When New York’s governor appointed the first State Historian in 1895, the Progressive Era was just getting underway. The appointment was part of a much larger reform movement to strengthen American democracy by professionalizing government and promoting more active and knowledgeable civic participation in public affairs.
Progressives were especially focused on public education, and in 1911 – seven years after the establishment of the State Education Department – New York moved its State Historian from the Governor’s office to the newly formed department.
State Ed was by no means an ivory tower — but it was the right place to locate an office expected to make a difference in people’s lives. As British historian George M. Trevelyan would declare in 1914, history’s “only purpose is educative” and if its practitioners “neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is valueless except in so far as it educates themselves.”
The position of State Historian initially stressed traditional research and publication, but in 1917 it became more of a public service job with passage of the Local Government Historians Law. This law mandated the appointment of official historians in cities, towns, and villages across the state. Legally, the historians all reported to local municipal officials, but practically, they looked for direction from the State Historian. At first, the municipal historians were tasked with documenting the military service of New Yorkers during World War I, but they would soon be undertaking an assortment of research, archival, historic preservation, and educational duties, all in service to an engaged public audience.
The Progressive Era unofficially ended in 1920, but New York remained a progressive state throughout the 1920s, thanks particularly to its governors Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (himself the former Town Historian of Hyde Park, by the way). And the State Historian led the history community in its efforts to raise public awareness of state and local heritage, build local pride, improve the quality of life, strengthen the economy, and promote better citizenship. Then in the 30s, historians — now supported by New Deal programs, such as the Historical Records Survey — became even more active in their public activities.
The coming of World War II brought things to an abrupt halt, but when the economy boomed after the war, so did New York’s interest in using state history to secure a better future for its citizens. Besides increasing support for the state’s many historians, historical societies, and history museums, the newly revitalized Office of State History took on the weighty responsibility for managing thirty-two state-owned historic sites. Federal support would expand, too, particularly with the creation national endowments for the arts and humanities and other cultural and educational programs during the Great Society efforts.
The public demand for historical services had grown so much by the mid-1960s that a blue ribbon commission appointed by Nelson Rockefeller would even recommend the elevation of the State Historian position to assistant commissioner status with responsibilities for overseeing historical research, the state archives, a state history museum (separate from the
existing, scientifically oriented State Museum), field services, and historic sites.
State Historian Louis Tucker became Assistant Commissioner for State History in 1966 – but his position was soon undermined by federal legislation (particularly the Historic Preservation Act of 1966) and the state’s growing fiscal crisis. Almost immediately, management of the historic sites would be moved to New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (which also took on responsibilities for a newly created historic preservation office). The State Archives would eventually take shape under a state archivist. And there would be no state history museum.
Neither would there be any resolution of the state’s budgetary woes. Drastic across-the-board budget cuts during the 1970s eliminated Tucker’s position, along with most research and field service jobs, and relocated State Historian responsibilities to the State Museum.
This was a significant change indeed. There are more than four-million objects in the state’s history collections, and the Museum’s institutional priority has always been collections-based research and curatorial work, not leadership and support for the history community. State Historians subsequently fought through various internal reorganizations to meet external as well as internal demands, but the position lost support and became vacant in 2001. And it remained so until 2008, when pressure from county and municipal historians persuaded the State Education Department to fill the vacancy.
That was when I became State Historian and Chief Curator of History. This was an honor for me. But the decision to combine two very different positions into one was really a kind of bureaucratic sleight-of-hand: the State Historian position may have been officially filled, but as was made clear to me, the Museum’s institutional priority had remained the same: research and collections care.
Was this just another example of bureaucratic incompetence or, worse, unscrupulousness? Maybe, maybe not. State Education Department managers weren’t necessarily shirking their responsibilities. Faced with shrinking budgets and declining personnel allotments, they – like officials in federal, state, and local government offices everywhere – were arguably trying their best to carry out a public service mission established during the Progressive Era and expanded during the New Deal and Great Society. Combining responsibilities in fewer and fewer positions was just a necessary means of getting by after 1980, when politicians had convinced large segments of the public that government had ceased to be the solution to society’s problems and had itself become the problem. Despite the cynical suggestion that the private sector would guarantee the public interest in areas such as education, however, the necessary resources and
support never materialized.
Does this mean that government agencies can no longer serve as useful instruments for socially beneficial change? No. But it is true that without proper leadership and public support, bureaucrats can easily lose sight of the larger social goals their organizations were created to achieve and become nihilistic, self-serving careerists dedicated simply to perpetuating their positions and authority.
Has the State Education Department fallen into this trap with regard to the State Historian position? Hopefully not. SED’s Office for Cultural Education, which oversees the State Archives, Library, and Museum, presented a 2011 strategic plan to SED’s Board of Regents that included
the reinvention of the Office of State History. And the Regents approved. The plan for State History was supposed to have been initiated in 2013 however, and it wasn’t, thanks principally to the Museum’s bureaucratic foot dragging. When the State Historian position became vacant last July, though, SED found the resources to separate the State Historian position from its museum responsibilities. And more recently, it filled a dedicated Chief Curator of History position within the Museum.
So, the question becomes “what now for the State Historian?” Will the State Education Department recognize its public service responsibilities or cater to its internally minded bureaucrats? This is essentially a leadership challenge for the department.
With the pending appointment of a Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education, it’s indeed possible that State Ed will do the right thing and free the State Historian position from low level obscurity within the State Museum and position it, as before, in a more independent, more focused office from which a new State Historian will be able to work full-time helping New Yorkers better understand and appreciate their heritage, improving the state’s quality of life, promoting economic development — and making some history.
Maybe something good will happen. Maybe not. Stay tuned.