Bruce Dearstyne: Leadership and NYS History Month


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New York State History MonthNew York State History Month (November) is just over half through. November was designated in statute in 1997 as State History Month but it has been mostly ignored, until this year.

Last year, State Historian Bob Weible wrote a post in these pages entitled “Is NYS History Month Dead?” which suggested using the month for public history events. Thanks to Bob’s leadership and initiative, State History Month now has a higher visibility and momentum, as described in his recent follow-up.

The State Museum, where Bob is chief history curator, is holding a number of outstanding events for History Month.

The University of Club Foundation of Albany has organized several interesting History Month events. The leader there is Colleen Ryan, the Foundation’s president, who assembled an advisory committee, organized the events, and engaged a number of sponsors.

There are a number of other events in other settings during State History Month, including the annual Researching New York Conference. Some were previously scheduled events but have been re-branded as State History Month events, something that is easy to do because the State Museum has developed a very striking and downloadable New York State History Month logo (seen above).

It is all very encouraging. It is a solid beginning and shows what can be done through leadership and cooperation.

Looking at two venues – the State Museum and the University Club – reveals some imaginative approaches that may also be useful for future public history initiatives in other settings.

Business sponsorship. Businesses look for opportunities to sponsor high-visibility history events. They like being associated with the notions of heritage and culture, and they are always looking for opportunities for public service. The University Club lists six sponsors: AT&T, TD Bank, the New York State Academy of Family Physicians, the Albany Times Union, Capital Wine, and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.

A variety of events. Public history needs to reach a variety of audiences. The University Club is sponsoring, among other things, a luncheon on heritage tourism (Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan speaking on “Albany: Our History, Our Future”); an event illustrating how insights from history are relevant today (a panel discussion on “Building Modern Social Justice Movements”); one on Albany and New York State’s colorful political past (a presentation on the impeachment and removal from office of Governor William Sulzer in 1913); and an event for young people (a “history hunt”). The

State Museum is opening a major new exhibit on the Shakers and also has events on the Waterford Flight of locks on the Barge Canal, a talk on Civil War history by renown historian Harold Holzer, and a presentation on “Cities Under Pressure: How the Great Migration Affected Upstate New York.” The Museum always has something for young people, including its historic carousel. It has built a half-day celebration around the 100th anniversary of the carousel on November 29. The description on the Museum’s website says: ”Celebrate the history, art, and fun of the museum’s carousel. Enjoy a day of crafts centered around the carousel, rides for the whole family and history geared towards younger audience members.”

Getting in the news. Getting history events into the media requires interpreting and presenting them as newsworthy. The Museum issued a press release on all its events but also a special announcement on the Shaker Exhibit. The University Club took a very imaginative approach – it developed the “University Club Award for Achievement in History and Culture.” It announced the award’s first recipient, Len Tantillo, an outstanding painter of scenes of colonial history from the Dutch period onward, and New York State historical scenes, and hosted a public event in his honor.

Something to keep people engaged and coming back. The State Museum’s New York State History Month website has a series of “New York Minutes” – an event for each day in November, together with a copy of a photo, broadside, or other document from the Museum, State Library, Library of Congress, or other sources. It is a very interesting run of events (e.g., November 18, the date in 1872 when Susan B. Anthony was arrested in Rochester for voting in a Presidential election.)

Link to education. The State Education Department is beginning implementation of a new social studies framework. Teachers will be looking for fresh source material. The Museum has a link for educational and research resources available through the Museum, the State Library, and the State Archives.

Cooperative approaches. Cooperative approaches help support initiatives that might be too great for one organization alone. Bob Weible’s post refers to last June’s State History conference, noting that it was a cooperative venture among the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College, the New York Humanities Council, the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, the New York State Museum, and the Office of the Dutchess County Historian.

New York State History month has come to life this year. Of course, there are vast possibilities for doing much more, across the entire state, next year. But this year’s programs show how much can be accomplished by leaders and New York’s outstanding history programs. State History Month is a readily usable vehicle – it is designated in statute.

What comes next?

The conclusion of Bob Weible’s October 29 post is a particularly notable call to action:

“The time for well-intentioned talk is ending, however, and the time for delivering more meaningful programs and events has come. Together we share an important public service mission, and together we can promote better history education among classroom and adult audiences, elevate the quality of life in our communities, and help develop the state’s economy. Let’s keep on doing it.”

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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 dearstyne@verizon.net.

One thought on “Bruce Dearstyne: Leadership and NYS History Month

  1. Pingback: Effort Underway To Move NYS History Month To October | The New York History Blog

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