There is, of course, no New York History Alliance. There is however a Massachusetts History Alliance. On June 12, 2017, the Massachusetts History Alliance held the 13th annual Massachusetts History Conference with the theme of Igniting a Passion for History. New York does not have an annual history conference and who is responsible for igniting a passion for history?
The Alliance is separate from the older conference. The Alliance itself was created on November 16, 2016, at a meeting held at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester so it is fairly new. Its full name is Massachusetts Alliance for Sharing History (MASH) with the stated purpose:
The mission of the Massachusetts Alliance for Sharing History and its annual conference is to support and advocate for all public history organizations and their work in Massachusetts by maximizing connections and cross-fertilization, and supporting skills development in the field of public history in Massachusetts. It is explicitly but not exclusively committed to supporting the paid and volunteer staff of the Commonwealth’s many small historical organizations in their efforts to collect, preserve, make accessible, and interpret local history, enhancing their sustainability and relevance to their communities.
The primary visible actions are the annual conference and regional conferences. Its stated goals include:
1. Creating, sharing and expanding advocacy for public history at state, regional, and local levels, and increasing the support for and visibility and presence of public history in Massachusetts
2. Developing and sharing new ideas and approaches for revitalization and sustenance from within the field and beyond it with the specific objectives to increase organizational sustainability and to expand the reach and availability of public history in Massachusetts.
3. Creating, supporting, and broadening networks of associates and collaborators ranging across the field.
If only we had some kind of state historical association in New York with a similar mission and goals!
By regions, the Alliance refers to the eight regions in the state as defined by Mass Humanities. Each region would be represented on the statewide board. Admittedly, MASH is a new organization still getting its footing with the big event being the conference and the opportunity to have MASH-related sessions at the conference.
As one might expect, one purpose of the conference is to bring the history field together. It provides an opportunity to learn what others are doing, network, hatch plans, and gain skills. In this regard it is somewhat like the MANY conference although strictly limited to history. For the conference this year the additional objective was about getting people to realize that history matters at all levels including civic engagement, involving the public at large, and the legislature. In this regard, the conference is a little different than what happens in New York since no of this does happen in New York.
The supporters of the conference are Mass Humanities (comparable to our HumanitiesNY), the University of Massachusetts Amherst Program in Public History (comparable to SUNY Albany Public History and annual archive conference in November), the Massachusetts Historical Society (we don’t have state historical society as NYSHA abandoned that effort decades ago and now legally changed its name), the University of Massachusetts Boston Public History and Archives Tracks, the State Historical Records Advisory Board, the New England Archivists, and the House of the Seven Gables. The conference was held at Holy Cross with perhaps a couple of hundred people in attendance including me.
A brief overview of the conference follows along with some thoughts about its meaning for New York.
There was an awards ceremony. One of the presenters was Marla Miller, one of the co-authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, the study that is part of the series of posts. The awardee was Chuck Arning, Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park. Based on the program write-up, he appears to be one of the people who is doing what the authors of the study want the NPS to do. He is on my email distribution list and recognized my name although we had not met. I believe he attended the conference on his day off, an issue raised in Imperiled Promise study.
In the morning session after the awards and plenary, I attended a session on “Harnessing History: Creating Community Support for History Organizations” with the Hatfield Historical Museum and the Duxbury Rural & Historical Society. These presentations were case studies in how to revive moribund organizations and what a new executive did director to successfully reach out to the community. There is no panacea but some common threads seem to be to know your community, to communicate with your community, and to match the interests of volunteers with their skills. Some people really love to meet and greet people and talk to them while others prefer research or using technology skills.
Naturally, there was another session I wanted to attend at the same time so I left in midstream. The second one was “Sparking Kids’ Love of History” with Preservation Worcester and the Somerset Berkley Regional High School. This is precisely the type of session that fulfills the mission of the conference to share, learn, and network. It was comparable to what occurs at a variety of conferences in New York. Students in Somerset worked with a documentary photographer to document the history, culture, and landmarks of two municipalities. One interesting idea was to reach out to realtors. I always notice in my local paper when certain houses are for sale, that historical information is provided. How do the realtors know that a home dates back to colonial times? Couldn’t maps the hot spots be created for a community with the history of sites to be filled by students? Photographs of the community during the morning rush hour were taken to develop a sense of the life of a community.
The Massachusetts History Alliance was officially launched during the lunch period. Cake to follow. For me a key session of this conference was the one that followed: “Meet the Alliance: History Advocacy and You.” Attendees worked in groups and identified topics of interest. Each group then reported to the entire group. The purpose is to truly develop action items for a history agenda that the Alliance and its members will advocate for at the state and local level. The closest parallel in New York is the Museum Education Act led by MANY which technically is a not a history act but does include history organizations within the general museum rubric. Despite not being from Massachusetts, I actively participated in this session and will be interested to see what comes of it. What will a state history alliance advocate for at the state and local level on behalf of the history community?
Following this session (and before the cake!), I attended a very important session about the future direction of history. The session was “Sharing History through Blogging and Podcasts” with Edward O’Donnell of Holy Cross. Liz Covart, whom we both know, has set the standard for history podcasts. Her podcasts on early American history have become a media phenomenon. While my interest is partially in the nuts-and-bolts of preparing a podcast – a lot of time and hard work at roughly 5 hours for a 30-minute podcast – my prime interest was in the need for a state history podcast. As I have previously suggested, such podcasts don’t necessarily have to be scholarly interviews about events in the past, they can be about the state of the state’s history in the present. For example, one could interview the organizers of the Massachusetts History Alliance about their goals. Or a new exhibit. Or how an anniversary event will be commemorated. Blogs have a purpose and despite some of O’Donnell’s gentle comments about the future of blogs, I will continue to write them. But the podcast is another technology whose time has come especially at the state level.
The final session I attended was “Creating Regional History Networks” with the Pioneer Valley History Network and Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area. The session was devoted to doing on a local regional level what MASH is attempting to do at the state level. The session description plaintively stated “There is life beyond your town borders… [L]earn how to develop, nourish, and sustain regional networks of history organizations.” Much of the discussion had to do with funding and meeting. Such regional associations are important as is bringing people together simply for the sake of bringing people together since we are social beings. Not that themes or topics aren’t important too.
Regular readers of my posts, know that I am a strong advocate for holding such meetings to the county level. The county history conference and the county high school local history conference are two examples. Once upon a time New York State was divided into regions. The Lower Hudson Region still functions now as the Greater Hudson Heritage Network although it has statewide responsibilities and the Upstate History Alliance became Museumwise which is now MANY. APHNYS keeps the regional network alive with is history meetings in the 12 regions of the state so it is as if nothing is going on but more can be done.
MASH chose as its motto “Collaborate to Achieve.” There is one of my favorite jargon buzz words “collaborate”; only “cooperate” is missing. In the series on Imperiled History: The State of History in the National Park Service these words are cited as part of what is needed to end the peril. In New York, the lip service to these words is part of why the Path through History initiative became a failure. It’s easy to mouth these words and harder to implement them when resources are scant, immediate needs take priority, and it is no one’s job to foster to cooperation and collaboration. The Massachusetts Alliance for Sharing History represents a positive step forward in bringing the history community together and to advocate on its behalf. This fledgling organization is an inspiration for what needs to be done elsewhere.