As a presenter at the recent Conversations In the Disciplines: The Present and Future of Public History in New York State, a convening of public historians and students sponsored by the History Department at SUNY Albany, I had the opportunity to consider some of the broad issues facing history museums and historical societies in our state. Some of my comments seemed to hit a nerve with the audience, so I thought I'd share them here with the hope that you'll want to weigh in.
I'm just back from a very brief visit and presentation at the Seminar for Historical Administration, a 3-week immersion for history museum leaders co-sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, Colonial Williamsburg, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and others. Institutions as large as The Henry Ford and as small as the local history museum in Wasilla, Alaska, participated in the seminar this year. It was clear that by the time I was scheduled to speak to the group about vision and mission, the themes of relevancy and community impact had become two constant threads throughout their 2 ½ weeks of discussion.
My short time at the Seminar for Historical Administration reinforced my ongoing observation that local history organizations (no matter where they are located across NYS or the country) have a genuine desire to engage more fully with the public in ever more meaningful ways, but often lack of knowledge, the skills or the tools to do it consistently or at all.
As John Durel, the coordinator of the Seminar for Historical Administration said, "History and historical organizations are everywhere, yet they are invisible to most." I happen to agree with his assessment.
And it leads me to what I believe are three wide-angle issues for public historians and history organizations in our state:
The first is that apart from scattered studies and anecdotal evidence, the history museum field lacks solid research about how it impacts its communities. There is no data anywhere of which I am aware that connects visits to or programming at history museums with increased social studies test scores in grades K-12.
There is no data correlating the history museum participation by young people and their choice of career. Again, what we believe we know is that many people working in history museums had a memorable exposure to a museum at a young age that eventually allowed them to think that they could, in fact, work in these places.
Furthermore, there is no data that the work of history museums makes for communities that are better overall stewards of their past (whether that be through an increase in historic preservation activity; general citizen knowledge about the history of a place; or citizen advocacy for funding for history-based projects or programs).
Secondly, it’s hard to ignore the irony of the fact that the vast majority of New York state’s history and heritage organizations are incorporated by the State Education Department, thus making them full-fledged members of the University of the State of NY family, yet it is only through their own diligent efforts that they are seen as educational resources by classroom teachers.
There’s a huge disconnect that exists between the State Education Department and the integration of history museums in history education. It has become ever wider and more frustrating in light of the state’s move toward adopting Common Core standards and frameworks for the Social Studies, as schools grapple with dwindling internal resources, and as fewer teachers teaching social studies have direct knowledge about the history of the community in which the school is located.
Probably, the most glaring example of this disconnect is the fact that the Regents regulations for heritage organizations require that educational programming be created in collaboration with teachers and support classroom curricula. Yet, museum and historical society resources are not officially integrated into curriculum frameworks and standards.
Lastly, most history institutions operate on a scarcity model, which in effect, hampers the ability of these organizations to do truly relevant, impactful public history work. It’s “a mindset that is colored by the belief that growth is difficult to achieve because there are never resources to do the job. Over time, scarcity thinking develops a momentum of its own, which can limit organizational vision, encourage small-bore thinking, and promote complacency and defeatism, thus allowing us to make excuses for poor or no performance.”
The three issues I’ve chosen are all intertwined and need to be addressed by the field in a comprehensive way…..and they won’t be fully resolved for a number of years – perhaps even in a generation. But I’m hopeful that we can begin to make important headway on them and others today.