Next month, October, is New York State History Month. As usual, the State Museum is planning several activities and offers suggestions for commemorations. Other public history organizations are gearing up for events to “celebrate the history of New York State and recognize the contributions of state and local historians,” in the words of Section 52.02 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, which established State History Month by statute.
That was back in 1997, so this is State History Month’s 25 anniversary. This year presents some special challenges and opportunities.
*Forums for conferring. After a lull due to COVID, there will be more conferences, including a state history conference at SUNY Oneonta at the end of October, billed as History and Education Conference. Conferences give the state’s historical community an opportunity to come together and share ideas and strategies.
*Fun and social events. One of the reasons for changing History month from November to October a couple of years ago was to enable historic sites and houses to take advantage of temperate fall weather. That means more opportunities for tours and exhibits but also for outdoor events and hands-on history demonstrations.
*Putting history to work. People are looking to historians and history programs for insights and guidance at a time of social and political turmoil. This is a sensitive role – we can provide information on historical precedents and parallels without necessarily being identified as partisans for or against particular groups or issues. This may or may not be a role all of us welcome and it can become uncomfortable. But it is not new. Back in 1911, Columbia University historian James H. Robinson, a proponent of historical relevance, wrote an influential essay on “The New History” that said:
“History has a disintegrating effect on current prejudices which is yet scarcely appreciated. It makes both for understanding and for intellectual emancipation as nothing else can. Obviously history must be rewritten, or rather, innumerable current issues must be given their neglected historic background. Our present so-called histories do not ordinarily answer the questions we would naturally and insistently put to them, When we contemplate the strong demand that women are making for the right to vote, do we ask ourselves how did men win the vote? The historians we consult have scarcely asked themselves that question and so do not answer it. We ask how did our courts come to control legislation in the exceptional and extraordinary manner they do? We look vain in most histories for a reply.
No one questions the inalienable right of the historian to interest himself in any phase of the past that he chooses. It is only to be wished that a greater number of historians had greater skill in hitting upon those phases of the past which serve us best in understanding the most vital problems of the present.”
*Reconsidering mission. Many public historians and public history programs are revisiting their missions these days. Some may decide that things are just fine, no need to make any changes. But others are making changes. As we spring back from COVID and consider the public issues of the day, we may find guidance in the American Association for State and Local History’s report Making History Matter: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement. You can find an interesting short video of the evolution of the mission of one of the state’s oldest programs, the New-York Historical Society, in their video “New-York Historical Society: Uncovering America’s History.” Another useful source may be the Buffalo History Museum’s mission (“Experiencing history with you, by safekeeping, remembering, discovering, and sharing our stories; learning and exploring together; sparking emotional and social connections within our unique community”) and its vision and values in the “About the Museum” section of its website .
*Connecting or reconnecting with teachers and schools. While New York state and local history per se continue to receive scant coverage in schools, there are new opportunities in the renewed public interest in “civics education” which has, or can have, important state and local history connections. The Fordham Institute’s report The State of State Standards For Civics and U.S. History in 2021 provides helpful insights and a basis for comparing New York to other states (our state is near the top with a “Good/Exemplary” rating). Local history is an excellent forum to showcase civic life and citizens’ social responsibilities. Another useful source is the report from iCivics and others, Educating for American Democracy.
*Garnering public attention. Historians don’t always realize it, but local newspapers and TV news broadcasts are often looking for good stories to feature. New York History Month fits the bill – a state (statutory) designation with local events and a chance to call attention to the work of the local historical society museum or official Historian. Getting media attention during October could, in turn, engender continuing local media interest.
Editor’s note: To have your events noticed here at New York Almanack, visit this link.