There is encouraging evidence that we may be moving toward a turning point for New York’s historical enterprise.
During the last several months:
The Education Department made the State Historian an independent, full-time position. This is unlike the previous situation, where the State Historian, Bob Weible, also served as Chief History Curator of the State Museum. In effect, that was two jobs rolled into one. The curatorial work left little time for the state history work. Creating a new, dedicated position required approval of the Director of the State Museum, the Commissioner of Education and the Division of the Budget. Those are positive signs of interest and support.
The Department moved to recruit for and fill the position as soon as it was available and DOB had given approval to fill it. That is positive, too. Bob Weible served from 2008 to 2015. But before that, the State Historian’s position had been vacant for 7 years. Before that, Joe Meany held the position on an “Acting” basis from 1994 to 2001. So, for the first time in 22 years, New York has a full-time, permanent State Historian.
The Department appointed Devin Lander, a well-known, experienced leader with lots of experience as Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York and chief of staff to Assemblyman Steve Englebright, who introduced a bill a few years ago to create a State History Commission. Devin came to the position with an understanding of the key issues and an activist frame of mind.
Within a couple of months, Devin has already announced plans to create a State History Advisory Group which will convene in the fall to develop an agenda.
He will be setting up a website to foster communication and collaboration.
He has been talking and meeting with key organizations around the state.
Some of the most respected, experienced, effective leaders of the state’s history community, including John Warren, proprietor of this New York History Blog, have been advocating for a meeting, a council, an alliance, a Friends’ Group, or something similar, to bring together the various elements of the state’s history community.
There has been discussion here on the New York History Blog about what should come next.
These are all very positive signs! There is a sense that the status quo is not satisfactory and can and should be changed. New York can do better in managing its state and local history!
It is also another reminder of the essential role of the New York History Blog. Without it, the state’s historical community could not keep up on developments like these.
Many readers of and contributors to this Blog have been advocates for stronger state history programs for years, even decades. But one of the points of departure for the current momentum was the plenary session at the State History Conference in Plattsburgh in 2009 on the topic of “Do We Need a Vision for New York State History?” That, in turn, led to a special issue of the journal Public Historian in August 2011 that I edited with a number of essays by leaders of history programs grouped around the theme of “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights From New York.” Those essays highlighted the importance of state and local history; emphasized the need for stronger leadership at the state level and by key history associations; discussed model programs; and advanced strategies for taking New York’s historical enterprise to a new level. There was a proposal there for a state history council. Those essays are still worth consulting in whatever comes next.
The essays in that journal, recent discussions, posts in this New York History Blog, and lots of conversations with historians over the past several years, may lead to these conclusions:
* Going back does not seem like a viable option. There was an Office of State History in the State Education Department until 1976, when it was disbanded, ironically, at the height of the celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The explanation was budget constraints. The position of Len Tucker, who had simultaneously held the title of Assistant Commissioner for State History, State Historian, and Executive Director of the NYS American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, was abolished. (Len Tucker left and later served as the director of the Massachusetts Historical Society.) The Commission continued and finished out its work with its own staff, headed by its program director Rick Allen. The State Historian’s title was transferred to John Still, Chief Curator in the State Museum, but on an “Acting” basis, and the small state history staff was also transferred and reported to Dr. Still. The local government records section was transferred to the then-new State Archives. The Office of State History still exists in statute (Article 57.03 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law). But the wording there is obsolete.
* New York’s history community is incredibly diverse, talented, energetic, and determined to strengthen the state’s historical enterprise. There are lots of ideas being proposed and discussed. There is some impatience with inertia, and a desire to get moving.
* Leadership is the key. Part of the challenge is to pull together the various elements of the historical enterprise. Part of it is getting us all pulling more or less in the same direction.
* To do that, we need an agenda — a consensus around what needs to be done, what the priorities should be, and who needs to do what. With some clear, agreed-upon priorities, working in concert, we can accomplish a great deal. Without them, there is a risk of inaction or inconsistent or competitive initiatives.
* In considering how to develop such a document, we need a place to start — an overall mission or goal. An updating of something proposed in the Public Historian would be worth considering: Strengthen the capacity of New York’s historical programs and history community to carry out the preservation, management, interpretation, teaching, learning, research, publication, study, and use of New York’s state and local history.
* As discussions move ahead, there are lots of good models here in New York State and also in other states, such as the Minnesota Historical Society, in Canada, and elsewhere, and lots of ideas in the literature, white papers, etc., of key associations such as the American Association for State and Local History and the National Council for Public History. So, in some cases we can build on what we have; in other cases, we can borrow and adopt. We don’t have to start from scratch. In still other cases though, through discussions and brainstorming, given the resilience, talent, and energy that is so typical of our state’s historical community, we can come up with innovative new approaches.
* Our future needs to be a shared one. That presupposes lots of cooperation, collaboration and joint initiatives in the years ahead.
* Part of the challenge ahead is to make a stronger advocacy case for the importance of history, for instance, for local governments to strengthen the role of and provide more resources for officially designated Historians, for inclusion of more state and local history in the social studies curriculum, and for more public support for history museums and historical societies.
* Part of the challenge/opportunity is to make broader and more imaginative use of social networking and other collaborative information technologies to draw the state’s history community together, support collaboration, and make historical sources and history itself more accessible. Supporting this New York History Blog is essential.
*In whatever plans or priorities are developed, strengthening the status and role of officially appointed local government Historians needs to be included.
* Finally, I believe, we need to work on increasing the study of New York state and local history in the schools. That is the wellspring for stronger public historical interest and understanding in the years ahead, and, through that, hopefully, stronger historical programs.