Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales begin, there was a New York State Path through History Taskforce. Some of you may even remember it. August 28, 2015, marked the three-year anniversary of the failed project and since the NYS Historian who was a member of that taskforce has resigned, it is beneficial to examine the fate of this taskforce for the lessons it teaches about what happened. Will we learn from the past or are we condemned to repeat it?
At the kickoff event for the Path project, attendees received two glossy, multicolored booklets. One had a list of the “iconic highway signage” which was to be produced; the other had the conference agenda, a description of the regions with a listing of the selected sites, and the taskforce bios.
According to the Overview on the first page:
“Local participation will be the key to this program’s success. Just as the Regional Economic Development Council relied on the local experts who knew their economies best, the Path Through History program will rely on local leaders, historians and tourism experts to design a plan that best suits their region. Public participation will help New York be a leader in heritage tourism and better promote the regions’ [sic] history to a larger audience.”
Admittedly it is difficult to read this passage without busting a gut laugh at its absurdity. How many regional Path through History plans have you seen? When was the last time the history community in your region even met to design a Path plan?
I suggest we should apply some critical thinking to this primary source document rather than simply to dismiss it as a blatant hoodwinking of the New York State history community. A better approach is to consider the possibility that whoever wrote this text genuinely believed and/or expected that this is what would happen. In other words, consider the likelihood that this document was created under the auspices of the Taskforce as a blueprint for how the project would be managed.
One critical observation is that the Path and Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) were depicted as parallel operations with separate funding streams. Economic proposals would go to the REDC and Heritage Tourism proposals would go through Path. The Path project would receive its own funding. If that is not what was meant, then the text is poorly phrased at best. I prefer to believe that the Taskforce had the rug pulled out from under it.
Here are the members of the Task Force, and what became of them.
Mark Schaming, Director of the New York State Museum gave the opening and closing remarks and is identified as the co-chair of the Taskforce. Doesn’t that suggest that this history program was to run under his leadership in some way? Have you heard his name mentioned again on the project over the past three years? He also chaired the Capital Region session during the breakout.
Ken Jackson, Columbia University, was the featured speaker. That was his last public action with the project.
Lisa Keller, Purchase College, is a former student of Ken Jackson and active in the New York State Historical Association. She chaired the Mid-Hudson region session during the breakout session.
Harold Holzer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a nationally-renowned Lincoln scholar who has since left the Met for Hunter College. He delivered the keynote address. He was the other co-chair of the Taskforce. He also chaired the Central Region session during the breakout. Have you heard his name mentioned again on the project over the past three years?
Tom Chambers, Niagara University, chaired the Western Region session during the breakout sessions. He has served on the host committee of the annual Conference on New York State History.
Robert Harris, Cornell University, chaired the Finger Lakes Region breakout session.
Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel is the founder of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI) based at Hyde Park. He had no formal role in the Path through History conference.
Robert Weible, now former New York State Historian, chaired the North Country Region session during the breakout.
Rose Harvey, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) Commissioner – chaired the New York City Region
Ruth Pierpoint, NYSOPRHP Deputy Commissioner – chaired the Southern Tier Region session.
Andrew Beers, NYSOPRHP Deputy Commissioner – chaired the then soon-to-be eliminated Mohawk Valley Region.
I have been sending nearly all of these folks my posts in the New York History Blog about the failed project the Path became but I suspect they all knew it anyway.
It is easy to see why the history community left the conference excited about the prospects for the Path project. It seemed like a real effort with strong history leadership focused on the NYS Museum and NYSOPRHP and with close academic ties.
How wrong we were.
As we know now, the project soon came under the purview of I LOVE NY, an organization with zero history expertise which was not mentioned in either of the two booklets distributed at the conference.
For months Mark Schaming, Taskforce co-chair, had appeared to have the lead only to have it yanked away. The Taskforce quickly faded into oblivion and the project became a mockery of its promises. It’s not that we were lied to, it’s that the history community lost the political turf battle for control of the project.
All that could be salvaged was for NYSOPRHP was to place one of its own, Mark Castiglione, as the public face of the project to the history community. But he had no voice, no authority, and no power. I LOVE NY ran the Path through History project until it became the non-entity it is today, branding events on a weekend or two in June as Path events and reciting the logo at tourist conferences.
The retirement of the State Historian provides an opportunity to revisit the turf battle. With the past three years of superficial accomplishments as a guide, this is the right time for a more vigorous State Historian to gain control of the Past through History project working with I Love NY to fulfill the vision distributed at the Path launch.
This is the right time to recreate a History Task Force (and to combine it with the proposed NYS History Commission with the addition of the municipal historians, social studies teachers, and archaeologists).
Odds are, none of this will happen. Bob Weible’s retirement is an opportunity to have a full discussion about the place of New York State history in state government… except that there is no venue to have this discussion.
Cuomo’s “Dear Friends” letter in the conference booklet ended with: “and I look forward to working with you to return New York’s heritage tourism industry to the national forefront.”
Who will tell him that didn’t happen?
Who will tell him there is more to history than tourism?
Will anything change?