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Dear Andrew Cuomo: Fund History Infrastructure

Andrew Cuomo (Times Union Photo)Last Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo inaugurated the Adirondack Challenge as an upstate tourist initiative. The Indian River rafting challenge was issued to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who, according to news reports, is more familiar with yachts than inflatable rafts. The State defeated the City by 18 seconds in the three mile race. A wet and good time was had by all.

Governor Cuomo’s love for upstate (in particular the Adirondacks, not, say Syracuse), is well known. According to the New York Times a year before the Path through History roll-out, the Governor “has conspicuously avoided leaving the state” save for driving on the Palisades Interstate Parkway when headed north from the city. As Cuomo put it: “You can have the best vacation of your life right here in the state of New York. I see no reason to go anywhere else. It’s my state and I’m sticking to it.”

Right below the article on the Adirondack Challenge, was the article “In a Museum or on TV, Objects that Tell a Story.” What’s relevant here is not the 50 objects on the Civil War, but the person who made the final decision on what was to be exhibited – Harold Holzer, Lincoln scholar, among other things. He had been an assistant to Governor Mario Cuomo, and is currently on the executive board of the Path through History project. Holzer spoke at the August 2012 kick-off meeting, but we haven’t heard much from him over the past year on the Path project, or for that matter, from Ken Jackson who gave the plenary address, or from the other members of the executive board. Or from Lisa Keller who chaired the Hudson Valley region session which I attended.

For all practical purposes, these people appear to be out of the loop. As best I can determine from the public actions of which I am aware, it’s just as if the Executive Board doesn’t exist anymore and their pictures in the slick glossy booklet we received was a sham.

I mention this because the stakes are high. There are consequences to the shortcomings of the Path project that affect all the communities of the state, not just upstate, consequences that the Governor knows, but hasn’t responded to with his fixation on tourism.

The Death of a Museum” tells the tale of the true stakes. The article mainly is about the demise of the Fresno Met in California. It mentions the similar dire straits of the Detroit Institute of Arts (in the city of ruin tourism) and the South Street Seaport (ruined in part by Sandy). It also might have mentioned Historic Cherry Hill, near the Executive Mansion in Albany, and on the brink of death just days ago before being rescued by an outpouring of donations. These critical lines in the article should give pause as to what really needs to be done to support the history community in New York: “Museums don’t often go out of business. They cut back, they pare down, but they tend to persevere as cultural anchors of their communities” (emphasis added).

CULTURAL ANCHORS OF THEIR COMMUNITIES, not tourist destination points. The cultural anchors of the kinds of communities Andrew Cuomo likes to visit and promote. And these cultural anchors need help to survive.

They need help to survive physically.
They need help to survive financially.
They need help to survive with a local history curriculum.
They need help to survive with community heritage events.
They need help to survive.

Instead of funding the history infrastructure which is needed to anchor communities and support tourism, the state’s funding is going to new highway signs, a website, and advertising agencies.

Good thing the history community isn’t organized, because if it were Cuomo would get an earful.

Photo: This photograph, taken by a Times Union reporter, memorializes the day Governor Andrew Cuomo rolled-out the Path Through History program in front of signage highlighting history related sites Albany.

11 thoughts on “Dear Andrew Cuomo: Fund History Infrastructure

  1. I have written to Gov. Cuomo but have been largely unsuccessful convincing my friends to do likewise. They tell me that Albany doesn’t listen. They tell me that, if we accept state money, we will have to do a project dictated by Albany, not something that we truly need. If they know about the Path project at all, they see it as funding for fancy cenotaphs out on the Thruway for historic sites that have fallen into disrepair for lack of funding.

    If Gov. Cuomo wants to help, Friends groups all over upstate NY are having teas this summer to keep our historic sites open. There will be homemade cookies. Donations are welcome.

    1. Hi Addie,

      Thanks for writing. Your comments go to the heart of something I have repeatedly mentioned – the weak, fractured, impotent state of the history community that does not have a seat at the table in Albany. Other entities accredited by the NYSED such as libraries, schools, and archives are organized, funded, and make their voices heard. One naive hope of mine for the Path project was that it would provide a vehicle through which the history community might be heard since there was no state-wide organization speaking on its behalf. Niche players do exits such as NYSOPRHP which is a state organization, APHNYS which almost went bankrupt, MANY which does have a lobbyist, and NYSHA which is silent. At this point the prospects for developing a history community voice in Albany seem non-existent.


  2. Dear Peter,
    This is a sad “state” of affair that you speak of in the history community. We, in Lyons(upstate ny), run a beautiful museum( Hotchkiss Peppermint Factory) on the Erie Canal, that has in the last two years received much attention. We receive tourists that are mainly boaters and bikers from all over the world. We are so pleased to see this growth in tourism here and hope it continues. BUT, we do need help, esp financially to keep this gem of a building intact and running!! Focus on the Erie Canal has been such a benefit and the history surrounding it is abundant!! I am sure you know this!! I do like what the Governor has been trying to do in encouraging tourism in upstate and the different regional funding that is occurring. However, small places like us need help too and right now with the upswing of tourism, it needs to be encouraged.

    If I can help in anyway as a representative of our area, please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Thank you for all your work!!
    Patty Alena, Lyons Heritage Societ

    1. Dear Patty,

      Thank you for writing and sharing your concerns. To date the New York History community has not been a successful lobbyist for history infrastructure. Everyone talks about tourism bringing in revenue and creating jobs but no one talks about what the history community needs to support such tourism. Large places have sufficient resources to prosper on their own but it is the smaller places sometimes off the beaten track that really have to struggle. Maintaining a building, especially an old one can be a challenge both financially and for the time required. For private organizations, the challenge is even steeper. So far the importance of historic sites for community health and identity has yet to be realized or appreciated. Perhaps what is needed is a coordinated effort with a coordinated message that can be brought to the powers that be at the county and state level. Unfortunately the history community is so weak and disorganized there isn’t even a mechanism for putting such an effort together. I wish I could be more optimistic. Perhaps the best course of action for you as a self-identified representative of your area is to organize your own area and make your case to your county executive, state legislators, and congressional representative. Maybe you could be an example to others.


  3. Thanks for highlighting the near-death experience at Historic Cherry Hill. While we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support and were able to meet our benchmark for our prestigious challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), we fully concur with your assessment about the need for the State to provide fuller support to the many worthy historical institutions from Albany to Buffalo and from St. Lawrence County to the tip of Long Island. The burden of stewardship–in our case the restoration of a 1787 landmark in dire need of repairs and a collection of more than 70,000 objects and manuscripts accumulated by one family over the course of two centuries–is simply too large. It is a shared responsibility, one that we take seriously.

    1. Liselle,

      Thanks for writing and sharing your near-death experience at Historic Cherry Hill. It attests the true challenges facing the historic community in New York State, a reality to which the powers-that-be seem oblivious. Your comment combined with that of the Lyons Heritage Society makes me wonder how many more examples there are. It highlights the need for the history community to organize to get a seat at the table for the spending of taxpayer money. The community support you received also attests the importance of our historic heritage to the life and identity of our communities today, a concept that apparently carries little or no weight in Albany or many of the counties and municipalities throughout the state.


  4. Dear Peter:

    I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who hasn’t heard anything after the Lower Hudson Region Path Through History meeting last year. As a municipal historian, I often feel like I’m a “bottom feeder” and only receive information that trickles down to me, but now I know that isn’t necessarily true.

    I am Coordinator of Region 3 of APHNYS, and my Deputy Coordinator and I are organizing our regional meeting, to be held Saturday, October 5, in the Town of Kent in Putnam County. Our theme this year is “Historians and Cultural Heritage Tourism”. We’ve been working on a presentation agenda, but I have to admit is sometimes is very difficult to get speakers to participate. Like most groups, we have no funds, which means no honoraria. Our historians operate on no or minimal budgets, so we generally “brown bag” it. However, the information sharing from these meetings is amazing, and I’ve always walked away from a regional meeting – or an annual APHNYS meeting – with lots of new ideas and a terrific sense of comraderie. But I am digressing…
    In my opinion municipal historians often are overlooked when it comes to cultural heritage tourism. Although some from the APHNYS board attended the Albany “kick-off”, others like myself only learned about the initiative through messages from our county historians, who learned about it through the regional Path Through History people. By the time I joined the party, most of the decisions were made by the executive “brain-trust”, and I felt there was little room for – or even interest in – my input.
    As a result of that meeting in Hyde Park, though, some local networking efforts have developed. At our regional meeting in October, I’m hoping attendees will want to share their heritage destinations so that we can develop a Lower Hudson regional cultural heritage network of some of the lesser-known but still very important places to visit. I firmly believe that municipal and county historians have a role in cultural heritage tourism. We are the ones who research and interpret our local history, and we should be involved in guiding others to appreciate New York history where it occurred.

    Thank you, as always, for providing this forum to discuss the “state of history” in New York State.
    Suzanne Isaksen
    Town of Montgomery Historian (Orange County)
    APHNYS Region 3 Coordinator

    1. Dear Suzanne,

      Thanks for writing. You raise quite a few good points.

      The idea of of a Lower Hudson Cultural group is an excellent one. You should contact Greater Hudson Heritage Network; they had the table next to you at the social studies conference you attended in White Plains last December. That conference is an excellent time for getting together and by coincidence I was just on the phone with Priscilla yesterday. The Putnam meeting also is an excellent idea. The county has an annual morning meeting of historic organizations. As you probably realize eventually one meeting would have to be held in each county in your region since the reality is there are limits as to how far people will travel and that limit tends to be restricted to the county. Wouldn’t it be nice if the state at least funded regional APHNYS meetings!

      It would be nice to know what the other APHNYS regions are doing. I am sure if each one wanted to post something to New York History, it would be accepted.

      I wouldn’t worry about being out of the loop on the Path through History project because almost nothing is happening with it in the Hudson Valley anyway. At some point some grants totaling $100,000 will be granted throughout the region with the appropriate fan-fare. After all, it is almost one year since the Governor made that promise.


  5. I am submitting this message on behalf of someone who wishes to remain anonymous:

    Well said. One problem is history is not taught to the same extent anymore. Therefore, there is a lack of appreciation for the role of museums, especially history museums, which are essentially educational institutions. The idea that you can distill the Civil War into 50 objects is interesting, but what is the basis for selecting the objects? 50 objects sounds like a soundbite.

    Yes, the Adirondacks is a depressed area with high unemployment, but other attractions in the state are in need of attention as well.

    Actually, one step Cuomo took on attaining office was to eliminate capital funding for small museums, funding in place and allocated by local officials. Apparently small institutions are not a priority in this state.

    1. Jack,

      I am sorry to hear it but confess I am not surprised. The problem does seem to be a statewide one as you can see from the other replies. Back when there were Member items, at least local organizations had the opportunity to speak to their own state legislator and/or senator. Now even that option doesn’t exist and nothing has really replaced it. I once attended at workshop at MANY with its lobbyist and much of it was devoted to how to contact one’s own legislator. Maybe if all the history organizations did that in Albany on a targeted date it would do some good. Once again this highlights the need for the history community to become organized.

      Perhaps this can be an item for discussion at the Queens history conference at Queens College on October 4. Looks like a lot of the history organizations in the borough want to participate.


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