November is New York State History Month, designated by Section 52.04 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law as the time “to celebrate the history of New York state and recognize the contributions of state and local historians.”
This is the perfect time to get some well-deserved recognition for officially designated local government historians, historical societies, and others who are preserving, interpreting, and presenting state and local history. It should be a particularly good opportunity for local government historians — their appointments are authorized by law and State History Month is designated by law.
The University Club Foundation in Albany is a good example of leadership and initiative to capitalize on and promote local history during November. You can review its schedule of New York State History Month activities online. The Club’s president, Colleen Ryan, took the lead in organizing an advisory committee, finding sponsors, and setting up several events, including a presentation by Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan on “Albany: Our History, Our Future,” on the city’s rich history and the role of heritage tourism in its future; talks by a number of authors; inauguration of the University Club Award for Achievement in History and Culture, awarded to historical artist Len Tantillo; and History Hunt Party, a three-week long event highlighting locations of historical or cultural interest. Players can use a free mobile app called Scavify, which uses social media to view and complete Hunt tasks and earn points toward prizes.
The Albany initiative seems like an excellent model. Are there other History Month activities going on elsewhere in the state? The State Museum has a webpage devoted to New York State History month that links to historical programs around the state but it does not identify any specific events.
There is still time to take advantage of History Month. Some possibilities:
- Write an op-ed piece for the local newspaper, or suggest that the editor do an editorial, on the value and importance of local history and the role of local historians and historical programs.
- Ask the village, town, city, or county legislative body to pass a resolution describing the region’s historical importance and recognizing the local historian, historical society, or museum.
- Review the new New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework, particularly Grade 4, which has some attention to New York, and Grades 7-8, which combines New York and U.S. History. . Initiate a discussion with your local school during State History Month about connecting to local historical resources.
- Write your state Senator or Assembly representative urging co-sponsorship of Assemblyman Englebright’s bill to create a State History Commission. Such a commission would provide the leadership needed at the state level to organize future statewide History Month activities.
In fact, New York State History Month is a good time to reflect on leadership of the state’s historical community. New York is arguably the nation’s most historically significant state. It has a long, robust, and diverse history. It is the only state with officially designated local historians under a statute that dates back nearly a century, to 1919. It is the only state where responsibility for education and important aspects of state history, including chartering of museums and historical societies, is lodged in the same agency, the Education Department. The posts here at The New York History Blog show how much dedication and creativity are at work every day in the historical enterprise in our state. But more leadership is needed, particularly at the state level, to strengthen the historical enterprise and take it to a higher level.
Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin, in their new book Leadership Matters, discuss leadership traits that are needed for the future of museums and history programs. One of the book’s chapters is entitled “The Courageous Leader.” They note:
“In times when it seems to make better sense for an institution to hunker down to ride out a rough patch or hold back in the face of the unknown, the courageous leader has an innate understanding of when change and innovation will work and when it won’t. The courageous leader knows that by taking a counter-intuitive approach outside the proverbial comfort zone, it is possible to succeed even in challenging times. These leaders hold deep convictions about the nature and impact of their work. They know when to pull back, but they also champion barrier-breaking programming.”
Another chapter has the title “The Visionary Leader.” The authors say:
“Organizational vision is about possibilities; it is not about maintaining the status quo….If you want the same-old-same-old, the tried and true, the safe and secure, then visionary leadership is not for you. Visionary leaders not only see possibilities, they articulate them in such real and compelling terms that their followers see them, too.”
This is a time for leadership to move beyond the status quo. New York State History Month gives us an annual ready-made opportunity, authorized in statute, for doing that.