New York State Historian Robert Weible, who also serves as Chief Curator of the New York State Museum and leads the State Museum’s History Office, has announced that he will retire from state employment. His last day will be Wednesday, July 15, 2015.
According to Antonia Valentine, spokesperson for the New York State Education Department: “The Museum will conduct a national search for candidates for Chief Curator of the Museum and New York State Historian over the next several months. In the interim, the Museum’s History Office will report to the State Museum Director.”
Weible served as a member of the New York State French and Indian War Commission in 2009 and 2010 and served as coordinator of the Capital District Triangle Fire Commemoration Coalition. He was the author of “Visions and Reality: Reconsidering the Creation and Development of Lowell’s National Park, 1966-1992,” in The Public Historian (May 2011), which was the 2012 Winner of the G. Wesley Johnson Award for best article in The Public Historian in 2011.
As part of Weible’s full time job as the New York State Museum’s Chief Curator he was involved in the museum’s dozen or so exhibits each year. Major historical exhibitions under his tenure included: “Shakers: America’s Quiet Revolutionaries”; the first major exhibition of the State Museum’s landscape art, “Not Just Another Pretty Place: New York’s Changing Landscape”; “Citizen Soldier: The New York National Guard in the American Century,” “Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York: A Triumph of Public Art”; and “’This Great Nation Will Endure’: Photographs of the Great Depression” (with the FDR Presidential Library and Museum).
Weible threw himself into the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, helping lead the State Museum’s major exhibition on the war, “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the American Civil War”. He spoke around the state about New York’s role in the war, and his op-ed “New Yorkers and the Memory of the Civil War,” was widely published in New York newspapers. He also authored An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State In the Civil War (SUNY Press, 2014) with State Museum Senior Historian Jennifer A. Lemak and Associate Museum Exhibition Planner Aaron Noble. The exhibit won an American Association for State and Local History Award of Merit and the book won the Isabelle Hermalyn Award of New York Urban History from the Bronx County Historical Society.
Weible is also highly regarded for his efforts in recent years on behalf of the annual Conference on New York History. He served on the Steering Committee beginning in 2008 and has been Chair of the Program Committee since 2013. After learning about the defunct New York State History Month in 2012, Weible began advocating for its reestablishment. He was a periodic contributor to The New York History Blog who encouraged the state’s history community to work more closely together.
“New York’s history community is large and diverse,” Weible wrote at The New York History Blog in 2013. “It has more power than many of us recognize. But it’s up to us — and no one else — to find a way to realize that power. Together, we can live up to our responsibilities, and we really can make a difference.”
“He has been a constant link to many of the other history agencies across the Empire State, and a great proponent of urging greater cooperation among all of us who share our love for the history and heritage of New York,” Association of Public Historians of New York State President Gerald Smith told The New York History Blog.
“Bob excelled at removing silos that have long existed in the history community,” said Museum Association of New York Executive Director Devin Lander. “I believe that it is vital that the field continues the work that Bob has begun; work that includes collaboration and partnership as key ingredients,” he said. “I urge the Regents to fill the position of State Historian with someone as dedicated and as skilled as Bob Weible.”
On the larger issues facing the state’s history community, Weible’s tenure as State Historian continued a period of relative inactivity for that office. Citing rules against lobbying by state employees, he did not attend the legislative conference on establishing a New York State History Commission and was not publicly outspoken when half of New York State historic sites were threatened with closure in 2010. He remained the optimist despite the State Legislature largely ignoring the 400th Hudson Anniversary, the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. The State Historian’s office had no substantive role in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Path through History program, the largest public history initiative undertaken by New York State in more than 30 years.
Some historians I spoke with said the State Historian position is ineffectual as it is currently organized. Peter Feinman, an advocate for the history community, called the State Historian’s position “an underutilized asset”. Several historians noted that Weible’s appointment in 2008 came after a period of 14 years without an officially appointed State Historian. Joseph Meany served as Acting State Historian from 1994 to 2001 but was never appointed State Historian. Following Meany’s departure the position stood vacant until the appointment of Weible in 2008.
One prominent historian I spoke with, who asked not to be identified, focused on the State Historian’s role with regards to historic preservation, such as advocating on behalf of the New York State Rehabilitation Tax Credit program (which has faced several tests in recent years) or supporting local historic preservation efforts. “As long as appointments are made on a political basis,” he said, “a State Historian is in no position to advocate for preservation since the very nature of the job may seem anti-business.”
The New York State Historian was once a job unto its own. State Historians and their staffs oversaw the state’s historic marker program and historic sites and served as leader of the state’s municipal historians. They also engaged in advocacy, historic preservation efforts, and conducted research which led to prominent scholarship.
By the end of the observance of the American Bicentennial, the State Historian’s office had been stripped of most of the position’s responsibilities and brought under the New York State Museum. Thereafter State Historians were mostly active in leading local municipal historians, a role which has now been all but abandoned in favor of museum curatorial duties.
The State Historian has a broad set of responsibilities, according to Bruce Dearstyne, who once served on the staff of the Office of State History. “It is actually two separate functions, leadership of the state’s history community and Chief Curator of the State Museum,” he said. “They are both very important. Before the disbandment of the Office of State History back in 1976, they were two separate positions. That might be a model to consider going forward.”
“We are fortunate that the State had the wisdom to create such a position [as State Historian],” Peter Feinman told me in an e-mail. “Now more than ever we need the State to recognize the critical importance of a fully-funded fully-staffed State Historian position in education, cultural heritage tourism, history, and the civic health of the State. My hope is that the State will use this opportunity to talk with the history community and create a State Historian position for the 21st century.”