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State of New York State History

Imperiled Promise: History and the NYSOPRHP

Imperiled Promise is the name of an NPS-commissioned study on the state of history within the NPS. The subject was the focus of a series of posts in 2017. The consultants (professors) hired to conduct the study interviewed NPS staff, gathered data, and produced a report documenting the history situation and recommending changes. Given the change in federal administrations since the study, the NPS currently operates more in a survival mode than an innovate one.

What about NYSOPRHP? In my blogs on Imperiled Promise, I noted that comparable situations also existed within the state organization. For example, in general terms, Niagara Falls and Jones Beach are to the state historic sites what the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are to the NPS historic sites. The scenic and recreational dominate with the historic sites being second. Both the NPS and NYSOPRHP are best known by the designation “Parks” even though all their sites are not parks but also include historic sites.

The exact same relationship applies in New York City where its Parks Departments also is responsible for 23 historic sites (in Westchester, Parks has one site). The number is less than the 35 of NYSOPRHP historic sites but a substantial number any way. However there is one significant difference. While the city owns and maintains the sites, there is a private organization, Historic House Trust, which is entrusted with the history operations of the site. In other words, the city bears the costs of maintaining the grounds, shoveling the snow, and fixing the roof while the private organization focus on the curation, exhibits, and public and education programs.

The state ownership of parks was not always configured as it is now. Once upon a time there was a robust Office of the Historian department responsible for the management of the historic sites. Those sites were removed from the control of the historian and transferred to Parks. By so doing, they removed them from the purview of the Board of Regents and transferred them to the Governor. Obviously politics had nothing to do with this change.  It was only done with the best interests of the citizens of the state in mind.


With this background, let’s turn to the issues raised by Imperiled Promise and its application to New York State.

First, the report was submitted to the Chief Historian within the NPS. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such position within NYSOPRHP (or in New York City). At one point the New York State Historian served in that role. However once the state historic sites were removed from his control, the state historian lost all responsibility for these sites. Furthermore the historian position was downgraded and only recently has been restored to a fulltime position in a department of one person.

Recommendation: Create a position of Chief Historian within the NYSOPRHP responsible for the history function of the 35 historic sites

Whether or not Rose Harvey as the Commissioner of Parks can create this position on her own authority the way the fulltime position of state historian was restored without legislative action, I do not know. I suspect she could do so especially by following the time-honored practice of taking advantage of openings due to retirements and/or resignations to craft such a position.

Second, Imperiled Promise discussed the issue of staff education. How are the staff with history responsibilities educated in the history related to the site? Presuming they are knowledgeable, how do they remain current with the scholarship? It’s not exactly as if history scholarship stands still. There also is the issue of keeping up with the audience who may be familiar with current scholarship because the topic is their personal hobby or the need to refute know-it-alls who demonstrate that sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

A similar issue also arises with the state-mandated position of county historian. At present the position gets no respect from the state. I do know of one fulltime historian with a Ph.D. in history, but that is the exception.  Now add to the mix the NPS history community in the state. Combined, the NPS, NYS, NYC, and county historians comprise a good-sized community of people in the history business needing ongoing history training. Who provides it?

Therefore, the following questions need to be explored beginning with NYSOPRHP.

1. What are the history requirements for history positions? Do they need to be changed?

2. Do these people have access to current scholarship? Access includes online access since most journals today are published online and in some cases only online. Here is where SUNY, CUNY, the NYS Library, and NYC Public Library could help by ensuring that access to the appropriate books and journals is provided to the government history community.

3. Access to current scholarship also includes attending history conferences. For example, Fort Plain and Fort Ticonderoga conduct annual conferences in the American Revolution, a topic that is directly related to many publically owned historic sites in the state at the federal, state, and city level. People at those sites should be able to travel if not present at these conferences. They provide a chance to meet with scholars, see new books, and mingle with like-minded people with an interest in the topic and who may even be encouraged to visit the sites. Women’s Suffrage, the Erie Canal, the War of 1812, Hudson River Art, Immigration, and the Underground Railroad also are themes often with conferences that should be of interest to history staff. Finally, there are the national conferences that encompass many of the sites. Besides the big national conferences by the AHA and OAH, there are more specialized ones like SHEAR, the Society for the Study of the Early American Republic, a conference which tends to be held in the northeast such as at SUNY New Paltz. How many sites do we have in the NPS, NYSOPRHP, and NYC Parks that are pre-Civil War? Then there is SHGAPE, Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which covers the decades afterwards. In short if as a state, we are serious in our commitment to history, then we have an obligation to ensure that the state history staff are properly trained and conversant with developments in their field. So what are the training opportunities available to NYSOPRHP staff at present and should they be changed?

Third, Imperiled Promise made two recommendations which it considered to be the most crucial of all. One was internal to the NPS and the second combined internal and external people.

The internal recommendation consisted of the creation of a History Leadership Council within the NPS. This council is intended to include the people from the different facets involving history with the organization. One big difference is between the people who do deal directly with general public (interpreters) and those who don’t (curators, researchers). There is a benefit to the organization for these people to meet and discuss relevant issues to their work. Despite all the changes in computer technology we still are physical beings and getting together with our peers to address common concerns contributes to the health and wellbeing of the organization.

The second recommendation calls for the NPS to reach out to the larger history community through the creation of the History Advisory Board. While the Board would include scholars, it does not need to be limited to academics. Within the state we have a variety of history constituencies as evident by the advisory council created by the state historian and as I will be recommending in a forthcoming post on my advocacy day in Albany. There are statewide non-government organizations for archivists, archaeologists, folklorists, genealogists, historical museums and societies, municipal historians, preservationists, and social studies teachers as well as tourism. Imperiled Promise focused on the academic aspect.

At this point there is no need to detail precisely what each of the councils or boards would do or who would be on them. Suffice it say, one is the internal history community within NYSOPRHP and the other is for the relationship of that internal community to the external history community. Again I suspect that Rose Harvey as the Commissioner probably has the authority to establish both such entities under her own authority without requiring legislative action.

The question for the history community is how to go about achieving or even discussing these recommendations. NYSOPRHP does participate in Parks Advocacy Day and the Preservation Conference. If there was a state history conference, it would be a logical place for discussing these issues. If there was a state history organization it could advocate on these issues but there is no such organization. If a legislator chose to call a history roundtable as Steve Englebright did on May 29, 2014, this time with the NYSOPRHP it could be done (see my upcoming history advocacy post).

State Council of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

There is another possible venue for discussion. According to the NYSOPRHP website:

The State Council of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation consists of the Commissioner of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, Chairs of the eleven Regional Parks Commissions (including a representative of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission), and Chair of the State Board of Historic Preservation. The Regional Commissions are charged with acting as a central advisory body on all matters affecting parks, recreation and historic preservation within their respective regions, with particular focus on the operations of the State Parks and Historic Sites.

Lucy R. Waletzky, M.D., Chair, State Council of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Rose Harvey, Commissioner, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Basil Seggos, Commissioner, Department of Environmental Conservation
Robert B. Mackay, Chair, Board for Historic Preservation

Note that there is a chair of historic preservation but not history. State historic sites do fall within the area of responsibilities for the 11 commissioners on this council. It might be worthwhile to create regional councils based on the Imperiled Promises recommendations – that certainly would cut down on travel expenses.

According to State Council 2017 report issued in February, 2018, its priorities are:

1. Build and Sustain a 21st Century Park System that Is Safe, Affordable and Accessible – referring primarily to the $900 million capital improvement plan presumably some of which is for historic sites.

2. Connect the Next Generation to the NYS Park System – I wrote about the Connect Kids initiative in my post on Park Advocacy Day. The funding can be used to bus children to historic sites although its emphasis is mainly on parks. It should be noted that photos of students visiting Old Fort Niagara State Historic Park (operated by a very active private group) and Schuyler Mansion are included in the report.

3. Promote and Celebrate our Parks – this is perfectly legitimate item containing standard Chamber-of-Commerce boosterism. In a review of the highlights for 2017, the one history item I noticed was:

Preserving Historic and Cultural Assets

 NY Parks 2020 is preserving our State’s historic and cultural assets, protecting our connection to the past and contributing to a vibrant historic tourism economy in New York State. In 2017, the Agency joined with the City of Auburn as part of Governor Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization program to build a $10 million Heritage Center to be built in the South Street National Register Historic District. The center will emphasize New York State’s progressive history of promoting social and equal rights, while encouraging tourism at the region’s many destinations. In Buffalo, a $50 million restoration of the Darwin Martin House—an international destination for tourists, scholars and historians—was completed this year.

Funding for the restoration came from a unique partnership of public and private sources.

The annual report also presented a survey of developments in the 11 regions. History-related items were:

Newly installed exhibits at the visitors center at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site offer visitors more historical context as they explore the site along the Erie Canal. And, the historic staircase leading to the front entrance of Schulyer Mansion State Historic Site has been restored, again allowing visitors to enter the home as its original residents did.

There were also items for Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, Bannerman Island, and the purchase of Horse Island for Sackets Harbor Battlefield.

4. Stewardship of Natural Resources – although this is for natural resources, I will include the awards for historic preservation here under the rubric of “Stewardship of Historic Resources.” Similarly its involvement with historic structures listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places is related to this theme. Maybe next year, stewardship of historic resources could be listed as a priority.

5. Advocacy

The challenge for the history community to have its voice heard is a daunting one even if there was a state history advocacy group.  Historic sites are only a small part of a large government department. To put the 35 state historic sites in perspective, NYSOPRHP also is responsible for 180 state parks, 5,000 buildings, 29 golf courses, 36 swimming pools, 67 beaches, 27 marinas, 40 boat launch sites, 18 nature centers, 817 cabins, 8,355 campsites, more than 2,000 miles of trails, 106 dams and 604 bridges.

To put the usage of the Parks in perspective,

We are … second in total annual visitation. Attendance at Niagara Falls State Park is greater than that of Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined, and more than twice as many people visit Jones Beach each year than visit Yellowstone.

So how do we go about reaching out to Commissioner Rose Harvey and Lucy R. Waletzky, M.D., Chair, State Council of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation?  Maybe I could write a blog.

Note: The New York State Historic Preservation Plan (2015-2020) will be covered in a future post on historic preservation. There is a lot going on in that area from a recent preservation conference in New York City to the upcoming state one in Albany.