Johanna Yaun: A Public History State Of Emergency

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New York State MapThis week I came across an article about Joe Bagley, the 31-year- old archaeologist who has been put in charge of one million mostly un-cataloged City of Boston artifacts. Underpaid and overburdened, he’s found ways to triage the projects that come at him each day. He has to be a historian, a fundraiser, a bureaucrat, a volunteer coordinator, a social media guru, an artifact guardian, a cheerleader for preservation, a meticulous registrar, and a broad minded strategic planner, all at the same time.

You’re not alone, Joe. This has become the narrative of the post-recession workplace. It’s like a reality TV premise: we give you poverty level pay and a mountain of responsibility, and expect you to turn this organization around with your hipster ingenuity. I see it so often that I’ve started to refer to it as the martyr-hero motif.

But it’s important to put things in perspective: this is not Joe vs. Wild or Indiana Joe on a grand mission. Joe, as a metaphor for the generation, is up against those who direct funds but continually decide not to invest in cultural resource management.

And if Boston seems distant, please reflect for a moment on the recent news from Albany that our new New York State Historian will inherit a role that has suffered salary and hierarchy reductions. I worry that we’re casting Devin Lander to be our Joe.

Post-Recession Management Decisions Changed the Field

I first entered the public history profession as a teenager with a full-time summer job as a tour guide. This position was in the NYS Parks system, which meant that I was able to receive health insurance, accrue vacation hours, and contribute towards retirement benefits. There was promise that hard work would lead to opportunities in collections care, interpretive assistance, or research. But by 2008, the recession hit and the site’s ten full-time employees were reduced to three. The quality of educational programs and public tours suffered.

As is representative of museums and historical institutions across the country, the State historic sites lost their middle management and their specialists. For a short time, operations can continue this way. The investments made in the past mean that the victims of the reductions have the expertise to do more with less. But as these properly trained individuals leave for careers elsewhere, the reduced roles are filled by interns and volunteers who treat the work like a hobby, or by struggling professionals who are scattering their energy across multiple jobs. As the quality of the experience declines, managers lean harder on tech solutions to automate audience interactions and bring in volunteer greeters to be the face of their organizations. Repeat audiences dwindle. Once institutional knowledge is lost, the new guard forgets that quality employees were once the core of their public value.

Decision makers have become blind to a simple truth: hiring professionals and equipping them with the resources they need – and paying them enough to support their families without side jobs – would take cultural institutions out of the revenue decline tailspin that they use as a scapegoat for the lack of support.

There’s no need to justify the economic and community impacts of the work that heritage professionals engage in because it is evident in numerous studies including one conducted last year in Dutchess County and in the research routinely compiled by organizations like National Council on Public History and The American Alliance of Museums. The sites, archives and programs related to cultural resources are not lacking an audience as often as the personnel of humanities work are lacking appropriate tools to connect with the audience.

The Problem Is Affecting Historians of All Generations

Whereas a policy of attrition has characterized government run sites, which are often managed by Parks professionals; it is manifesting itself in a slightly different way in the non-profit sector where historical programming is the central mission. In museums, the cuts are affecting the millennials at the beginning of their careers as they try to make the leap from working several part-time museum jobs – often with more prestigious degrees than their bosses – to running things without any middle management experience when those bosses retire.

But in the non-profit realm, the pressure is also affecting the careers of the boomer generation. As managers realize that they can tap into the martyr-hero motif, they eliminate seasoned staff who are used to reasonable pay and professional resources. They are replaced with two or more millennials who are desperate for any title that will give them a foot in the door. I call this the “epidemic of the directors” because many museums today are trying to attract talent not with fair pay, but by offering millennials the stepping stone they need most: a resume-worthy title.

I see it everywhere I look. The Director of Education is actually a minimum wage tour-guide that’s expected to be a curriculum expert. The Director of Public Relations is actually a part-time social media coordinator. And the Director of Strategy is acting CEO, with all the demands but half the pay of the former Executive Director. Being sensitive to these conditions makes it more obvious why programming and audience outreach seems schizophrenic to the public.

The Lines Between Public and Academic Historians Seems Blurred

There’s another component to the changes that have occurred in the field of Public History in this last decade. As the reductions in opportunities have forced specialists away from the workplace, they sought higher education with the hope to make themselves more marketable for management positions. Meanwhile as academic historians have suffered from their own set of post-recession problems, they began to look for Public History positions as a “Plan B” after receiving PhD’s. This has fed the ranks of the educated millennials in the field. As a result, historians from both the public and academic realms have survived by taking on adjunct teaching gigs. This is merely a life raft. The end is already evident in the recent American Historical Association report that there is officially a decline in incoming history majors.

The question remains to be answered whether this is the beginning of a long-term market correction that will include the closure of a swath of museums and institutions, whether the field will reorient towards a consultant-freelance style of service or something altogether new. What is certain is that educating our lawmakers and elected managers about the importance of investing in our cultural resources can mean the difference between a thriving or failing community.

Our Local Situation Is Better Than Most

Under the Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus and the current Orange County Legislature there is positive action towards protecting historical resources, harnessing the potential of each community’s unique cultural narratives and ensuring that County staff are given the tools necessary to serve the public’s interests. The following list is a reminder of some of the actions that have benefited the County’s historical resources in that past two years.

– The 1841 Courthouse in Goshen was renovated in 2015. In April of 2016 the Office of the Orange County Historian and the archives of the Orange County Genealogical Society were reopened to the public. The Orange County Tourism Office was moved into the Annex building next door to the Courthouse creating a one-stop location for members of the public seeking information.

– In 2015 the Orange County Legislature authorized a Capital Plan to direct funds towards the restoration and interpretation of County-owned historical properties. This year the $25,000 has been allocated to plan for the restoration of the Algonquin Park powder mill ruins.

– Through the Office of the Orange County Historian, officials have invested in Heritage Tourism initiatives such as the “Historic Tavern Trail” which was founded in Orange County in 2015 and has grown into a regional phenomenon that attracts dollars to our local economies while showcasing and honoring examples of preservation in the private sector.

– In 2014 the Orange County Legislature passed Resolution #89 to create a Cultural, Historic, Artifact Advisory committee. This committee brings several departments and members of the historical community together to address the County Collections Policies.

– The Orange County Parks Commissioner is collaborating with the Office of the Orange County Historian to develop a long-term Capital Plan to fund the preservation of County-owned Historic Structures.

The policies and investments of Orange County Government have a long way to go before we are able to address all of the needs of our local historical communities but we have much to be proud of. So although this article points to many examples of dysfunction in the cultural resource landscape, I hope that it will help highlight the importance of evaluating the structure, chain-of-command and job expectations of those tasked with heritage management in public, non-profit and academic spheres.

2 thoughts on “Johanna Yaun: A Public History State Of Emergency

  1. Nolan Cool

    Another great piece, Johanna. Thanks for posting!

    “[institutions] are not lacking an audience as often as the personnel of humanities work are lacking appropriate tools to connect with the audience.”

    This is a great point. The one-size-fits-all approach to consolidating staff also can create a cyclical labor vacuum that erodes sustainability at cultural institutions. When a small number of staff (that may be dealing with several things at once already) gets a site results, expectations rise, and often times, a one-size-fits-all candidate’s position becomes unstable since staff may not have time to properly institute an organizational framework for delegated responsibilities among workers. With greater resources, it seems obvious that these positions would be better able to create sustainable staff positions that equally distribute operational responsibilities, as well as positions associated with audience engagement.

    It’s great to hear of Orange County’s success in instituting a model for the state to see. Clearly, the “market” and community in New York cares about cultural institutions, especially when you integrate an increasingly energized private sector that not only benefits from, but supports heritage tourism.

    Thanks again for posting. This is certainly an important ongoing discussion.

  2. Ellen Apperson Brown

    I’ve been working on a biography of John S. Apperson, Jr., (1878-1963), an engineer at G.E in Schenectady who managed, in his spare time, to become a leading preservationist, saving the Narrows at Lake George from development. His papers are in a collection now owned by Union College, and the Kelly Adirondack Center. I made copies of his letters ( back in 1999 – about 4 cubic feet) and have been publishing articles about him ever since. Just this month, Union College has finally opened the collection for researchers to see what they have. The Apperson papers consist of 44 cubic feet, including lots of wonderful black and white photographs documenting threats to the forest preserve, such as logging, development, erosion, and so forth. It seems incredible to me that this trove of documents has remained so obscure, for so very long. I have tried to stir up interest at the Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, but have essentially been told, “Apperson is a relatively important yet obscure person,” or that”there is not much information about what he did – not enough for a full length biography,” or that “this topic is too regional for a national audience.” Thankfully, the work done at Union over the past two years ( with the help from a large grant) will begin to change everyone’s perception, and make Apperson’s name more familiar. As for the theme of this article, however, I must say that I have been unable to find much support from anyone in the NY State history establishment. Of course, in Virginia and in North Carolina, where I now live, it is a little challenging to stir up interest for a book about the NY Adirondacks. We all need to think a little more globally, don’t we? Especially when it comes to conservation and the environment!


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