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Whither The New York State Historian?

The sudden retirement of Bob Weible, the New York State Historian, provides an opportunity to reassess the position. What does the history community want from the state historian – assuming there even should be one in the first place?

Bruce Dearstyne has repeatedly written on the pages of New York History Blog on the uniqueness of New York in mandating government historians at all levels. He also has documented the travails entailed in that unfunded mandate and how often the State honors that law.

When I first heard about the surprise retirement, I searched online for official notice. I was unable to find one. I did however, locate a press release from the State Education Department’s Office of Communications dated February 4, 2008, on Bob’s hiring.

According to the press release, the last state historian had left in the 1990s and an acting State Historian had retired in 2001. Funding for the state-mandated position only became available in 2006. Bob was hired in 2008 to begin work in March.

New York State Museum Director Dr. Clifford Siegfried provided some information on the candidate and the position:

“Robert is a public historian who has built strong partnerships throughout his career with diverse community groups, universities, cultural organizations and local historical societies. His proven leadership skills will also be important to his internal role at the Museum as we plan for the renewal of the Museum galleries and the transfer of our extensive history collection to a new storage facility.

“Weible will work with Museum management and history staff to plan and implement movement of the history collections and staff to a new collections facility. He also will be instrumental in planning for a new history gallery at the Museum, slated to open in 2010, which is part of an overall plan to renew the Museum galleries. Weible also will work with local historians and academic and cultural institutions to increase the public’s understanding of New York State history and its role in U.S. history. He will also oversee management of the Museum’s history collections and help develop content for public programs and teacher workshops.”

Now imagine you are researching the position of New York State Historian in the early 21st century and you discover this primary source document, what would you learn?

First, the position had been vacant for an extended period of time. Based on information from elsewhere, you would suspect that New York’s vaunted self-congratulations on promoting local history is a lot of hooey. If the State is ignoring the law, imagine what happens at the county, city, town, and village levels.

Second, the position primarily functioned as a curator/exhibitor within the New York State Museum. His primary responsibilities were internal to the Museum building itself. He was to work with the collections and to create gallery exhibits. Although his purview was statewide, the work essentially was the same as curators did in a variety of museums throughout the state, admittedly not always on the same scale.

But let’s say you were the executive director/president of the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, the American Museum of Natural History, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would you want to move up to a position where your primary responsibility was as curator? No. What if you were an academic? Perhaps a leading scholar in some aspect of American and/or New York State history. Would the position of curator hold any interest for you?

Besides the curatorial role, the State Historian job description also includes public and educational programs. The opportunity for more extensive public and educational programs in the State Museum is enormous, but the State Historian position as I have seen it recently does not permit the development of such programs.

What’s more, the frequently-used term to describe the working relations among the State Archives, Library, and Museum in the very same building is silo – separate organizations that don’t routinely communicate with each other. Even the press release omits mentioning that the State Historian would work with the State Archivist and State Librarian (or NYSOPRHP, the State Archaeologist, etc.). Indeed, why should they when they are really a curator.

The press release also suggests the State Historian would work with the history community throughout the state. Based on the travel budget, that collaboration has been primarily by email and not in person. From my experience, the “work[ing] with local historians and academic and cultural institutions”, beyond simply being a curator, consisted of:

1. Delivering a state of the state of history address at the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS), but not staying for the entire conference or attending the regional local government historian conferences throughout the state.

2. Taking the lead for the past two years in planning the annual conference of the New York State History Association (NYSHA). According to the State Historian, there have been changes made in accordance with the some of the recommendations I have written about here at The New York History Blog.

3. Reviewing the required annual reports from local government historians. The former State Historian has not monitored compliance with the law establishing municipal historians, or their required reports. He said he did read the ones he received and they provided some sense of what is going on out in the field.

As the search for a replacement commences, one wonders how the position of New York State Historian will be defined and who will define it. Will the next State Historian be primarily a curator at the State Museum? Or will they be a true leader of the New York State history community?

If you have any thoughts on the matter send them to:

Mark Schaming, Bob’s boss at the NYS Museum and a member of the Path though History advisory committee back when it had one: mark.schaming@nysed.gov

Jeff Cannell, Mark’s boss at the Office of Cultural Education; he attended the History Roundtable on May 29, 2014, on the proposed New York State History Commission representing the NYS Archives, Library, and Museum: jeff.cannell@nysed.gov,

Roger Tilles, member of the Board of Regents who also attended the May 29 meeting and has attended MANY meetings: RegentTilles@mail.nysed.gov

and contact your local state senator and legislator.

Here is a potential opportunity for the New York State history community to make its voice heard.

 

5 thoughts on “Whither The New York State Historian?

  1. Peter,

    Your observations and comments are thoughtful and stimulating. The state’s role in providing leadership and vision in our history world certainly has been lacking for a long time. Having some experience with how the state’s approach to history functions (or doesn’t function anywhere near its potential), your observation about “silo” is spot on. With a few exceptions, state agencies that are charged with overseeing New York’s wonderful historic resources tend to communicate only when one agency needs something from another or when the Executive branch has an “idea” that had to be finished yesterday. Unfortunately, (again with a few exceptions) there is no structure, history or much incentive for these agencies to regularly and collegially communicate or cooperate. The position of State Historian, as currently constructed, viewed and funded, is a prescription for failure at some level(s).

    Your postings are appreciated.

    1. Mike,

      Good to hear from you. Your experience from the inside at the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center certainly qualifies you to provide battlefield reports. You certainly are right about the lack of structure or ongoing working relationship among the various history parts of the state government. The failure of the proposed New York History commission suggests nothing is going to change.

      Peter

  2. Terrific article/commentary as usual. Spot on, telling it like it is.
    Unfortunately, it reminds me of a great bumper sticker I saw long ago: “What are the chances of (fill in any issue) happening?” This was accompanied by a cartoon drawing of a tall skinny cowboy & a small woman wearing a religious habit– meaning ‘Slim & nun’ (slim & none). Sigh.
    Hopefully the situation will improve, for the benefit of NYS citizens and the nation.

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