Historians need to consider doing more of what might be called putting history to work – using it to provide historical perspective on current events. A few examples:
*There are now several history forums and a number of history museums that are supporting dialog including historical insights about current issues.
*A number of recent books by prominent historians shed light on the strategies of previous leaders in times of crisis, the need to keep to our historical values, and the theme that the nation is continuously evolving and progressing, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership; Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Natures; and Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialog: The Founders and Us.
*Closer to home, here in New York, the New York State Canal Corporation, which operates the state canal system, along with other programs including the State Museum, led a commemoration of the beginning of the Erie Canal last year and the completion of the Barge Canal this year. Earlier this year, the Corporation sponsored a “Reimagine the Canals” contest to garner ideas to spur economic development, boost tourism and recreational spending, and also support the historical character of the canal network. The competition drew 145 entries from nine states and seven nations. An expert panel reviewed the proposals and decided on the winners, which Governor Cuomo’s office announced on October 4. One is a proposal for building “pocket neighborhoods” along the Erie Canalway Trail, starting with a pilot project in Canestota. The other winner is a proposal for an “Erie Armada,” described as “a multi-day festival and boat race centered on breweries creating human-powered boats that could be made from items common to the industry, such as barrels and beer cans. The race would include parties at the start and end of each 15-mile race that would feature music, local food offerings and craft beverages, including beers created specifically for the armada.” The first one would go between Baldwinsville and Phoenix.
* The Town of Nassau in Rensselaer County changed the name of a tributary of Valatie Kill Creek, from T-11A to Little Thunder Brook. “Little Thunder,” says a press release issued by the town, was the name used by Frank Abbott, a local leader of the Anti Rent Wars in the mid 19th century which protested the system of land ownership based on royal grants dating back to Dutch colonial days. The stream is adjacent to a polluted landfill currently being cleaned up by the federal EPA. The new name designation is a way to recall the community’s history of fighting for people’s rights, said Supervisor David Flemming. “We’re trying to stand up for rural New Yorkers who have been ignored.” The Nassau area was a center of anti-rent activity. Dr. Smith Boughton, known as “Big Thunder,” the leader of the anti- renters, hailed from Alps, a hamlet in Nassau. Henry Christman, in his book Tin Horns and Calico, refers to another anti-rent leader who also went by the name “Little Thunder,” Mortimer C. Belden.
* A post here on the New York History Blog last May described the project to construct a replica of the historic Blenheim Covered Bridge in Schoharie County, which was lost in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. A special program on the national PBS show NOVA on October 3, Operation Bridge Rescue, described the construction planning and building process in detail.
“…history can have more impact when it connects the people, events, places, stories, and ideas of the past with the people, events, places, stories, and ideas that are important and meaningful to communities, people, and audiences today,” says the History Relevance Campaign. The site has a number of documents and examples of putting history to work.