There’s a crisis in historical societies and historic house museums across the nation. Membership dues and visitation are in decline. The costs of maintaining buildings and collections is exhausting resources.
Volunteers are under pressure to digitize archives and make resources more widely available to the public without having the expertise or budgetary supports that would be necessary to do so. Exhibits and programming are stagnant while trustees work tirelessly to triage the symptoms. And the public is largely unaware of the treasures that these institutions have to offer.
Over the past decade, local and State government budget cuts have resulted in reduced staffing and resources for municipal history offices. With fewer municipal resources, community institutions are also losing sources of expertise, advocacy and grant funding. The emphasis has shifted to economic development and smaller institutions with irregular staffing and programming are overlooked by tourism initiatives.
Meanwhile history and heritage in pop-culture and immersive tourism are at an all time high. Using Dutchess County as a case-study a 2015 tourism report coordinated by the Taconic Region of the Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation demonstrated that historic sites have a $65 million per year impact and employ over 200 full and part-time workers. In Orange County, the festivals, farmer’s markets and businesses are capitalizing on the public interest in heritage by infusing their events and products with historical references. There’s a glimmer of hope that historical societies and house museums will be renewed too.
New York State has a few advantages: a legacy of preservation that dates back to the designation of Washington’s Headquarters as the first public museum in the nation, a maze of small but astounding collections, museums and research libraries in every community, and a law requiring the continuity of municipal historians in every town, village and city.
Back in July in Goshen, I delivered a “State of the Historical Community” address, in an attempt to identify the best opportunities, and the challenges, the history community in Orange County faces.
I’ve posted the talk on YouTube in the hope that it will be a tool for fostering public awareness and cooperation among stakeholders.
You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqE48fB2Exo