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NY State History Month: Another View

November is New York State History Month. The goal of this initiative certainly is a worthy one. Naturally as historians, a primary source document such as a press release invites a close reading of the text. That’s what historians do and government publications are not exempt from such scrutiny. The exercise is quite productive and one can learn a lot from doing it.

However, I will begin with some information not in the press release. Two advocates of New York State History month have been former NYS Historian Bob Weible and author/blogger/teacher and former archivist Bruce Dearstyne. At the New York History Roundtable convened by Assemblyman Steve Englebright on May 29, 2014 in conjunction with his proposed New York State History Commission, Bruce brought up the issue of New York State History month which, shall we say, had been in hibernation. No one from the New York State Museum itself was at the meeting.

Also in attendance at the meeting was Colleen Ryan of the University Club of Albany. After the meeting she decided to do something about the neglect of New York State History Month and convened a meeting at the University Club which I attended along with the other usual suspects. The New York State Museum was represented at this meeting. The net result was a series of events scheduled at the University Club in November 2014.

During the meeting the NYS Museum said it was in the process of gearing up to be more involved and it seems to be that the effort has come to fruition in 2015 with the Museum playing a more active role in promoting the month.

With this background in mind, it is possible to turn to the New York State Museum press release itself.

1. Money
One key item which is missing from the release is money. While the event is not an unfunded mandate since no one is obligated to do anything there is still is no funding for it. If New York State is genuinely serious about promoting New York State History Month, then it should put its money where its mouth is.

Recommendation #1 – A funding pool should be established with the New York State Museum that people can apply for through the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) just as is done for Parks, Arts, Marketing NY, etc. A related possibility is to have a pool of funds with New York Council for the Humanities.

2. Targeted Participants
The regulation is specifically addressed to “state and local historians.” The terminology is suggestive of the government historians at the village, town, and county level covered in related state regulations. This suggests an expectation that such historians will offer an event during the month.

Recommendation #2 – Municipal and government historians should be obligated to conduct at least one event during New York State History month. This requirement should be written into the job description of the position (which needs rewriting anyway). The presence of such an obligation would also serve to force compliance with the current law which often is observed in the breech. It will enable government historians to say to the mayor, town supervisors, and county executives that this is something they have to do as historians and therefore it needs to be supported by the municipality.

Recommendation #3 – The invitation should not be sent out just before History Month as this one was. Organizations need time to plan. True many organizations have events in November anyway so Albany can pass them off as history month events if it so chooses just as it fakes it with Museum Weekend renamed the Path through History weekend events being new events. That really defeats the purpose of the program. If the November events are the same things organizations do in other months, then what has been accomplished?

Recommendation #4 – The state should not be heavy-handed but it is legitimate to suggest important themes for a given year such as an anniversary (centennial, sesquicentennial, bicentennial…) or a recent event.

3. New York State Museum and I Love NY
The press release calls for “engaging the public.” The impression from this press release from the New York State Museum makes New York State History Month more of a civics function than a tourist one. This becomes clearer in the next portion of the release:

“The New York State Museum encourages historians, museums, historic sites, archives, and libraries across the state to join us in presenting events, tours, lectures, discussions, publications, and exhibitions that highlight the importance of New York State history, and the role we (and the public) play in preserving it.”

Here the New York State Museum is reaching out to the history community in what more accurately can be described as a civic –  not tourist  – function. That distinction starts to blur in the next portion.

“Any historical or cultural organization hosting programs for New York State History Month is encouraged to use the New York State History Month logo in their marketing. It is recommended that Path Through History sites also use the Path Through History logo.”

This is a quite reasonable and legitimate recommendation. However it raises some interesting questions about the relation between I Love NY and the New York State Museum. One should recall that the now disbanded Path through History Task Force included two representatives from the New York State Museum. At that time it appeared that the project would be a history-led one. That all changed when I Love NY took over and the Museum was completely cut out of the program. It then became an I Love NY program with virtually no history input or outreach of any significance. The partnership here produces some rather intriguing results that apparently no one has noticed.

Marketing: I Love NY Web Calendar

“To submit your New York State History Month event for inclusion in the statewide calendar sponsored by I LOVE NY and Path Through History go to: Please check the criteria for “Event Submission” first to make sure your event qualifies. When completing the online form, select “NYS History Month” in the Event Category dropdown menu. The submission will go through a quick approval process and you will be notified when the event has been processed.”

According to the I Love NY website, the following criteria must be met for an event to be considered for posting. Please note them carefully as I was amazed when I read them.

“Review the criteria below and see if your tourism related EVENT meets our needs!”

Notice the use of the word “tourism.” This website is not for civic events. But what makes an event a tourist event? The website provides the answer.

Any Tourism Event to be considered for inclusion must currently serve more than their local market, drawing visitors from outside a 50 mile radius of the site on a regular basis, and encouraging overnight stays in the area.”

“The event should be able to draw visitors on its own merit from outside of a 50 mile radius of its location (exclusion applied for 50 mile radius for NYC properties).

“The event should encourage 25% of attendees to obtain an overnight stay in the vicinity – the event should not be geared mainly towards local residents.”

Tourist events should encourage heads-to-beds and not be aimed at local residents. Regular readers of my posts will recognize that I have been making the exact same point regularly about the failure of Museum Weekend renamed Path through History Weekend events. They are geared towards the local residents, do not generate heads-to-beds, do not generate revenue and tax revenue, and do not support the stated goals of the Path through History initiative by Governor Cuomo.

Now I learned for the first time that I Love NY, according to its website, supports the exact same standards I have been calling for all along. How many events on Museum Weekend renamed Path through History weekend qualify as tourist programs based on the I Love NY criteria listed here? The answer is none or hardly any except by chance. If I Love NY applied its own standards to the June weekend programs, nothing would be listed and the failure of the Path program would be abundantly clear.

Consider the activities which I Love NY specifically prohibits as not being tourist programs on the same criteria page of its website:

“Excluded from our events listings: individual gallery art showings or art sales; individual book signings; individual museum exhibits; individual talks/lectures; individual classes; performances, food/drink specials, happy hours at local clubs, hotels, restaurants, individual shops and lounges/bars; tastings and lessons at individual businesses; trade shows/conferences, award ceremonies and benefit dinners, workshops, individual events within an already listed event.”

One-time events, especially short ones, are not considered tourist events while a series or extended event, such as an actual Path through History over several days, is.

This examination based on the press release and the I Love NY website raises a multitude of questions.

Question #1: Why are there two sets of calendars on the I Love NY website for history events?

Note: One can enter Path events as well as NYS History Month events on the I Love NY calendar.

Question #2: Why aren’t the tourist criteria applied on the Path through History weekend in accordance with the announced goals of Governor Cuomo?

Question #3: Why doesn’t I Love NY report to the Tourism Advisory Council and Governor Cuomo on the results using the tourist metrics from its website rather than simply providing a body count of the number of events?

Question #4: Why didn’t I Love NY recommend the use of the second website calendar at the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference and instead just mention the Path calendar? Come to think of it, why didn’t it mention New York State History Month as well as a possible time to showcase events (such as Stanton’s birth November 12)? Did it know what the New York State Museum was doing?

According to the I Love NY website, from November 11 to November 30, there are 11 events listed as New York State History Month events, 6 in Albany, 2 at Fort Hunter, and 3 others.

NYS Museum: 2 Shakers events
NYS Museum: 1 book signing
NYS Museum: 3 Conversations with a Curator: 10 Minute Talks

New Windsor: Eggbert the talking egg and Christmas on the Farm every Saturday at Devitt’s Nursery & Supply

Fort William Henry: Field of 3000 Flags in honor of Veterans over 7 days

Blue Mountain Lake: The Adirondack Museum Visitor Center and Museum Store will be open, with FREE “Celebrations of Community History” and “Water Witch” exhibitions, rustic furniture displays, shopping in the Adirondack Museum Store, and more! From 11/27 to 12/20

Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site: 2 evening history lectures

In my humble opinion there is some work which needs to be done here.

A recent post here at New York History Blog about History Month generated some interesting comments which I would like to share with you:

Karen Beck November 10, 2015 at 5:51 AM

Good to read about something that IS alive and well. Perhaps a month other than November, however, might be considered? Could it not be scheduled to coincide with Paths To History to the benefit of both efforts? A month with longer, warmer days when our historic sites are open to the public would increase the possibilities and stimulate more participation.

Peter Evans November 10, 2015 at 9:33 AM (Wayne County historian)

I agree totally with Karen Beck’s comment. The two to three weeks sandwiched between Halloween and Thanksgiving just isn’t ideal.

And, yes, basically our 20 museums and historical societies here in Wayne County have all been put to bed for the long winter except for year end annual meetings and one last holiday party.

Year end reports have been finalized and people are working on plans and budgets for 2016.

All the “snow birds” are itching to get out of here. Only scheduling it for December could be worse.

My own suggestion has been to designate June as Community Heritage month and focus on tourism in July and August. November is a better month for school programs though. Ashley Hopkins-Benton and Kathryn Weller, two New York State Museum employees, did reach out to the education community in a post to Teaching Hudson Valley on October 30.

So what are the lessons to be learned from New York State History Month in 2015?

1. According to the tourist criteria established by I Love NY, the Path through History weekend is a complete and total failure and no one should ever brag about it being a success.

2. If the New York State Museum doesn’t want New York State History to become the failure the Path through History is, then starting in January it should begin to reach out to the history community on how to make it better. It should present at various state conferences like APHNYS, MANY, NYSHA, and  NYSCSS and regional conferences budget permitting.

3. There needs to be funding for this initiative.

Close reading of texts can be quite illuminating. Even a simple press release can be chocked with information if one delves into it. More to come by another state press release.