I would like to congratulate Devin Lander on his recently announced appointment as New York State Historian.
I have known and worked with Devin for several years and believe that he holds the potential to become an outstanding State Historian. He has solid grounding in New York State history and appreciates the power it holds to educate New Yorkers, build responsible citizenship, and strengthen the quality of life in communities across the state. He’s smart, principled, thoughtful, even-tempered, respectful, patient, and very professional. He works productively and well with others, listens to what other people have to say, promotes cooperation among diverse constituencies, and gets good things done.
At the same time that I applaud Devin’s appointment, I share some concerns of many, if not most, people in the state’s history community: municipal and academic historians, history teachers, students, archivists, librarians, museum professionals, historic preservationists, community activists, heritage and cultural tourism officials, genealogists, re-enactors, and a long list of others, including just plain old history buffs. We worry that Devin will find it difficult to succeed in his newly downgraded position within the New York State Museum.
The history of the State Historian position shows that its influence has been steadily declining since the 1970s (when the once independent and well-respected Office of State History was eliminated and the State Historian position was shuffled off to the State Museum), through seven years in the opening decade of the twenty-first century (when the Museum allowed the position to remain vacant), and through more recent times (when the position was combined with—and subordinated to—the Museum’s Chief Curator position).
The good news is that the newly described State Historian position is now full time and will no longer be encumbered by curatorial responsibilities. In and of itself, this is a sensible step forward—but not as sensible as it might have been had department officials followed historian Bruce Dearstyne’s recommendation to separate the leadership position of the state’s history community and the one responsible for curatorial leadership within the Museum into “two senior positions.” As it turns out, only the Chief Curator position will be retaining its former rank. The State Historian has been downgraded and will now be supervised by the Chief Curator. In other words, the State Historian is being demoted and further subordinated to internal Museum priorities.
No doubt many within the state bureaucracy find it logical to strip future State Historians of their managerial status and keep a onetime Assistant Commissioner of Education position buried in a low level slot within the State Museum. But that logic seems, at best, specious to anyone in the history community not employed by the Department of Education.
County Historian Johanna Yaun, for example, was “glad to see that many [others] are feeling the same disappointment over the state’s inability to realize the potential of the historian’s role.”
Retired educator Nancy O. Russell was “astonished that NYS does not have a STATE HISTORIAN who is separate in operations and administrations from the NYS Museum” and argued that a fully funded State Historian position “would insure that NYS History has a prominent role in educating NYS residents as well as other states. The position must be restored.”
Town Historian Leigh C. Eckmaire described the department’s decision as “a HUGE slap in the face” to those of “us who toil out here under the misapprehension that what we do is important.” She even suggested that the downgrading of a position intended to provide leadership to local historians “will definitely reinforce those local governments [that] believe they do not have to follow the direction of the Arts and Cultural Affairs laws.”
“The position certainly requires more autonomy, as well as greater resources overall,” according to history student Nolan Cool. “The State Historian needs the resources to serve as a structural beacon for the NYS historical community.”
Robert J. Hedgeman believes that the downgrading of the State Historian position within the State Museum will ultimately make the position “obscure” and even fears that “more down grading and salary reduction could occur.”
The prestigious New York Academy of History urged Governor Cuomo to reconsider the Education Department’s handling of the matter and upgrade the position of State Historian. And other professional groups, including the Upstate Women’s History Organization, sent letters of concern, too, as did numerous individuals.
County Historian Carol Kammen and university professor Judith Wellman—both of whom had served on the Commission on Local and Public History that advised the Education Department on the appointment of a State Historian in 2006—expressed concern about the handling of the position and once again offered their services to the Commissioner of Education.
But State Museum Director Mark Schaming (apparently the department spokesman on this matter) ignored the offer. His inept and condescending response simply thanked Kammen and Wellman for their interest and clumsily assured them that things were being handled appropriately. He never answered the question of why the department chose to ignore its 2011 Regents-approved strategic plan to “reinvent” the Office of State History. Nor did he even attempt to explain how the downgrading of the position or its placement within the State Museum might somehow serve the public interest. When Kammen and Wellman wrote back and raised these questions even more explicitly, they never got an answer.
So why then is the Department of Education alienating a constituency it should be courting? Good question. Perhaps the disingenuousness of constituent relations described above is unavoidable in an inwardly focused department that, according to its own website, long ago “became known for an authoritarian attitude toward the ‘field’.”
Or perhaps not. Support from New York’s large and diverse history community could well be an asset to a department that has recently been struggling to build public trust. Perhaps the department will even be evolving under its still-promising new leadership and will show some willingness to revisit the State Historian matter when it hires a new Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education to oversee the operations of the State Museum, State Archives, and State Library.
Instead of dismissing members of the history community, why not involve them in the decision-making and not simply defer to self-serving insiders? One would think that there have to be good options beyond repeating the mistakes of the past. Locating and upgrading the State Historian position in the Deputy Commissioner’s office, where it could coordinate programs among Museum, Archives, and Library staff, might be one alternative. Or consider placing the position in the State Archives. Unlike the Museum, the Archives has a more focused historical mission and is better structured to manage a statewide program. The Archives publishes a state history magazine, for example, manages regional offices across the state, and has the capacity, through the Archives Partnership Trust, to provide grants, support research, and work with other historical organizations to sponsor educational programming. There are undoubtedly other possibilities, too.
The Education Department made an excellent choice when it hired Devin Lander to serve as the next State Historian. Along with many of my colleagues in the history community, I wish Devin nothing but the best. But we are also hoping that the Department will recognize its opportunity to make it truly possible for Devin and future State Historians to serve the public interest rather the internal manipulations of an entitled, mind-numbing bureaucracy.