Bruce Dearstyne:
Do We Need A State History Commission?

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nycapitolAssemblyman Steve Englebright’s bill (A. 6226A) to create a Commission on New York State History would help coordinate state programs and elevate and strengthen public history in New York.

“The state’s historical assets are world class destinations for visitors from around the world and should be promoted as such,” the bill declares. “Having the management, interpretation and promotion of the state’s historical assets spread among several agencies and departments has often been detrimental to the full utilization of these assets for the people of the state.”

Among other duties, the Commission would “serve a coordinating role in utilizing the capabilities of other state and local organizations” in carrying out its broad responsibilities for promoting state history.

The bill did not pass this year. It will be reintroduced next year, probably with some revisions to respond to suggestions from the history community.

Do we need the proposed State History Commission? Here are some examples of things that would almost certainly have gone better, and that would go better in the future, if we had such a group to lead and coordinate. (A few of these have links to longer discussions in essays in the Albany Times Union that may be of interest):

  • On May 22, President Obama landed at Griffiss International Airport in Rome for a trip to the International Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where he made a speech promoting tourism and job creation. Air Force One touched down just a few miles from the spot where, on July 4, 1817, governor DeWitt Clinton turned the first shovelful of dirt to start the work on the Erie Canal. New York built and operated the canal with its own resources after President James Madison vetoed federal support. Several agencies – “I Love New York,” the State Canal Corporation, and the “Path Through History” – support Erie Canal heritage tourism. The Erie Canal Village, near the spot where Clinton began the canal, is close by. But there was no mention of history of the region or the historic sites within a few miles of the spot where the president landed. Obama spoke at the Hall of Fame, but with better planning might also have included a brief visit to the state’s premier historical organization, the New York State Historical Association, only a mile or so up the road. The Farmer’s Museum at NYSHA, one of the nation’s outstanding living history museums, would have provided a chance to tout New York’s agricultural history. Its crops of grapes and hops and its dairying operation could have been used to plug new initiatives in the state’s “Taste New York” program such as wine and yogurt production. It would also have demonstrated a principle that had been emphasized in the Governor’s “Tourism Summit” in Albany ten days earlier: tourism is most rewarding to travelers, and most economically beneficial to localities and regions, when people visit multiple sites. (More at “Put State’s Past to Work”)
  • As noted in a number of posts in The New York History Blog, the AMC mini-series “TURN” about patriot spies in Setauket, Long Island, during the Revolution was filmed entirely in Virginia. But there is even more to the story. If you click on the link that is advertised on the series – — you are invited to “Visit the TURN Spy Trail.” Of course, those are the Virginia sites where it was filmed, not the actual locations which are mostly in New York. The site has stories of Revolutionary leaders, all Virginians. Click on “You Become the Spy” and you are connected not to Long Island or New York City but to colonial Williamsburg. The Virginia Film Office estimates the impact of the series in their state to be $45 million per season. “‘TURN’ is the perfect show to be filmed in Virginia,” said governor Terry McAuliffe. “This high-quality show from an outstanding network like AMC will shine a spotlight on Virginia’s exceptional historic sites and attractions.” (More at “TV’s Wrong TURN”)
  • The state social studies curriculum was revised during a two-year process without the state’s history community expressing a settled view of what should be included by way of state and local history content. You can judge for yourself by checking the New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework, approved by the Regents in April  – especially Grades 4 and 7-8 – how state and local history are covered. The Framework for 7-8 says that “teachers are encouraged to incorporate features of state history in the course, such as the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, the Germans in the Schoharie Valley, the French in the Champlain Valley, Fort Niagara, the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the Seneca Falls Convention, Underground Railroad locations, war memorials, and other features in their community.” That is positive. But just how teachers are to do that, or what it means for New York’s 1,000 or so officially designated local historians or its 700+ historical societies and other history programs, is not clear, at least not yet. The Framework indicates that a “Field Guide” will be published this summer.
  • The development of a number of state programs, e.g., Regional Economic Development Councils and grants, might have been done in a way more beneficial to history. The Commission could help shape future state programs, e.g., decisions on use of funds from projected casinos.
  • The law designates November as State History Month, a time to celebrate state history and recognize the work of local historians. But it passes every year without any official activities or even recognition. This would be an easy activity for the Commission; the law already authorizes action.
  • New York has no official programs for commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 or the sesquicentennial of the state’s participation in the Civil War, despite the fact that our state contributed more troops, financial resources, and material, and sustained more casualties than any other state. New York’s celebration of its 400th anniversary a few years ago was a tepid affair. This contrasts with other states, for instance, Florida, which last year used the 500th anniversary of European settlement to proclaim and celebrate its historical greatness and assert that it continued on a trajectory to national leadership. The event’s website asserts that “every American should know that the nation’s identity began in Florida” and lists hundreds of commemorative events around the state. (More at “Sunshine State Touts Edge Over New York”)
  • New York is the only state in the nation to have officially appointed local government Historians. Their dedication and work on behalf of local history gives New York an edge and puts all of us who are interested in state and local history in their debt. But too often they do not get enough recognition or support in their communities or at the state level. There are vast opportunities for elevating and strengthening their role.
  • The Commission would coordinate the work of state agencies, e.g., the State Historic Preservation Officer in the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and the State Historian in the State Museum in the Education Department. It would foster closer working relationships among state historic sites (operated by Parks and Rec), historical societies and museums (some chartered by the Regents, others incorporated under state law) and local government historians (who are local officials) in their regions. The bill also authorizes the Commission to work with federal historical programs, e.g., federal historic sites.
  • The Commission would serve as an information hub and clearinghouse, disseminating information about model programs and best practices. This would help programs to draw on each other’s experience rather than each program having to invent its own approach to such tools as social media. It could also maintain a master schedule of history-related events.
  • It could take the lead in putting advanced information technology to work, e.g., establishing web sites and forums for strengthening historical programs, social media to promote programs and engage audiences, an online encyclopedia of New York state history (similar to the ones that exist in several other states), or a New York history channel on YouTube.
  • More resources are needed for historical programs throughout the state. The bill gives the Commission responsibility for seeking and applying both state and private resources.
  • Public issues are often debated in Albany without historical background or context that would provide insight and perspective. For instance, the governor’s program to promote consolidation of local governments or shared services is similar in some ways to what every governor back to Al Smith has pushed. Historical information on state water policy, e.g., the state’s Clean Water Act of 1949, could shed light on the debate over fracking. The discussion of how to fund the new Tappan Zee Bridge could benefit from review of how the original bridge, built in 1952-1955, was funded and the historical reasons why the bridge crosses the Hudson at its widest point (a factor that partly accounts for the high cost of the new bridge.)

This is an opportune time for enactment of this bill, in part because New York has a very history-minded governor. Governor Cuomo mentions the Erie Canal or other examples of New York’s historical leadership and greatness in just about every major speech. In his speech in May accepting the Democratic nomination for a second term as governor, he asserted that New York is “the progressive capital of the nation,” and quoted essayist E.B. White: “New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village, the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up.”

The governor’s sentiment about New York’s exceptional historical importance dovetails well with the State History Commission bill’s statement of a goal to “develop and manage the historical assets to the end that the state may fulfill its responsibility as trustee of our cultural and heritage resources for the present and future generations.”


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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

6 thoughts on “Bruce Dearstyne:
Do We Need A State History Commission?

  1. steve mark

    Our 7th grade curriculum (1960) was 100% NY social studies. We learned about the State’s history, transportation, geography, agriculture. manufacturing, immigration and so much more. We had a textbook dedicated to the State. The year enlightened a young mind to a life-long love of NY which only increases as I get older. I appreciate that Time marches on but sometimes the old ways are the best, with some necessary updating.

  2. Leigh C. Eckmair

    How is this effort to be funded? How much money is the effort worth ? Will the Commission have any power and enough funding to complete any of the tasks mentioned? It is difficult to get excited about another unfunded mandate.

  3. Peter Evans

    I don’t disagree with anything Bruce says, the truth is when I was in Grade School in the Hudson Valley, I recall two field trips: 1) To the NYS Museum in Albany and the other to Cooperstown and the Farmers Museum and BB Hall of Fame. Today our local schools are cancelling field trips to do walking tours with our local town and village historians because they can not fund the transportation to make a 4 mile trip.

    When one of those Blue & Gold NYS Hisory Markers is missing or damaged by a snow plow, there is no funding to replace it. Local community has to fund raise to come up with the $1000 replacement cost.

    When all the money that is made available for promotion in NYS is all funneled thru I Love NY, the history and cultural heritage community is pretty much totally ignored….and remember, I Love NY funding reaches all the way down into the local county level bedgets. It is abundantly clear that the general tourism structure really doesn’t understand how to work for the benefit of history and heritage tourism sites. Only the big mega-sites are recognized at all and they are almost all special topic sites like the George Eastman House and the Corning Glass Museum which really don’t address NYS and local history at all.

    It appears that we need a rethinking from the bottom up and then from the top down….and any and all discussions must include funding lines.

  4. Roy Clement Jr

    We need a State Commission on history to over see what’s going on. Like in Onondaga County there is no County Historian they have the Onondaga County Historical Society which controls all info coming and going. Micheal J Bragman forced all town historians to turn in all there records to the County Seat where they are strictly controlled by the county historical society. The town historians have to pay to research there own records that is totally out rageous. The counties need someone in Albany they can go to when you have a group of ignorant people that gain total control of historical records like they have in Onondaga County . Like I can’t get nothing on my Great Grandfather Leonard Burdette Parish. Who was Theodore Roosevelts bodyguard when he was governor and Commander of the New York State Vigilantes right up to 1917. He lived in the Town of Cicero so whats there problem that is why the state needs that commision.

  5. Pingback: Peter Feinman: NYS’s Tourist-Industrial Complex | The New York History Blog

  6. David Quinlan

    I agree with what everyone has said and I feel Michael Bragman has overstepped his scope ordering town historians to turn in everything to the Onondaga County Historical Society then charging them for their own work. The OCH doesn’t reach out to others in the region either. During the statewide visit of the First Draft of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation housed in Albany. The OHC association knew that Martin Sweeney from Cortland County a town historian from Homer had wriiten a book about the three men who had major connections to Lincoln’s legacy from Homer yet didn’t invite him to sell his book in Syracuse along with other authors from there while the documents were visiting. The myopic way other associations
    deal with their regions history shows just how bad it has become.
    I hate to keep bringing it up but were is the states lottery money going there is a huge source for funding that isn’t being used properly.

    David Quinlan


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