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History Storytelling: Examples from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network Conference

Kathy Wright and some guy at the GHHN Conference, Bear Mountain

The last month has been a busy time for conferences. In this post and subsequent ones, I wish to present information from these conferences to people who were unable to attend them but may be interested in the sessions. My particular focus will be on examples of storytelling. I am interested in how history organizations are reaching out into their communities including sectors of the community which may not have a longstanding record of involvement in such organizations.

The Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) conference Flipping the Narrative: Voices Unheard, Stories Untold  (9/25/18) consisted of two major components. One part was “Awards for Excellence” while the other was presentations. I apologize in advance for not including everybody in this blog. The full slate of information can be found at the GHHN website.

Some awards and presentations involved active storytelling or performances.

“In Her Words: A Women’s History Lecture and Performance”
Historic Huguenot Street
New Paltz (Ulster)

This education award is in recognition of “In Her Words: A Women’s History Lecture and Performance” at Historic Huguenot Street. On March 10, 2018, Historic Huguenot Street held a performance telling the stories of eight influential women who helped shape local history over the last four centuries. Through monologues and music derived from historical research and in collaboration with local historians and scholars, the audience was given a glimpse these women’s dreams, fears, flaws, and challenges during momentous times in the region’s history.

According to the program brochure I picked up from the display table, the figures ranged from the 1600s to the 1900s. Combined, they covered much of the history of the community until recent times. The research into the individual figures in the performance included contacting the Stockbridge-Munsee Historical Committee and Library/Museum. When I wrote about the Stockbridge-Munsee conference earlier this year, I noted the dramatic presentation of the words of the Stockbridge Indians by the actual descendants or the original authors. In many communities there always is the possibility that descendants of the people portrayed still live there.

Life Downstairs at Staatsburgh
Maria Reynolds, PhD, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Staatsburgh State Historic Site is currently in the process of bringing the story of the mansion’s servants from the margins to the center. New research has uncovered photos and details previously unknown about the lives of many servants working at Staatsburgh for the Mills family. This research has informed existing programming: tours with a focus on the similarities between the mansion and Downton Abbey and a participation tour that includes a table setting activity and a ‘hiring a servant’ exercise. The research is also the impetus for a new exhibit with interactive elements, a new tour and other programming – a continued effort to bring these lives to the forefront, both expanding and enriching interpretation at Staatsburgh.

Staging History
Michelle Mavigliano, Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site

In an effort to narrate historical events from the perspective of the enslaved black population living in 18th century Albany, Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site has developed two programs that give voice and agency to men and women usually denied both. This presentation will explore the research and contrivance behind creating “The Accused” and “To Be So Confin’d,” two programs that use museum theatre and first–person narration as the interpretive tools to tell these stories.

We are a storytelling species so it behooves history organizations to tell stories and not just point to objects (unless there is a story associated with them). Every community has stories to tell. My recommendation is for history organizations to identify the stories that define the community and to perform them. Here is an excellent opportunity to involve the local high school drama club and to connect the students with their own community. There needs to be more than an elementary school field trip to bring local history and students together. On a national level, we have seen the impact of Hamilton, the Musical. What are the stories of your community?

Another area of expression involves people and peoples whose voices have not always been heard or have been heard in a distorted manner.

“When Slavery Died Hard: The Forgotten History of Ulster County and the Shawangunk Mountain Region”
Cragsmoor Historical Society
Cragsmoor (Ulster)

This education award is in recognition of the documentary “Where Slavery Died Hard…” grows from their community’s efforts to reconsider its history and the history of the Shawangunk Region. While researching for The Cragsmoor Historical Journal, archaeologists/historic preservation consultants Wendy E. Harris and Arnold Pickman discovered that in 1820, one of Cragsmoor’s early families contained an enslaved child. The phrase “where slavery died hard,” was bestowed upon Ulster County as a result of its resistance to abolition during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This documentary hopes to contribute to a body of knowledge that will verify the significance of the African-American presence in this region.

According to a handout at the display table, the Cragsmoor Historical Society intends to distribute the video gratis to schools and other cultural and education organizations. It also will be posted to the Society’s website. The public debut of the video is today, October 20.

Serving Their Country: African Americans and America’s Wars
Matthew Thorenz, Moffat Library of Washingtonville

From before the Revolutionary War to World War One, African Americans have played a vital role in serving in our nation’s armed forces. Bringing the service of those who served under extreme prejudice during these conflicts can help us better understand the complex political, social, and cultural worlds in which they lived, while highlighting a group of individuals who have been marginalized to a degree in public programming. Learn how original research contributed to two thought provoking analysis of African American service members in the Hudson Valley at New Windsor Cantonment, 1782-1783, and on the Western Front of World War One in 1918.

Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century
Colette Lemmon, Iroquois Indian Museum

This presentation will focus on the impetus, development, and elements of the Iroquois Museum’s current exhibition, “Tonto, Teepees, & Totem Poles: Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century”. The exhibit includes materials from popular culture and the media as well as provocative responses by Indigenous artists around the issue of stereotyping. The presentation will also highlight the participatory activities that were developed to engage our visitors with this topic and their (sometimes surprising) outcomes.

The participating artists were mainly Mohawk and secondarily Haudenosaunee except for the Tuscarora. It is a pity that all the museums of these Indian nations across the center of the state do not collaborate in creating programs. At least the individual artists from the various Indian Nations can work together.

New Voices from Old Schenectady
Michael G. Diana, Schenectady County Historical Society

Built in 1705 and continuously occupied until 2001, the Mabee Farm is uniquely able to provide a broad historical cross-section of the Mohawk River Valley. Until recently, the general tour focused primarily on the architecture of the farm house as well as Jan Mabee, the patriarch who built it. A new narrative is grounded in characters and stories that have long been overlooked. Prominently featured are Mabee women, such as Annetje and Catrina, whose Mohawk and Dutch heritage gave them considerable influence in Schenectady’s colonial society. The stories of Jack and Cato, drawn from original documents, tell how two of the enslaved people who lived at the farm exercised their agency in bold and surprising ways. By restoring and restaging the house, Schenectady County Historical Society seeks to tell the story of everyone who lived there and, by extension, the story of so many generations of farmers and travelers who made the Mohawk Valley their home.

The Dutch legacy in New York was addressed in several of the conferences I attended over the past few weeks. What is important to note is that back then the Dutch were Dutch and the Mohawk were Mohawk – they had not yet lost their individuality and become subsumed into the politically correct designations in vogue today.

A final type of reaching out is directly to the schools themselves.

“Museum Studies Partnership for Learning”
Hudson River Museum
Yonkers (Westchester)

This project award is in recognition of the interdisciplinary educational curriculum, “Museum Studies Partnership for Learning” that included workshops, museum visits, and classroom lessons as part of an in-depth collaborative relationship with Yonkers Public Schools’ Museum School 25. The curriculum seeks to exercise students’ creativity while engaging them in projects that would enhance critical thinking skills and help them make connections between art, science, and history.

Since this partnership was an award and not a presentation, the program itself was not described at the conference. According to the brochure, 9 pre-k to 2nd grade classes participated. The curriculum drew on the river itself and concluded with an exhibition at the Museum of the student’s work. Landscape very much is part of human history. Nature sets the stage, human write the stories…and alter the landscape.

A fitting conclusion to the conference would be for all the participants to break bread together. For that, we will have to wait for

Interpreting Reher’s Bakery: Multicultural Rondout Then and Now
Sarah Litvin, Reher Center/Jewish Federation of Ulster County

to be fully operational.

Recent Lower Hudson Valley History Meeting Highlights

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to attend and participate in three regional and county history community meetings:

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October 16: Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) annual meeting
October 24: APHNYS Region 3 also covering mainly the Hudson Valley
November 14: Sullivan County History Conference

These three meetings provided venues to meet with colleagues, discuss issues and topics, and learn what is going on. What follows then are some highlights from those meetings and this post is not intended to be a full report on what transpired.

Greater Hudson Heritage Network

This organization conducts an annual meeting in the Hudson Valley region and draws from people outside the region as well. It is a day-long conference with plenary speaker(s), concurrent sessions and includes lunch. These past two years it has been held at colleges so presumably there is no rent or it is nominal. This year Prof. Lisa Keller of Purchase College was the host. There is a fee to attend.

At the conference, Priscilla Brendler, Executive Director, spoke, among other things, on the Path through History. There were flyers for the June 18-19, 2016 dates and she urged people to participate in this program which helps provide vital statistical information on the state of history tourism in the state.

At the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference, Gavin Landry, Executive Director, I Love NY, mentioned that based on my posts on the Path through History, some changes had been made. He didn’t identify them but I suggest two such changes were on view here. One is based on my criticism of the “Simon says” aspect of the date selection leaving history sites and others scrambling to guess when the Path Weekend will occur. The second was organizations not having sufficient lead time to plan or having their June event on the correct date. The decision now is for Fathers Day weekend with plentiful advance notice.

Another change which I did know about was the relationship of GHHN to the Path through History weekend.  The flyer distributed at the meeting lists a GHHN phone number and email address for contact, questions, and updates. It would seem that the work for operating the Path Weekend has been outsourced to GHHN presumably for which GHHN gets paid. GHHN already operates some programs on a statewide basis and this appears to be another example of its expansion beyond the Hudson Valley. The history community would benefit from having a NYHN, a New York History Network although it should be noted that GHHN tends to focus on the backend of  history site operations and less on history itself or outreach. Teaching the Hudson Valley (THV) used to do that before it shifted its focus to the environment. So while there is (or used to be before the 2016 cancellation) a state history conference (NYSHA), regional and/or county ones are hard to find.

The keynote speaker at the conference was Professor Ken Jackson, Mr. New York State History. He was the keynote speaker at the launching of the Path though History in 2012. He had been personally recruited by Governor Cuomo to participate in the now defunct Path through History Taskforce which never really did much and was more for show. His talk addressed the same considerations as his keynote address three years earlier now with some perspective on the Path project he helped launch. Jackson referred to the project as one of “noise” and “not much else.” It was not well run or thought through. Cuomo takes credit for it but doesn’t do much for it. The financial support is down. Nothing Jackson said was new to regular readers of my posts

The contrast between the talks of Priscilla and Ken could not have been greater. Here in the briefest of time spans, one was able to experience the official view from the Albany-Manhattan bubble and the reality outside the bubble. Admittedly, I enjoy moments like this because they make writing posts so easy.

APHNYS Region 3

This was an excellent meeting organized by Suzanne Isaksen, regional coordinator Town of Montgomery historian and hosted by Mary Ellen Matise, Village of Walden Historian. The meeting was held in the historic village hall and public library and we were welcomed by the mayor. This was a day-long program with lunch on our own by walking to nearby places in the historic setting. There was a slight fee.

Three speakers from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP)  presented – Dan McEneny, Jennifer Betsworth, and Matthew Shephard. The program provided an overview of the Division for Historic Preservation and its programs, the process and criteria for National and State Register listings including tax advantages, and the new Cultural Resource Information Database (CRIS). We had the opportunity through CRIS to see maps identifying the cultural resources right in Walden where we were meeting. The database is a remarkable tool and if the history signs or markers could be added, it would be a terrific resource for the history community. You can not only see a site but access detailed information on it. This new website requires some thoughtful thinking and conversations with the history community on how it can best de used and developed. It can be located at https://cris.parks.ny.gov.

This session, which could be repeated throughout the state and at statewide conferences, made me realize a missing ingredient in the public historian training. As the New Historian session at the APHNYS state conference made clear, people become public historians in their communities often with little training or guidance. While there is some information at the APHNYS website (guidelines which need to be updated), municipal historians don’t necessarily know that APHNYS even exists. The challenges of being a municipal historian were the recent subject of Orange County Historian Johanna Yaun’s newsletter and post to New York History Blog

Recommendation – all public historians should receive and be required to receive state-funded training in Albany. Such training should include the NYS Archives, NYS Library, NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP and the NYS Historian. The program should include touring the facilities, meeting the staff, learning the resources available and the related rules, regulations, and requirements. This one-week training program will improve the professionalization of the municipal historian across the state, enhance the status of the position to the local mayors, town supervisors, and country executives, and help counter the isolation of the municipal historian. To establish the program actually is the simple part as each of the state entities in Albany could easily formulate such a program if asked. The challenge would be in funding. That would require a concerted effort by the history community to advocate for it, an activity which is conspicuously absent at present. At some point it would be beneficial to develop an agenda of what the history community wants from the state and then advocate for it.

Sullivan County History Conference

This was an excellent meeting organized by John Conway, Sullivan County historian. It was held at the Sullivan County Community College with the real credit belonging to Debra Conway as her husband repeatedly mentioned. Congratulations on a job well done. The program was funded by the Delaware Council and was free including lunch.

The stated intention is for this to be an annual event and it is an example of what every county should do. The attendance was over 70 people for this day-long event despite the snow flurries in the county and the near freezing weather. As I said in my keynote, when I left home in Westchester it was fall. When I arrived in Sullivan County it was winter.

This particular conference focused not on the history of Sullivan County but on the state of history. It included a video welcome from Congressional Representative Chris Gibson with whom I also shared the program when the Delaware Council was launched. Other speakers included fulltime county historians Johanna Yaun and Will Tatum III from Orange and Dutchess Counties. County history conferences were held there in 2011 before their time and I hope they will have one-day programs of their own soon. Johanna held a mini-conference in the summer which John and I attended and which partially served as a catalyst for this one.

The conference drew from a multitude of areas. Linda Oehler-Marx, a former teacher, spoke on the issue of finding a place for local history in the new social studies framework. This is a vital issue and there needs to be more discussion between the history community and the teachers on how to incorporate local and state history into the classroom even without field trips.

Social media was addressed in general terms by Johanna in her presentation and by Matt Colon, Director of the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands. I commented on when I first got involved in local history, the State Archive Records Administration (SARA) grants were to microfilm records. Times and technology have changed. Here is an area where county-level workshops on how to take advantage of new technologies really would be useful.

The conference ended with a presentation by Kristina Heister, the Superintendent of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, NPS. Much of her talk was on the NPS which will be celebrating its centennial next year. She also mentioned Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a study commissioned by the NPS. Marla Miller, one of the co-authors, spoke at a pre-conference workshop to the NYSHA conference at Marist in 2014. I spoke with her afterwards and then downloaded the 120-page report. I have read it but not yet written about it. Some of the recommendations are appropriate not only for the NPS sites in New York but for NYSOPHP as well. According to Kristina in terms of implementation the study is still a work-in-progress. I guess I have put off writing about it for long enough.

Of course, no history conference would be complete with noting the comments made about the Path through History. Although there were some perfunctory remarks made about its continued existence, the comments to the audience that it was an “ill-fated debacle” with no history community participation that fizzled out got right to heart of problem. One suggestion was a massive statewide letter-writing campaign addressed to the governor so perhaps he wouldn’t remain clueless.

History conferences are a lot of fun and I recommend more of them at the county and regional level. It also would be nice to have a master calendar for such county, regional, and state conferences. Maybe the new state historian once one is hired could take the lead here.

MANY And Advocacy For The NYS History Community

In this post, I wish to focus attention on recent developments involving the Museum Association of New York (MANY) and opportunities for advocacy on behalf of the history community.

MANY has undergone significant changes which are of importance to the history community, though it should be noted that the organization’s membership is not limited to historical museums, but also include art and science museums, zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums. Continue reading “MANY And Advocacy For The NYS History Community”

A Fork In The Path Through History

On January 25, I attended the Mid-Hudson regional meeting of the Path through History project. What follows is my report on the meeting which may, or may not, be the experience and take-away of others who attended (or what is happening in other regions). The Mid-Hudson Valley region includes the Hudson River counties of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, and Rockland, along with Sullivan County in the Catskills. Continue reading “A Fork In The Path Through History”

The Greater Hudson Heritage Conference

The Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHNN) held its annual conference on September 28 at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center, Hyde Park. The theme of the conference was “Mining the Museum: Using Your Existing Resources in New Ways” with Executive Director Priscilla Brendler presiding. The meeting was so-well attended I didn’t even have a chance to speak with the all the people I would like to have talked to. The format has been expanded beyond being primarily an awards ceremony to be more like the Museumwise conference with a plenary speaker followed by concurrent sessions but for one day instead of two. Continue reading “The Greater Hudson Heritage Conference”