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State of New York State History

Experimenting with History: The Greater Hudson Heritage Network Conference

I am back from some non-history conferences in San Diego and Thanksgiving is over so it is time to resume the reporting on history-related conferences.

The next conference chronologically in this series of blogs is the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) conference “Experimenting with History: A Field Guide to Connecting Science and Your Heritage Organization” at Bear Mountain Inn on September 24, 2019. The welcome message touts the conference as a field guide in this area. Specifically, the areas of concern are STEM, visitations, and understanding collections better through conservation, forensics, and imaging technology.

The format of the conference differs from most conferences. The normal concurrent session format was not followed. Nor were presentations in 30-60 minutes increments. Instead presentations were of 8 minute duration. After four such 8-minute presentations, each presenter moved to a table in a larger room. Attendees were invited to join a presenter for follow-up and in-person discussion with the individual presenters. Attendees also had the opportunity to rotate among the presenters during this part of the session. The goal is to maximize the direct contact. In this one-day conference, there were three such speaker blocs and opportunities to follow the speaker.

As always, I am not going to list all the sessions and duplicate the information in the conference booklet. Instead, I will highlight some of the presentations that seem directly relevant to me based on my own interests.

Actually, the first one was totally unexpected and unlike a typical presentation.

Mystery of the Murdered Monarch: Identifying the Remains of Tsar Nicholas II
Michael Perekrestov, Russian History Museum

Nicholas II, Russia’s last tsar, was killed in July 1918 along with his wife, five children, and four loyal attendants. Since that time, the fate of their remains has generated myths, speculation, and controversy. This presentation will shed light on new information on the identification of the imperial family’s remains that was presented in the 2018-2019 “Last Days of the Last Tsar” exhibition at the Russian History Museum in Jordanville, NY. Specifically, it will highlight the results of a recent DNA analysis conducted by the FBI involving locks of hair found in objects belonging to Russia’s last imperial family.  

I venture to say that this presentation addresses issues not typically associated with the local museums and historical organizations. I confess that I did not know there is a Russian History Museum in upstate New York. It is a 20th century museum connected to the Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary located there. I have noticed from time to time at these history conferences the presence of museums dedicated to what happened in the old country, so to speak, and not to what happened here. I have no idea how many such museums there are. They would seem to form a subset within the history community in that they are devoted to telling the story of people and events from outside the United States. Not that Russia is not in the news a lot these days for its involvement in American history…

Habitats and Health: STEAM Institute at the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
Robert Katz, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

The Dyckman Farmhouse Museum’s STEAM Institute, now in its fourth year, has hosted over 70 children and their families from as near as the neighboring apartment complex in upper Manhattan to as far away as Brooklyn, and is a popular offering for long-time patrons and new visitors. STEAM Institute is a great way for kids to get their hands dirty engage in fun, educational activities that connect the history of the past with our present day community, as well as to learn about healthy living choices, foodways, and urban nature. STEAM Institute is a community-oriented, collaborative education opportunity that continues to be a success for visitors and the museum alike.

The presenter is a science consultant hired by Historic House Trust, the private New York City entity that operates 23 historic sites owned by the city. In this instance, the scientific expertise is gardens and foodways. Many historic sites once were part of farms and certainly had gardens. To separate a site from its agricultural heritage is to separate it from part of its history. Plus gardens provide an excellent way to connect the neighborhood people in the present to a site that otherwise might seem remote and irrelevant to them. In this case a Dutch, Lenape, Dominican garden was created. It pays homage to the peoples who were here in colonial times and those who are here today.

In my own local historical society, I have proposed an English, Lenape, Africa garden. As with the Historic House Trust site, the land and the colonial homestead are owned by the village but in our case the site is part of an active park. How much land we would be able to get for a garden is still to be determined even assuming the historical society approves my vision.

A handout for the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum project included an article by Myra Young, Armistead, Bard College. I know her from her work involving a free black gardener at Mount Gulian in Beacon, NY. The article was about another freed black gardener further north along the Hudson at Montgomery Place in Red Hook. One of the conference Awards for Excellence was for work done in his honor including a quilt commissioned about it. Together, these garden activities reveal as aspect of life not always visible in visits limited to the big house. I recall a Teacherhostel/Historyhostel to Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie. Besides visiting all the Samuel Morse “stuff,” we also walked the grounds with current gardener responsible for maintaining the grounds. He was not a regular tour guide and his enthusiasm for “his” plants made for a different tour then of objects other people made or owned.

Speaking of dirt, I could not resist the next presentation.

Digging Up History: A Youth Archaeology Camp in South Troy, New York
Christopher Hopkins, The Children’s Museum of Science and Technology

The summer archaeological camp held by The Children’s Museum of Science and Technology (CMOST) allows students a unique hands-on experience with the rich cultural history of Troy, NY. Students learn about archaeological field techniques, data collection, laboratory analysis, and artifact conservation while working on an 18th-century site located in South Troy. The students participate in the creation of a historical narrative through the interpretation of their findings during the camp.

The opening talk in our archaeology society this season was about a dig conducted on the grounds of a high school by the high school students. As with gardens, an archaeology dig on site provides another way to connect people to a site. No, you will not uncover the Rosetta Stone but you will find small links to life in the past.

I recall bringing teachers to the dig at the Jay Heritage Center in Rye near where is live. One fourth-grade teacher had a great time finding nails and bits of pottery. On the other hand, when he tried to communicate his enthusiasm to his students about these little links to the past, they gave him that look that kids give when adults start talking with great excitement about “So what, what’s the big deal” topics. In any event, digs like gardens are a great way to connect with the community. If you are able to do one of both at your own site, I strongly recommend it…and I know many of you do so already.

So what are the takeaways from this conference?

Archaeology digs.
Gardens.
Murder mysteries.

And maybe try a different conference format as an experiment.

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