Is New York’s “historical enterprise” really entering a new phase, as Bruce Dearstyne contends in his recent post? There certainly seems to have been some change going on in the New York State Office of Cultural Education. Perhaps most notably, New York is now employing a full-time State Historian for the first time since 1976 (not 1994, as Bruce suggests).
While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it would be naïve to allege that today’s State Historian position holds the same power and responsibility that it once did.
Forty years ago, the State Historian held the departmental rank of Assistant Commissioner and directed a large professional staff in what was then the Office of State History. That office oversaw leadership of the state’s county and municipal historians, research and publication projects, and management of New York’s historic sites and — in the absence of a State Archives — its government records.
But when the office was eliminated during the fiscal crisis of 1976, the State Historian title was transferred to a senior curator position in the State Museum, and that position’s priorities remained, well, curatorial: collections care, exhibition support, program driven research, and other museum-related functions. This was, of course, a bit of a bureaucratic shell game. Technically, the department could claim that the State Historian position still existed, but State Ed had effectively undermined its original mission of bringing good, useful history to a broad public audience.
And then in 2013, the New York State Board of Regents approved a strategic plan for the State Museum, Archives, and Library. The plan identified the public as the primary audience for each of the three offices (recognizing, in effect, that they had grown bureaucratically self-absorbed), focused on education and the statewide value of public programs (suggesting that there was more to New York State than Albany), and more. Specifically, the plan prioritized the reinvention of the Office of State History.
But as anyone who has ever worked in state government can attest, internal change doesn’t come easily. Bureaucracies, particularly those in decline, tend to empower micro-managing careerists more concerned with building and keeping their individual “empires” than achieving the larger goals their organizations were created to accomplish. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the plan to reinvent the Office of State History failed. In place of meaningful change came the decision to create a single, relatively low level position in the State Museum: a State Historian who supervises no one but himself and who reports to a Chief Curator. The Chief Curator, in turn, reports to an Assistant Commissioner-level Museum Director, and the Museum Director controls everyone’s budget and work plan.
So with all due respect to Bruce, let’s not assume that too much has recently changed at State Ed. When all is said and done, the State Historian’s work is still tightly controlled and subordinated to a top-down museum agenda rather than an independent public history mission.
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So let’s take a minute and consider the fact that New York’s historical “enterprise” has not been the only one facing hard times over the last forty-or-so years. Following the rise of “pro-growth,” anti-government politics in the 1970s and 80s, officials from both political parties have been radically slashing budgets and reducing public work forces — almost always at the expense of their historical enterprises.
Republicans, for example, closed the Georgia State Archives in 2012, but after facing legal and public pressure, reorganized it a few months later on a smaller scale under the University of Georgia. Likewise, the Republican governor of Illinois closed his State Museum in 2015 but was soon forced to reopen it, though with a new admissions fee and a smaller staff. A Democratic governor, meanwhile, crippled the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (my former employer) with a forty-three percent budget reduction in 2009 — while making more dollars available, not to public or private historical institutions, but to Pennsylvania’s tourism industry. That decision enriched private business but did little to promote economic growth and less to enrich the state’s civic life. Sound familiar?
At the same time, federal agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, struggled to survive in the 1990s and afterwards could no longer be counted on for the support they had once provided to both public and private historical organizations. Of course, cynical promises that the private sector would fill the funding gap were never realized.
Ideologically driven budget cuts have not only reduced the number of humanities programs across the country, they have also affected their quality. And New York is not the only place where bureaucracies have turned irresponsibly inward. In the National Park Service, for example, where maintenance needs seem to have been forever deferred and positions have been routinely combined into fewer and fewer jobs, anthropologist Cathy Stanton sees an institutional culture dominated by a “tight-knit, cohesive, intensely loyal network of mostly-white, mostly-male executives” that has had a tendency to “circle the wagons” whenever confronted by perceived external threats.
Meanwhile, even academic scholars are suffering — along with the field of higher education itself — as enrollments in university history programs decline and faculty positions are filled by part-time, underpaid adjuncts. Historians and their colleagues in Wisconsin protested in 2015, for example, when the state’s governor (at the time a contender for the Republican presidential nomination) made savage cuts to Wisconsin’s education budget and tried to lessen the costs and influence of high-priced professors by revoking their tenure and academic freedom. Elsewhere, history and other liberal arts programs became targets for the governors of Florida (2012) and Kentucky (2016) determined to impose higher tuition costs on students whose coursework failed to meet the market demands of business interests (e.g., science, technology, engineering, and math).
Most of us in the history community would likely agree with filmmaker Ken Burns that the public itself has been the biggest loser in all this, but the fact remains: the national environment for creating and maintaining history and humanities programs that serve the public interest has not been good for many, many years.
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So what does this mean for New Yorkers who would like to see a better, more productive and effective “historical enterprise”?
First of all, we need to be patient and more realistic. New York’s history community is not directly responsible for the rightward shift in national politics that occurred decades ago, and there’s only so much that a statewide group of dedicated professionals can do to — yikes! — change the course of American history. That’s going to take time, and the dark political cloud that has been hovering over us for far too long will need to lift (there are reasons lately to believe that it will, by the way). In the meantime, overstatements about the impact of old conference sessions and journal articles, vague statements about leadership and collaboration, endless brainstorming in one meeting after another, putting too much faith in technology, and making other technical adjustments to the way we do business don’t really help.
Secondly, we have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s not about us. It’s about the public we serve. Bruce Dearstyne is correct when he says “New York’s history community is incredibly diverse, talented, energetic, and determined to strengthen the state’s historical enterprise. There are lots of ideas being proposed and discussed. There is some impatience with inertia and a desire to get moving.” That’s all good, and there has indeed been modest progress from time to time. I’m afraid, though, that Bruce has been saying the same things for years. And so, in truth, have I and, um, other geezers.
It’s time, I think, to recognize that there is a young, capable, idealistic, and motivated generation of historians out there and they need to be given a chance to find new and better ways to make history a more meaningful and beneficial part of people’s lives. This group would include people such as Johanna Yaun in Orange County (read her insightful and eloquent essays,) Christine Ridarsky in Rochester, Mary Zawacki in Schenectady, Will Walker at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, Chris Pryslopski at the Hudson River Valley Institute, Drew Alberti at Lakes to Locks Passage, John Warren at the New York History Blog, and—yes—Devin Lander, the State Historian.
Devin, obviously, has some institutional hurdles to clear before he is able to use the power of his position. But he’s patient and smart, and he understands the way in which state government works. The best thing for him — and for the rest of us — would be for the Commissioner of Education to appoint a Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education who recognizes the value of a supportive history community and its potential for helping the department serve its mission rather than the organization’s internal needs.
Strengthening the State Historian position by giving it more independence and status would be a good first step for the new Deputy to consider. If this is to be done in the State Museum, then officials there would need to reorganize their history program by putting the State Historian in charge of the Chief Curator, not the other way around. That’s unlikely to happen under present management of course, so the Deputy should consider moving the State Historian to the State Archives (an office with a more focused historical mission, funds and authority to support a grants program and collaborative programming, a historical magazine, and a network of statewide offices) or into the office of the Deputy itself (where the Historian could best coordinate programming among archives, library, and museum staff).
I’m looking forward to seeing how all this unfolds.