HR 3222

    Rosemary:
    The subcommittee hearing today went great! Your letter was submitted for the record! Here is a link to the hearing. I am confident that in the next few weeks, the bill will be amended and voted on by the full committee.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9cXZehZjGo
    -Adam

    Reply
  4. Jeffrey Green Blanket

    You Institute is devoid of any Native history, from what i see in this posting.

    I am not familiar with your historical focus but it sounds more like “Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education for Colonial Immigrants now residing in New York State”

    Jeffrey

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      I confess to being at a total loss as to how you derived your conclusion based on this post.

      Thanks for writing.

      Reply
  5. Thomas Matteo, Ed.D.

    Peter,

    I am fully supportive of the idea but I think it will be an up hill battle. I initiated a History Day Fair on Staten Island a few years ago for grade four and five. The intent was to grow to all grades. The first year over 350 people attended…..today it has died a quite death. The reason – simple, for such an undertaking to succeed you need the support and participation of the schools. The first year was a success because the curriculum focused on local history for fourth and fifth grades. Since then, the curriculum has changed several times. Simply, if the students are not going to be graded on a subject, the teacher has to focus his/her energy and time on what will be tested. The elimination of history cluster teachers in many New York City school has only exasperate the problem.

    Last year I, along with the local newspaper (The Staten Island Advance), sponsored a contest for fourth and fifth graders. The students had to locate historical markers around the island. The student who found the most would receive $100 and several history books for them and their school’s library. Only one students submitted a report!

    All of these attempts to get school children involved with local history was open to students in both public and private schools. The last year of the History Day Fair (one applicant) and the “winner” of the contest were both from private schools.

    It is an up hill battle and the common core is not going to help from where I sit, however, I stand ready to work with people to try again.

    On a side note, two years ago a partnered with Fort Wadsworth staff to provide activities for children and a lecture for adults regarding New York City’s harbor defenses. I did two shows, the first lecture had about 75 attendants and the second had about 50. The program was held in conjunction with Fleet Week which a short distance from the fort. Everyone involved thought it was a big success except for me. I thought their should have been a lot more people their considering all that was going on.

    Everyone is too caught up with pop culture, Facebook, etc. I don’t know how we can compete with all that but I do still think it all begins in the school. If they don’t emphasize history I all our efforts will be for naught.

    Tom Matteo
    Staten Island Borough Historian

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Tom,

      Thanks for writing. I get notices from Staten Island about the history programs including the classes in local history which is very commendable. My next post is on the state of history in Brooklyn. The recommendations made there apply to your borough as well. It’s planning and organizing so the events you describe in your comment aren’t onetime actions but become regular sustainable activities.

      Peter

      Reply

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