When the Conference on New York State History meets at Marist College in Poughkeepsie on June 12-14, 2014, it will—as always—bring together scholars to present and discuss their latest work in New York State history.
Sessions will include a New York Academy of History panel led by Columbia University’s Kenneth T. Jackson on the past, present, and future of New York’s urban and suburban history; a panel sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities featuring leading scholars of public history, historical memory, and architecture addressing “September 11 and the Battle for American Memory;” a Hudson River Valley Institute-sponsored panel on the Hudson River School aesthetic and the formation of a national identity; and a lot more.
It will include more in the way of scholarship, to be sure—but also much more than that.
Quite a bit has been written lately about the diversity of New York’s history community. And rightly so. The state’s historians include a wide range of academics, from tenured professors to graduate students, but historians also count among their number a long list of others: teachers, local historians, museum and historic site professionals, historic preservationists, genealogists, archivists, librarians, re-enactors, collectors, and history buffs of every description.
What’s unfortunate, of course, is that different groups of historians have long shown a tendency to become preoccupied with their own issues and their own organizations. University scholars get together to share research and debate lofty ideas, for example, museum professionals talk among themselves about artifacts and exhibitions, teachers create and exchange lesson plans, and preservationists discuss compliance with federal regulations. In this sense, New York’s historians function in a large but disconnected community—not unlike those found in other states or even at the national level.
This is all fine and good, assuming that we all want to be big fish in small ponds. But there is also a case to be made that we historians have more in common than we might realize, given the fact that people like history and use it in their daily lives, and that by working together we might all profit by making history a more useful art. This is essentially the argument now being made by the national public history movement. Public history, once narrowly defined as the placement of academically trained historians in jobs outside of academia, today encourages historians of different backgrounds to cooperate with each other (and with non-historians), to share authority for interpreting the past, and to apply our historical expertise on real world issues.
All of this represents a significant change in the way that historians have traditionally organized themselves and done business. And change is never easy. Academic historians, in particular, have shown some reluctance to give up their traditionally privileged status. British historian Ian Mortimer, however, has argued recently that “if academics ignore the public, then the public will ignore them.” He agrees that scholarly research may indeed constitute the most important single historical activity in society but believes that the “vast bulk of history lies elsewhere”: in biographies and general history books, for example, in heritage activities, and “in the conscious interaction between people and their past.”
Mortimer was motivated to write this after attending a “major international conference,” the stated purpose of which was to determine “what it means to be a historian in the 21st century.” The conference turned out to be a bad experience for him, however, because “every speaker was an academic, as were all the topics.” Mr. Mortimer—who could easily add historical films and documentaries, museum and historic site programs, historical re-enactments, historic preservation efforts, and genealogy programs to his list of non-academic activities—sounds like someone who might want to attend the Conference on New York State History.
That’s because the sponsors of this conference—the New York State Historical Association and its co-sponsors, the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College, the New York Humanities Council, the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, and the New York State Museum—all recognized the need to develop a program that would make the Conference on New York State History more than, well, just another conference. Certainly, this was also a goal of New York’s Board of Regents, which oversees the State Education Department, the New York State Museum, and the State Historian’s Office. Everyone, in fact, felt that, by providing people from different parts of the history family with an opportunity to work together towards an achievable common purpose, they would be signaling the beginning of a broader cooperative effort to help unify and strengthen the statewide history community and to better serve the public.
As a first step, sponsors recruited a program committee that included representatives from the Association of Public Historians of New York State, Bard College, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, the Hudson River Valley Institute, the Iroquois Indian Museum, the Museum Association of New York, the National Park Service, the New York Academy of History, the New York State Archives, the New York State Council for Social Studies, the New York State Historical Association, the New York State Museum, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. And by organizing a first rate program that mirrors the interests of the people it serves, the committee proved that it was up to the task. The program includes, not only cutting edge scholarship, but also presentations on media, museums, local history, cultural tourism, the internet, folk music, popular culture, and classroom education (teachers who attend the conference will even be eligible for continuing education credits through the Ulster County BOCES).
Specifically, beginning on Thursday, June 12th, conference attendees will have the opportunity to join in a pre-conference conversation with acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns as he previews his latest television series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (due for release by PBS in the fall of 2014). Plus attendees can participate in a public meeting hosted by the National Park Service to critically discuss the ways in which NPS presents history to the public. Or they can join an interactive workshop organized by the Museum Association of New York that will offer practical advice and direction on the art of developing partnerships and collaborations among historical organizations. The FDR Presidential Museum and Library, meanwhile, has waived the entrance fee for any conference attendee who would like to tour the museum’s highly acclaimed new exhibition, “A New Deal for a New Generation.”
The conference itself officially begins with concurrent sessions in the afternoon. The day will conclude with a keynote address by Libby H. O’Connell, the Chief Historian and Senior Vice President of the History Channel and A+E Networks. She will address the topic “New York State’s Table: Reaching New Audiences in History through Food and Drink.”
Sessions continue throughout the day on Friday, June 13th, and in the evening, renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer presents Marist College’s annual Cunneen-Hackett Lecture. The title of Mr. Holzer’s talk is “Lincoln, Politics, and the Press: The 1864 Election in New York.” The Saturday, June 14th, program includes sessions specifically designed for classroom educators and a concluding luncheon address by Douglas Brinkley, one of the country’s most highly regarded scholars. His presentation is entitled “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Hudson Valley.”
Face it. For as long as archivists tend only to their archives, for as long as curators preoccupy themselves with their collections, for as long as scholars write only for their peers, and for as long as local historians fail to address the larger context in which their history unfolds, the history community will never realize its untapped potential for making a real difference in people’s lives.
Times are changing, however, and New York’s historians can make that difference.
We can do it by educating students and citizens about New York’s enormously significant history, by enhancing people’s sense of place and raising the quality of life for all New Yorkers, and by motivating people to make new investments in New York State business, real estate, and tourism.
Join us. Meet some new people, teach them, learn from them, and make some history.
For a look at the complete conference program go to the following link: http://www.fenimoreartmuseum.org/files/nysha/CNYSH_Schedule_05.22.2014.pdf. And for registration information, go to https://classic.regonline.com/builder/site/?eventid=1462290.