Johanna Yaun: The New York History Community’s Next 100 Years

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ny-history-next-100-yearsI don’t want to let 2016 come to a close without marking an important commemoration in the history of historic preservation.

One hundred years ago, the Federal Government created the National Parks Service. During the official centennial celebration in August of this year, the Hudson Valley was honored to welcome the Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, to a roundtable discussion at the Bear Mountain Inn.  For the discussion, participants were asked to predict which trends would persist in the next 100 years of historic preservation and historic interpretation. With a new administration in the White House, a new Secretary of Interior will soon follow and the challenge to reach that person with the priorities of the historical profession will begin again. On a local level we face a continuing retraction of municipal resources for arts and cultural protection and programming as the burden is shifted to non-profits. My predictions are based on those concerns as well as the changes that I see in how technology is being used to reach the public.

There’s no telling what the future holds but I offer my predictions as fodder for any organization to reinterpret to fit their own observations. For this final edition of year, I would like to share the notes that I prepared for the meeting with Secretary Jewell.

Predictions for 2116

Prediction #1: Publicly run historic sites will be transferred to management under the umbrella of Economic Development and Tourism departments. Preservation investments will emphasize leveraging local partnerships because sites will be used to create a sense of place for tourism marketing. Historic site staff will be tasked with providing experiential programming onsite that supplements databases and media that can be accessed offsite.

Prediction #2: Historical Societies will consolidate collections and many will sell the historic houses in which they currently operate in order to become community advocacy groups. The Historical Society of the future will create websites, provide historical content for self-guided apps and lead occasional walking tours of historic districts. In more affluent communities, historic house preservation will be done primarily as adaptive reuse for business and government space. In poorer communities, historic districts will lose many important structures to abandonment and decay which will lead to their removal.

Prediction #3: Digital infrastructure will advance its traffic analysis giving information visibility. This will help create distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative sources. It will become possible to integrate Historical Society archives giving researchers access to public or private online collections. These institutional clouds of collections will interface with personal clouds enabling information to be structured and embedded with smart data (such as provenance or where to find similarly relevant materials). This will allow related information to link itself in an artificial neurological network and to therefore target appropriate audiences.

Prediction #4: The education system will continue to move away from teaching local history. Historic sites will have to creatively provide information and programming to an audience with very little foundational knowledge of American history. Sites with weak management will simplify narratives and focus on entertainment-style demonstrations whereas sites with strong management will develop a niche of providing foundational context and series of programs that appeal to various levels of knowledge. As history continues to strengthen as a trend, streamed television series, social media personalities and other drivers of pop culture will engage in “Edutainment” in which they will draw from historical narratives to create content.

Prediction #5: Traditional paths to public history jobs will diminish as middle management roles and specialist positions are eliminated. Historians who are committed to working in the field will create small businesses that provide needed services on a freelance basis. Rather than working as a curator or a conservator in one museum, a professional will apply to RFPs and help organizations to write for grants to support their services on a project to project basis.

Historical Resource Management

Before examining the past 100 years of historic preservation and trying to predict the next century in the field, it’s important to note that we’re marking this centennial not based on the narrative of historic preservation, but on the centennial of the National Parks Service.

The National Parks Service was established 100 years ago and did not include historic sites until the Yorktown Battlefield was added in the 1930s. Looking specifically at New York State, historic preservation has its roots in the time period just after the Revolutionary War. The date to note for our purposes is July 4, 1850 when Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y. was established as America’s first historic house museum. It was the first example of public preservation of a historic site in the nation, and it happened 86 years before the Yorktown Battlefield came under the purview of the National Park Service. In addition to Washington’s Headquarters, the Senate House, Grant’s Cottage, and more were established as museums in the late 19th century.

Heading into the 20th century, most communities wanted their history stewarded by the State because it meant official recognition with very little top-down interest in management. But in order to package all of these historical sites and standardize practice in an era that called for “professionalization,” their management was taken from hands of local trustees to be placed with the government under the State Education Department.  One lasting vestige of this time is that The New York State Historian still operates under the direction of the Board of Regents in the Education Department. The unique-to-New York law mandating municipal historians on the town, village and city levels hasn’t been updated in nearly a century which means they have been left, by default, under the umbrella of the Education Department.

But in the 1960s, New York State went the way of the National Parks System and started to transfer ownership and operation of historic sites to the management of the parks departments. This placed Washington’s Headquarters, Senate House, and Grant’s Cottage among all the others underneath the management of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The new focus of the Parks professionals caused a shift away from acquiring house museums and towards larger parcels of land with historic significance such as battlefields and encampments like Stony Point and the New Windsor Cantonment.

The marriage of the historic sites and the natural sites developed over time. It started nationally with the Yorktown acquisition in 1936 and became commonplace in New York State by the late 1960’s, even locally, where I am the Orange County Historian, when two historic properties – Brick House and Hill-Hold – were donated to the County around 1975 they were placed in the County Parks department not under the municipal historian.

This trend had a cascading effect over the course of the 20th century. Thus, looking back at 100 years of the National Parks service is also a chance to discuss whether or not history was a good bedfellow to natural resource management. A century ago, the National Parks Service wasn’t thinking about historic preservation but after two decades had passed, that policy changed. And perhaps this centennial is a time to reflect on what a permeating effect the National Park Service’s decision to expand their mission to include historic sites has had on the entire field.

But if we were to discuss the past and present of historic preservation holistically, we would need to look at the last 166 years and recognize that the management of historical sites and research has been shuffled around quite a bit. The work of municipal historians, government run departments, and local historical societies, as well as history educators from all levels, is fractured. It seems to me that historical preservation hasn’t yet found its home.

Historic Houses and Historic Societies

The vast majority of historic sites and the work of historians occurs on the level of small historical societies. Most communities have one; some have several. The next 100 years looks grim for these institutions. Expenses are up, visitation is down, trustees are out of touch with new technology, and although interest in history from a pop culture standpoint is at an all time high, staffing is at an all time low.

Without intervention, smaller historical societies are an endangered species. In the next 30 years as this generation shifts, there will be a distinction between the societies that raise endowments and the ones that don’t. The ones that have endowments will be able to keep a professional staff to perpetuate the organization’s relevance and focus on financial sustainability. The ones without endowments will succumb to costs of repairs, programing, and liability that are unsustainable without generating revenue. As these sites become untenable, the best and most responsible of the trustees will steward their documents and artifacts and merge with organizations that have a similar mission. The worst will auction off everything and shut their doors. As this shuffling of collections happens, many communities will lose out because local energy and fervor will dissipate, leaving historic districts vulnerable. This will be especially heartbreaking for cities in the northeast of the Country were historical societies have old comprehensive collections and have served as a gateway for acclimating new generations of immigrants. They often have the greatest impact but are operating without sustainable financial support.

Digitized Collections

One of the deciding factors in whether or not a collection lives on will be its digital adaption. In the internet age, information has been devalued; with answers to any question just a click away. However, this information isn’t ranked in terms of accuracy or completeness, and users are interested more in speed than in checking footnotes. With this changing perception of where to go for information comes the eroding of the idea of authoritative sources. Search engines and crowd-sourcing via social media are preventing people from digging deeper to find what’s buried in non-digital sources, particularly in small historical society collections. The result is a growing divide between the vast majority, unaware that they’re being exposed to inaccurate information, and only the small subset of people who are sifting through the misinformation and emerging with the better answers.

The simple truth is that organizations need to digitize their collections, making them visible to modern scholars. However, many don’t have the resources or expertise to do so, and even if an organization does, why should they spend the money to perpetuate the devaluation of the information that they currently control? Once it’s out there, others will want to access it for free and the organization won’t recoup the financial and time burden that was put into such a huge undertaking. So why should these institutions bother? How can they maintain value and authority, and most importantly, how do they generate revenue from the information in their collections?

Historians can’t turn a blind eye to technology. Hoarding a collection and refusing to make it accessible digitally will not make the information valuable. An institution won’t receive revenue or visibility if you limit access. In the current computer culture, it’s expected that information remains free flowing. Digitization is no longer a question of being on the cutting edge – it’s now a matter of remaining relevant. For historical institutions, most of which are struggling, it is critical to digitize everything and then shift focus to creating context.

Historical institutions are living, breathing organizations with local trustees and volunteers, the shepherds of local memory. They are the only ones who can create custom context and interpret and reinterpret for changing audiences. The information contained within a collection means little unless local societies are processing and repackaging it for the public, making people feel that they are getting more out of it if they show up to an event, subscribe to an online membership, or read the newsletter.

History Education

History is being eliminated from the curriculum in public schools due to a greater emphasis on standardized testing requirements, decreased resources for visiting local sites, and a greater push towards “marketable” science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

If we do nothing to change the way history is taught through historic sites, we are only hastening our own decline. With a lack of history education in schools comes a proliferation of pop history. People satisfy their natural curiosity and love for history with ghost stories and “gotcha” style, out-of- context tidbits. To cater to this audience, historic sites end up focusing too much on snippets of pop history. It’s dangerous territory: if an audience has no background in the study of history, dialogues can easily devolve and become uninteresting. What’s worse, if people are spoon-fed small bits of information without context, they are only able to think the way they are told to think, like a lawyer leading a jury to a specific conclusion.

If schools are not going to teach foundational history, historic sites should be presenting themselves as the authorities on the subject that they are. The only way that historic institutions are going to survive in this new education system is to turn it on its head, proudly declaring “we’re not here to chase your programming and cycles of curriculum, we are here to lay the foundational elements of historical inquiry and material.”

History as a Career

If there’s one quandary of public history that keeps me up at night, it’s the impending crisis of careers in history. For the past decade, museums have downsized their staff and come to rely too heavily on volunteers. Sometimes this is the product of mass layoffs at big institutions, but mostly it takes the form of slow attrition. For years, historic sites have encouraged their middle management staff to retire and without filling the resulting vacant positions. They also shifted from employing full-time, professional tour guides and programming staff to part-time seasonal staff, in many cases relying entirely on volunteers. Remaining staff is spread too thin, attempting to fill too many roles, and volunteers often struggle with little professional supervision.

There’s also a crisis in the academic history field. As students graduate with expensive degrees and can’t find paid history positions, they move on to higher levels of education. Eventually, these overeducated, under-experienced historians begin to look for teaching positions. The academic field is also downsizing, so career panels at their schools tell them to look for jobs in public history. The majority of these professionally trained individuals end up leaving the field entirely to find work elsewhere.

Meanwhile, we have a Municipal Historians Law in New York State that requires a State Historian, and County, Town, Village, and City historians in every municipality. But the law is an unfunded mandate, which means that in the scope of each individual municipal budget, the historian is funded entirely by taxation. When a politician promises to lower taxes, they can’t reduce the costs of social services, law enforcement, or infrastructure services because these are required by law and often have State or Federal requirements attached. Thus, they cut the history and tourism budgets. This has happened so frequently over the course of the last century that today, only four out of 62 New York Counties have a full-time paid historian. In addition, most local historians don’t have any funding at all. Our municipal historian positions are withering away and our museums have a fraction of the staff that they need to survive. Yet we have fantastic students coming out of history and museum studies programs without a chance to find a job in the field.

If the next 100 years of history is to be a positive story, it is essential to funnel people who have been educated in public history into well-paying jobs. We need to breathe life into the local history jobs that are the engine of local research and the frontline of educating young students in an appreciation of their surroundings.


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Johanna Yaun

About Johanna Yaun

A native Newburgher, Johanna Yaun spent the last decade advocating for the City's historical resources first as a tour guide at Washington's HQ and later as director of the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands. She is the Orange County Communities Council representative to Hudson River Valley Greenway, on the Board for the Newburgh Landmarks Conservancy and the Fullerton Cultural Center and since 2014 she has served as the Orange County Historian. You can follow Orange County History and Heritage on Facebook for updates. Also, sign up to receive news and event updates about history and heritage in Orange County, N.Y. here.

One thought on “Johanna Yaun: The New York History Community’s Next 100 Years

  1. Peter Evans

    Johanna – Clearly you’ve made a very valiant effort to evaluate the past and current state of affairs within the history, heritage and preservation communities and made some solid thought provoking predictions. I don’t believe you are too far off of the mark as much as I hate to admit it.
    You mentioned that there are currently only four full-time county historians. I am not sure who you have included on that list but I know that Fran Dumas, Yates County Historian has retired and as of January 3, 2017, I will be moving from FT to PT status. The reason for my reduction is exactly as you describe.
    Currently, the seventeen museums and historical societies here in Wayne County are quite solid operationally. Only four have any paid staff. One historical society is new this year and is in a town where there are already two active historical organizations. I have recommended to them that they partner with their local library and act as a volunteer group responsible for the local history room. This concept seems to have been welcomed by both the library and the hist. soc. and is working out well.
    A situation or opportunity you don’t address that I think is particularly important is the topic of a local repository for family and business historic records and yes, even some worthy artifacts. Objects are important when working with students.Hey, objects are important for adults. My wife and I took some of our grandchildren to Claremont this summer for their festival. I immediately went looking for the Lafayette Bowl to show the children. It was no where to be found and the seasonal staff had no idea what I was talking about. I finally located the Site Manager who was doing double duty at the front door to the Livingston house. She told me that it had been displayed during a special Lafayette program but was not normally out. This bowl was special for me because there was a time when I could walk into the house and walk over and actually touch the bowl. For me, I could actually feel the magic and energy of Lafayette. He was one of those larger than life people from our American Revolution. He was a trusted friend of Washington. Being near that bowl always transported me back and put me in the presence of those leaders. Enough said, but objects are also important. Thanks for your thoughtful essay – regards, Peter


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