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A Report From The NYS History Commission Roundtable

On May 29, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (Suffolk) convened a roundtable for the proposed New York State History Commission. Also in attendance were Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (Queens) and Senator George Latimer (Westchester), the senator from my district who had just become a co-sponsor.

Invited participants with name cards sat around the table. In addition there were about six of us who attended the public meeting as a result of my post to The New York History Blog. Assemblyman Englebright graciously allowed us to participate in the discussion along with those invited. I consider this meeting to have been a fact-finding or information-gathering meeting by the legislators who were seeking to learn the state of affairs in the New York history community.

As previously reported in my post on the American Revolution, Assemblyman Englebright brought a personal perspective to the cause of the legislation. He is the representative from Setauket, home of America’s first spy ring which is now a TV series. For background, he drew on his own committee oversight for the Office of Government Services (OGS). In that capacity he learned that responsibility for history was splintered among various government agencies. His initial attempt to resolve the problem of fractured lines of authority was to propose a reorganization which would bring together the scattered history departments into one organization. His new attempt is to create this history commission which would include representatives from the various departments while providing guidance to all of them and a single face to the public.

Assemblywoman Markey spoke of her earlier life as chair of the Queens Tourism committee reporting to the borough president. She is proud of her role in creating the Flushing Freedom Trail and expressed concern over what had happened since then. Prior to the meeting she spoke of her commitment to the history of the underground railroad and slavery in Queens.

Senator Latimer mentioned that when he drives to Albany he takes local roads instead of the Taconic and drives by Martin Van Buren’s home in Columbia County. “Who?” he rhetorically asked. Do New Yorkers know he was president?

In his opening comments, Englebright stressed the importance of a sense of place, a term familiar to the history community. People need to know where they live and how they fit it. He envisions the historical process as a passing of the historical legacy baton to the next generation which then will continue the legacy even as it creates its own. Readers of my posts know that this passing the torch has been an essential element in my own view of what communities especially through the schools should do through community rituals.

Regent Tillis echoed Englebright’s concerns. He stated that schools are dropping from the curriculum what makes communities strong. History is being taught as it relates to English literature and less so in its own right. Tillis promised to bring information from this meeting back to the NYS Education Department which includes the New York State Archives, Library, and Museum as well as the schools. These organizations were not present on their own in this initial meeting.

Tillis offered his opinion that the history community needs to know both the Common Core and the new social studies standards. He believes there is a perfect fit between the curriculum and the history sites. This topic also was addressed in one of the sessions at the NYSHA conference in June which I will be writing about separately.

I have recommended to the NYSCSS, which held its board meeting June 7, that county-level meetings be held throughout the state between the social studies teachers and the history community on precisely this issue. I feel that regardless of any state-wide or regional meetings, there is a need to make the presentations in each county. The new social studies standards represent a revision of the 1996 standards and are separate from the Common Core. The history community needs to be apprised of what this means for state and local history. To maximize the dissemination of the information about these standards and the Common Core, meetings between the teachers and history community should be held at the local level beginning in the fall in every county.

One cause for concern mentioned by Englebright (besides money) was “silos.” “Silos” is a jargon term which I must have heard a dozen times since the May 29 Roundtable including at the recent NYSHA conference. I certainly hope that thousands of years from now when historians are studying our time period they will know that we aren’t talking about farming.

The concern for silos can be fatal. Writing for Time Magazine in “We’ve All Got GM Problems,” Rana Foroohar specifically referred to the “Kafkaesque art form” of silence and buck-passing “that kept these silos in place” at GM She writes that the “company’s many departments and employees literally weren’t communicating with one another. She mentions Napoleon and Adam Smith wrestling with military and labor silos and 9/11 as the classic example of the disaster which can occur when information isn’t communicated outside one’s silo. Corporate debacles and information silos go hand in hand.

The danger from history-information silos is less dire, but the death of history through isolation and withering still is a serious issue for the health of a community. To use a specific example mentioned in the Roundtable, Tillis referred to history as a silo within the NYSED, a topic not really connected to the department to the extent it should be. People in the NYS Archives, Library, and Museum don’t necessarily know what the other is doing nor is there a regular venue of communication with NYSOPRHP which was present at the Roundtable. The need to include municipal historians, history societies, and historic sites in the discussion about the new social standards is another example.

In a separate post, I will be writing about the NPS facing some of the same issues and concerns and the recommendations which have been proposed to resolve them at the federal level. That also was a subject at the NYSHA conference. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel at the state level if we can learn from what the NPS is doing. The Erie Canal Heritage Corridor was present at the Roundtable.

The proposed New York State History Commission is designed to integrate these separate lines of communication and end these silos. A recent Time article quotes Ranjay Gulati, Harvard Business School, recommending as the best way to overcome silos is to create a set of core values and mission that everyone understands. He is referring to a situation where everyone is part of the same organization. That is not true for the New York State history community. Therefore one important step in the process is to identify each of the existing silos and to hear their stories before trying to put the pieces together into a coherent whole.

To do so, the Roundtable of May 29 should be considered the first of a series of fact-finding information gathering meetings with history community silos. I propose that the following meetings be held as part of the effort to develop the proposed New York State History commission

1. Municipal Historians – NYS Historian and APHNYS
2. Municipal Historical Societies
3. History Museums – NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, NYCMER, MANY, GHHN
4. Historic Sites/Homes – NYSOPRHP, NPS, MANY
5. Archives – NYS Archives, New York Archives Conference, Archives Partnership Trust
6. Library – NYS Library, NYLA
7. Preservation – NYSOPRHP, New York Landmarks Conservancy, PreserveNY
8. Teachers – NYSED, NYSCSS
9. Archaeologists – NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, PANY
10. Native American community
11. Local History (markers, monuments, memorials)
12. Performance (re-enactors, storytellers, folk)
13. History/Museum Education – SUNY, CUNY, NYSHA, NYSED
14. Regional – history corridors, trails, byways, routes
15. Scholars – Path through History advisory committee
16. Researchers – genealogists, independent scholars, authors
17. Funders – NYCH, NYSCA
18. Tourism – ILoveNY, Amtrak, MetroNorth, bus, lodging

Needless to say, this list is not cast in stone, is of no legal standing, and is subject to change. In some cases, I am not quite sure who represents certain areas. The intention of this list is to include the silos of the New York State history community whose voices should be heard as part of the effort to create the desperately needed New York State History Commission. I look forward to this project.


32 thoughts on “A Report From The NYS History Commission Roundtable

  1. I’m glad that Senator Latimer takes local roads when he drives to Albany. At least he noticed that he is driving by Martin Van Buren’s home. The house tour is pretty enjoyable. What will it take to get Senator Latimer to stop and visit instead of just driving by?

    1. Hi Roberta,

      Thanks for your comment, I second that notion, but.

      I’m a big fan of early 19th century NYS political history, founder and editor of this blog (which began in 2008), and I have family and family history in Columbia County – I’ve driven by the Van Buren home many times and never went in. Why? Because it always looks closed and because I’ve never once heard of an event, exhibit, or anything that was taking place there, in fact I can’t ever recall hearing anything about the place ever.

      I’m sure this will be an opportunity for someone to chime-in to assure me that they’ll send info about the what’s happening at the Van Buren home, but the bottom line is no one cares mostly because no one knows. And no one knows, mostly because no one bothers to tell them.

      The Van Buren site’s first step ought to be to get involved in the history community, their primary supporters – look outside their membership and/or volunteer bubble and offer something, anything, to people who might be interested, if only they knew.

      They should also ask themselves seriously: Why is it that someone who should be a regular visitor and a supporter, someone who now lives in the Adirondacks, but frequently visits the area, does not know about what we have and what we’re doing?

      I certainly don’t mean to disparage anyone associated with the site, but obviously, there’s a deeper problem than getting a member of the state legislature to visit.

      Again, with thanks for your comment, and your important advocacy,

      John Warren

      1. John,
        Martin Van Buren National Historic Site is owned and operated by the National Park Service, it is not a member based organization, but a Federal owned property. It is currently open to the public for tours 7 days a week. If you visit their website at, you will find information about tours.
        Having grown up in Kinderhook, I have brought many guests from out of town to visit the site, it was a frequent school field trip location for us, and it is a place that is full of many wonderful memories for me. The park is a gem in our community, it is not only rich in the history of Martin Van Buren and his presidency, but tells the story of his importance to Kinderhook and Columbia County. I highly recommend you take your family and friends for a visit next time you are driving by.
        The park will be hosting many community based events this coming summer, the first of which will be at the Kinderhook Farmer’s Market on July 19, please be sure to check it out.

        1. You seemed to have missed the point entirely.

          I know it’s important, I know who operates it and what great stories they can tell.

          Championing what a great place it is does nothing – absolutely nothing – to bring visitors there.

          I took a look at the website – it is laughable. I took a look at the pdf (!) schedule of events – there are TWO events at the site this entire year – both created by outside organizations.

          So, you’ve confirmed my impression of where the real problem lies and it’s not with me, or others who drive by, or those who have never heard of the site or anything that’s happening there.

          1. John:

            I’m really sorry to see you broadcast your lack of knowledge and lack of curiosity about the Van Buren site. Since you’ve received a degree from the UAlbany History Department, you certainly should have been very much aware of that site, since the department’s Program in Public History has had a long relationship with it. The site’s curator has taught in the department for years, and student from the Public History Program have been taken on tours there. Moreover, the site has a standing agreement with the university’s Center for Applied Historical Research, which regularly has provided for funded internships at the site. Site staff also have been very much involved in historical conferences around the state, as well as in many national and regional conferences.

            Contrary to your claim, the site has been very much involved with the community, and it regularly sponsors events attended by them, and I’ve been at one or two of them myself. If you’re such a big fan of the early nineteenth century, why haven’t you taken the time to visit the site and see how it’s been interpreted? Therre really is a prominent sign at the entrance listing the hours of operation.

          2. Ivan:

            You don’t get someone to hold a historic site as valuable by telling them they are ill-informed and just not curious enough. You don’t have to convince me it’s important, I know it is, you have to convince most everyone else – they’ve never even heard of it.

            A few years ago a plan was floated to close half of the state historic sites. That should be a wake-up call that the history community is not doing enough to convey to the public why they are important (since ever diminishing budgets apparently wasn’t enough of a wake-up). This site hasn’t conveyed anything to me – or the millions of other New Yorkers who aren’t at the conferences with them, or in your department. That’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact.

            I’m not saying it’s necessarily their fault, I’m sure they have budget issues. I don’t know what the complete problem is, but that doesn’t make it imaginary.

            If they have been busy working with your department and interns – that’s laudable, but that fact doesn’t begin to consider the elephant in the room – public awareness of the site and its value to the community outside academia.

            When the next budget axe falls, that’s what matters.

    2. I have asked my Senator that question. The legislature is now in recess so he probably won’t be driving up there soon so we will have to wait until after the election and the next session begins.

  2. At Long Island Traditions we actually worked with several middle schools to bring more awareness of local historic sites, mostly public, and gave them lesson plans, primary source documents, and tools for engaging students in local history projects. You can learn more about the publication on our web site at on the shop page. I’m not trying to push this but I do know it worked for the teachers, but also required substantial class time (5 days per lesson) and teacher/staff involvement, something that is in short supply today. Not to mention funding……….I hope you will keep us informed about future meetings and I would suggest that rather than holding them in Albany, they should be held at historic sites.

    1. I am in the process of trying to set up meetings in the two Long Island counties to discuss various history related issues. If either or both come to pass, you input should be welcomed and you may know some of the people involved.

  3. This is a terrific overview, Peter. I’d like to host a meeting to talk about this further at Huguenot Street, whether to provide a regional perspective or explore your ideas about the history silos.

    1. Following the NYSHA conference I sent emails to about 13 counties to have county meetings with the history community to discuss various issues which have come up including the proposed New York State History commission. Ulster was one of them. I also contacted the New York Cultural Heritage Tourism Network about doing something in central New York where it operates.

  4. Peter – Thank you for both attending and then reporting on this ground breaking meeting. You might begin by listing those who were present in two catagories: Those officially invited (who was invited but did not attend) and those, like yourself who just showed up from the greater history community. The problem you describe is clear in the simplest of terms….you just made a list of stakeholders (as you see them). If “one” person attended representing each (which could never happen), you already have a meeting which far exceeds a simple round table information forum format….you have created a room full of people. Perhaps a half dozen subgroups that would be charged with breaking down the silos within their domains…then each sends a rep + alternate (one vote between the two) to the History Commission Forum. This would provide perhaps six well flushed out and rehearsed messages for the Commission to hear and conside. Six is something that can be handled by due process…where 18 messages becomes just bedlam & meaningless cacophony that no one can sort through. I recommend the Commission attempt to have someone like Ann Ackerson (just retired Exec Dir of MANY) sign on as Consultant and Process Leader. Ann has been fullfilling this role with the New York Cultural Heritage Tourism Network and has done a marvelous job. Very process oriented, no issues or baggage or politics…..and no silos as far as I am aware.

    1. I need to clarify my proposal. I was not suggesting one meeting with all 18 silos in attendance but 18 separate meetings. Only afterwards would their be followup based on the commonalities and differences of the responses. For me the first step is to hear each of the voices before attempting a state synthesis or proposal. You are quite right to suggest the benefits of having a least one person attend all of the meetings but that well be the sponsoring legislators as well.

  5. I hate the fact that no where in these discussions does this issue of participation of the every day Josephine Blow.. who simply loves history and is the consumer, arise. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say.. I still have my color postcards of uniforms worn by both sides of the aisle from FT William Henry from 1960… AND as hoards of baby boomers, with time and discretionary income and grandchildren retire.. they now have the time and money to spend on what was not a vocation, but always a passion. You guys in the business ignore us at your own peril.

    1. As I sit here at my kitchen table responding to your comment, I am not quite sure what you mean by “you guys in the business.” You are quite right to point out the need to hear from the real people to love history but it is not there vocation. One of the reasons why I have supported county history conferences is to provide a venue for people such as them to meet locally. While their voice should be heard statewide, that will require going out to the grassroots and having historic sites get good feedback from their visitors.

  6. As a 7th grade social studies teacher one fear I have is that our American history is being pushed into the ELA curriculum and English teachers are attempting to deliver it under the guise of fiction reading. An experience in my building last year was to hear students talk about slavery based on the novel BETWEEN THE LASH AND THE GUN. They were reading it in English class and the teacher was adding her limited knowledge of slavery to discussions. Student understanding of slavery was slim at best so I pulled out Lester’s TO BE A SLAVE and we read various slave narratives. The lessons were well received. Connecting to social studies teachers is a key component to keeping American history alive and well in NYS. NYSED needs to look at the big picture in educating our students.

    1. Regent Tillis pointed this problem out during the meeting. If I heard him correctly, he was saying that this was incorrect implementation of the Common Core curriculum. Whatever the source of the problem, many historic sites have limited ability to achieve their stated purpose as educational entities chartered by the NYSED due to decreasing school group attendance. My own museum has tried many, many times to get school administration officials and teachers to work with us but they have not responded or have not had time to meet with us. We shifted our focus to senior citizens and home school groups but still hope to serve K-12 students effectively. We need to cultivate fond memories of field trips to museums and historic sites in addition to promoting an understanding of our own communities.

      During the history commission meeting, I noted that NYS History month is in November. A time of year when the majority of NYS museums (open air museums and historic sites in particular) are closed. We have a lot of “disconnect” surrounding our cultural resources in NYS yet there is so much potential!

  7. Joseph Alexiou at TEDxGowanus – YouTube
    ► 12:04► 12:04
    Mar 7, 2014 – Uploaded by TEDx Talks
    Gowanus.” Joseph Alexiou is a journalist and… … In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program …

    Sharing the Ted-X Talk on the Battle of Brooklyn, for every school child to watch and share with their parents.

  8. Here in Brooklyn (Kings County), the states largest, we have a multiplicity of groups focusing on history, but a notable lack of coordination. Besides the educational community, there are preservation organizations, historic sites, a county historical society, etc.

  9. I have driven by the Martin Van Buren house many times while traveling to Dutchess County and it took no more than an application of my brakes to stop in and see an intriguing site of Americana. Unlike many other sites, MVB is easily accessible and right on a main highway. You do not need a special invitation: try it-you’ll like it

  10. As expected, the comments defending the Van Buren House seem to miss the point entirely.

    I’m not lazy – I’ve been to hundreds of this state’s historic sites, marked and otherwise. I’ve spent years creating and editing this website. I’ve never once heard from the Van Buren home that I can recall.

    Blaming me for not putting on my brakes, and championing what a great place it is, does nothing – absolutely nothing – to bring visitors there.

    Relying on drive-by traffic, failing to host events, failing to reach out to potential visitors, is the problem. Blaming people who don’t visit is not the solution.

  11. In addition to the impressive total of 18 organizations listed as focal points, one more should be added as a growing resource of interest: Seniors’ Lifetime Learning programs. From personal experience, history is a well attended subject to this crowd, some of whom may even have helped to shape it in their pasts. Perhaps use Elderhostel as a prime focus ? Or the individual and growing number of LLI, CLS, lifetime learning programs springing up all around the state.

  12. Peter,

    Just a note to suggest that representatives of The New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA) and New York Archaeological Council (NYAC) be included in upcoming fact finding meetings. NYSAA is an open membership organization with both professional and hobbyist members in 16 local chapters located in virtually every region of New York State. NYAC is the primary association of professional archaeologists in upstate New York. PANYC is the sister organization of professionals in New York City.

    Thanks for the opportunity for input.

  13. For those who want to see more of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site: “The Scoop on Dirt: Soil, Farming, & History,” Wed., July 30, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn about farming past and present as you tour Roxbury Farm, one of the nation’s largest community supported agricultural efforts, and Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. Presenters: farmer, Jody Bolluyt; Jean-Paul Courtens, Roxbury’s founder; Jim McKay, Van Buren’s chief ranger; Justin Monetti, Van Buren site manager; and anthropologist Cathy Stanton. Part THV’s summer institute, Register: a07e93wj9bze8e862d5.

  14. While it may speak to the issue of silos in the state Ed Dept there is some effort being expended here in the Finger Lakes on connecting teachers with cultural organizations and encouraging them to interpret the Common Core broadly. On July 23 an event is being hosted for teachers by the Monroe County area BOCES, Rochester Regional Library Council and Genesee Country Village and Museum: This event is sold out and will bring over 200 teachers to the museum to find out about the programs and resources available at cultural organizations that can help them implement the Common Core. The program is not just for history organizations, but the overall aim of the event and the meetings that led up to it was to help area culturals understand the CC and recognize their role (as defined by NYSED) in implementing it. Even if it plays out unevenly, there are those in NYSED, BOCES and school districts who want schools to use these resources and recognize the educational role played by the museums, libraries and public radio stations that are part of the NYSED mission. The impetus for this regional program came out of the Uncommon Approaches to the Common Core conference held in Albany last year and being repeated this year. It remains to be seen what the long term results of this are, but it does hold out some hope for history’s relevance in the formal schooling environment.

    1. Thank you for the encouraging information. I hope you will consider writing a post for New York History Blog about the results so they can be shared with a larger audience. Maybe other regions will do the same. Please keep in mind the new social studies standards as well.


  15. You’re pushing the envelope on connecting ALL of those involved with history in NYS to talk to each other. Long overdue. Congratulations for urging the conversation.

    Dick Williams
    Town of Kirkland Historian-Oneida County

  16. Hello all and thanks for a bracing conversation – having been a “silo resident” for over 25 years within the State Archives as part of their Documentary Heritage Program – and having spent a good part of that time trying to knock on other “silo doors” – for example, the Governor’s I Love NY and Path Through History Programs; the NYSED Engage NY site, the NYSCSS committees, the local BOCES programs, the local college and university teacher training programs, the local PBS radio and TV broadcast stations, the Arts Initiative Services program, the Visit Buffalo Niagara offices, the NYSREDC program, and countless others, I have to say the task ahead is a daunting one and will not happen overnight. As you now know from my introducvtion, the “silo” concept is pervasive – I am sure most of you have never even heard about the DHP or the 3Rs – the regional councils that are umbrella service organizations for all types of libraries across the state – a “silo within a silo” of the NYSL! The DHP has been around since 1988, providing field services to historical and cultural organizations in the form of workshop training and other professional development, site visits and consultation reports for improving collection management and other support services, including promoting use of collections – which is why I have spent so much time knocking on other silo doors!
    I have been to countless numbers of national, state, regional and local conferences and training sessions – both as participant and as presenter – on the subject of integrating cultural and heritage tourism into sectors of tourism and education. While those attending often express interest in what we have to offer in the way of history as a resource for education, tourism, economic development; they rarely seem to follow up and actually employ the resources in their fields of expertise. One time, I even went so far as to contact the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association to introduce the idea of including automotive history displays based on local collections, as part of their annual car show – as well as providing them with a set of lesson plans also based on our local automotive heritage for students and teachers – with no success!
    I don’t think that the leaders of major players, such as the National Parks, the I Love NY, Erie Canal Commission and others – including the DHP’s ‘parent silo” the State Archives, get it that while we are in “the digital age” many of the smaller local organizations are still really struggling to keep up and just get noticed by their own local communities. At the risk of embarrassing one – though they have done so much with so little, they should not feel at all awkward – I think of the Ellicottville Historian who is an older woman and who still does not use email – we snail mail each other following a site visit I made there. She has incredible resources – including early images and information on the growth of the ski resort industry there – that could be great material for commercial development and promotion of local business establishments interested in growing tourism – she has other materials that could be used by New York City fashion businesses that relate in a unique and significant way to early shoe industries…it is so cool, but no time here to go into it further! But according to the Historian, she is left out of most economic development matters – and when the tourists are in town, most of them just walk by her little (and I mean really, REALLY little!) building on their way to the shops and restaurants down the street! What is needed is more grass roots support and development – after all, a lot of how things grow is by word of mouth – whether directly or indirectly through social media – but if people who live in an area are not supporting something, no one else will tout it – I think that is part of the problem Mr. Warren was trying to identify. So, maybe instead of a big room meeting of big players across the state, we need a lot of smaller meetings at the community level to meet and bring their ideas to the bigger table once they all communicate with their neighbors.
    I also have reservations as one person did who commented on in accurate uses of historical resources across disciplines – I think the Common Core people are worrying too much about structure and not enough about content – again, we need to get the history experts involved who can help moderate, filter and clarify what is maybe commercially cool but possibly inaccurate with what is actually accurate – and probably just as cool – in reference to her example of the use of a fictional story to portray slavery I can think of at least three published accounts (all true) of formerly enslaved people who made Rochester NY their home at some point in their lives. And I have no problem in using fiction to help students grasp factual information – I have developed lesson plans myself using fictional stories by local authors (as well as non-fiction from local authors) to show students how fictional writing often gets its inspiration from real life events that made an impression on the author – after all, that is how Harriet Beecher Stowe came up with Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a book no one seems to oppose having students read!
    So any way, I apologize for the length of my response/rant/”silo silent scream” or whatever you want to call it – but I am serious in my agreement that this could be a pivotal moment for history and those who preserve it and use it – to create an environment where our heritage is accessible and usable by all of us. And just like the success of the farmer’s market movement, I say “keep it local, buy local!”

  17. Peter, I was out of town for your end of May meeting, but I’d like to learn more about participating in this commission. I am one of three faculty in the Public and Media History program in the History Department at University at Albany, SUNY.

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