Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

History Advocacy: Lessons from the Massachusetts History Alliance Conference

You should see all the political cartoons I passed on!!!

The history community does not do a good job advocating for itself. I am not referring to the actions an individual history organization may take on behalf of its own organization. Instead I am referring to collective action on behalf of the entire history community within the state. The major exception to this generalization is the historic preservation community. It sometimes has its own statewide organizations, conferences, and agenda items for lobbying state legislators. Unfortunately, the history community itself may be lacking such an organized and concerted effort.

To some extent the Massachusetts History Alliance was created to address this shortcoming. According to its website (officially “under construction’):

MHA has advocacy priorities in three areas: advocacy for public history to the legislature, advocacy to the public history field, and advocacy for public history to the general public.

The MHA advocates for legislative initiatives that fund local and public history efforts in the Commonwealth. This includes the provision of opportunities that make it easier for smaller organizations to survive, such as grant opportunities or tax credits.

The MHA promotes the message that a vibrant history community is good for local businesses and contributes to our state’s economic vitality.

The MHA advances the idea that an awareness of local and public history is an essential component of civic engagement.

The MHA endorses the funding of regional networks and collaborative efforts that positively impact local and public history in Massachusetts. It encourages the development of greater communication between the numerous and distinct history organizations across the state.

The MHA supports entities that encourage the preservation of historic buildings, objects and documents.

The MHA advocates for the continued funding of its Annual Conference.

So far after having attended several of its annual conferences (blogs on the 2015 and 2017 conferences), I am not sure how far it is progressed in actually having a history advocacy day at the state capital on behalf of a specific history agenda.

With these thoughts in mind, I attended the session “Make Your Case, Make a Difference: Advocacy Tools for the Small, Busy, and Passionate” at the conference. The session was dedicated to providing tools or tricks of the trade for individual history organizations to use to advocate on behalf of individual history organizations. In other words, it was all about how you as the executive director/president could speak to your own legislator if you happen to meet that person in an elevator at the state capital. The session was entirely geared towards individual people representing individual organizations advocating for individual items on behalf of the individual organization.

This session had nothing to do with what the history community really needs. In this regard, it was eerily similar to another advocacy session I attended years ago at another state conference. The issue facing the individual history organizations is not how to advocate with their own legislators for themselves. People are quite capable of doing that at home without going to the state capital. History organizations are quite capable of inviting their own state representatives to their own site. History organizations are quite capable of contacting their own state representatives about some pressing need at home in their own community without traveling to the state capital. In fact, history organizations frequently are quite capable of speaking personally to their state representative without all the protocols presented in the session or hoping for a chance meeting in the hallway or in the elevator.

By coincidence our newly reactivated local historical society had a pizza night at a local restaurant a few days ago for those who have helped to reactivate it. Guess who stopped by? Our local state legislator who lives in the area! We really do not need to go to the state capital to meet with him.

Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has created its own program for meeting elected officials at the federal level (for details click here).

Inviting local, state and federal elected officials and their staff members into your museum is a uniquely powerful way to show them what museums are and what museums do – from world-class exhibitions to working with local students and community members on critical life skills. There’s never been a more important time to engage with the elected officials and stakeholders that represent your museum.

The August Congressional Recess is a great time to get started, but any time of year is a good time to invite your legislators into the museum. We make it easy to participate with this step-by-step “How To” guide that can be used to connect with your elected officials throughout the year. Use the Alliance “How To” Guide below to get started today, and don’t forget to use #InviteCongress on social media!

There is no inherent reason why something comparable could not be created at the state level.

So what then do the individual history organizations need at the state level to do this?

There are two items.

1. Statewide history concerns
2. Statewide organization to arrange for a history advocacy day in support of the statewide history concerns.

The Massachusetts History Alliance conference is co-sponsored by Mass Humanities. Everybody has a state humanities organization. Everybody has a state arts organization. Everybody has a state organization that helps fund exhibits, lectures, and public programs. What is its budget? Is the funding of this organization or these organizations depending on how the functions are set up in the state of interest to the history community? Obviously. Equally obviously, it also is of interest to other museum such as art and science museums. Sometimes differentiating these organizations is problematic. Albany Institute of History and Art. Bundy Museum of History and Art. Museum Advocacy Day at the nation’s capital takes this approach. Why not do the same at the state level?

Mass Humanities has two grant programs specifically geared towards local history. The Research Inventory grants provide a maximum of $2000 to fund inventory projects at small historical organizations. The Scholar in Residence grants are for up to $3500 to enable organizations to draw on a level of expertise not normally available to them to research that entity’s collection or mission. What is the total pool of funds available for these local history grants?  Could that total be increased? Could the maximums be raised? Could the history community lobby for such increases? What about the equivalent programs in other states? If you do not have one, could the history community advocate for their creation? If you do have them, could you advocate for additional funding?

Another supporter of the Massachusetts History Alliance conference is the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board known locally as SHRAB. One popular program is the Roving Archivist. Just as Mass Humanities can send a scholar to your organization, SHRAB can send an archivist to your site. It can assist in the purchase of materials and supplies needed for archival purposes. It conducts training sessions and workshops on archival related matters. What is its budget? Could it be more? Does your state have something comparable? If not, why not? If you do have them, could you advocate for additional funding?

A third type of funding is for anniversaries. In a recent blog I wrote about the newly created federal commission for the American Revolution 250th. My impression is that this commission will be of little use locally at least for years to come. Massachusetts cannot wait for 1776 or even 1775. The 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre is next year. The time for advocating for funding for statewide programs on behalf of what happened in 1770 is already past due….just as it is in virtually all states. Maybe the history community could use the same funding apparatus created to celebrate the Suffrage Centennial for the American Revolution!!!!

Since I wrote the blog on the American Revolution, I received an email from Johanna Yuan, the Orange County historian in New York. She included a draft of a resolution to be submitted to the Orange County legislature on plans for the commemoration of the 250th. It identifies 1775-1783 as the relevant time period deliberately to expand beyond the federal legislation. The theme will be “Which Side Are You On?” with the intention of provoking discussion of history and historical implications of the events that took place in the Hudson Valley, New York State and beyond. The format is to have yearly themes related to the events of 1775 to 1783. This approach is similar to the one Fort Ticonderoga has used for presenting the French and Indian War. I suggested the same approach be taken in the state at a meeting held by Devin Lander, the New York State historian but starting before 1775 if possible. Johanna’s actions demonstrate what can be done at a local level without waiting for federal and/or state action.

And what about regional cooperation. Those canons from Fort Ticonderoga did not magically appear outside Boston to relieve the siege there. Will there be an event following the route? And to the best of my knowledge Rochambeau did not make use of airports to go from Rhode Island to Virginia although I recognize that I may be in error here. For that matter militias from throughout New England participated in battles in New York and were camped here. So we need to think not only about our county and state but about our region.

One final item for history advocacy comes from New York. This is the Museum Education Act sponsored by the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Although one would not know it from the name, it is about busing, the funding of buses for school trips to museums. So it is not a history program per se but for all museums. The bill passed the Senate and the Assembly in this past session but was not signed by the Governor. One may anticipate a new and improved bill to be submitted in the 2020 session. Busing expense is a chronic and widespread problem with school visits. It is something history communities very could advocate for.

Speaking of education, I have left out two critical areas involving local history. First the training of teachers in local history and second, the incorporation of local history into the curriculum. Those are huge topics.

So there is plenty for the history community to advocate for should the history community ever get its act together and establish a history advocacy day at the next session of your state legislature.

The American Revolution 250th: A Time to Heal or a Time to Divide?

Illegal Alien, Newspaper Reporter, Enemy of the People

Now that this year’s July 4th celebration is over, it is time to start looking ahead to the big one, July 4, 2026. That date marks the 250th anniversary of the declaring of the United States of America. It also is the bicentennial of the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents. They had been part of a committee to draft the Declaration and became extensive pen-pals following their presidencies. At the time of their deaths on the 50th anniversary of the birth of the country there was only one possible explanation for it: divine providence.

The Founding Fathers regarded their creation as an experiment. They knew they were undertaking something never before undertaken on such a scale. They knew it might fail. To have reached the milestone of 50 years following a second war with Great Britain when the White House had been burned was something to celebrate. The idea that their handiwork would still be around 250 years after its creation and as a global superpower would have been considered science fiction fantasy had they known those terms.

But here we are approaching the semiquincentennial, not a word I had ever used before. I learned that word from the legislation passed on July 22, 2016, ‘‘United States Semiquincentennial Commission Act of 2016.”

SEC. 2. FINDINGS; PURPOSE.

(a) FINDINGS.—Congress finds that July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States, as marked by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the historic events
preceding that anniversary—
(1) are of major significance in the development of the national heritage of the United States of individual liberty, representative government, and the attainment of equal and inalienable rights; and
(2) have had a profound influence throughout the world.
(b) PURPOSE.—The purpose of this Act is to establish a Commission to provide for the observance and commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States and related events through local, State, national, and international activities planned, encouraged, developed, and coordinated by a national commission representative of appropriate public and private authorities and organizations.

One wonders about the American Revolution events subsequent to July 4, 1776, a subject to which I shall return. Still, the breadth of the mandate is breathtaking. The phrase “planned, encourage, developed, and coordinated” raises multiple questions of how this national commission will operate on the local, state, and international level.

The commission will consist of members of both Houses, private citizens appointed by both Houses, and a chair selected by the President.

SEC. 4. ESTABLISHMENT OF COMMISSION.
(a) IN GENERAL.—There is established a commission, to be known as the ‘‘United States Semiquincentennial Commission’’, to plan, encourage, develop, and coordinate the commemoration of the history of the United States leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States.

Once again notice the drop dead date of July 4, 2026, as if nothing happened in the American Revolution afterwards. It is as if what is important are the events leading up to Philadelphia and then the story of the American Revolution stops. As it turns out, the legislative focus on Philadelphia is not by chance.

(d) MEETINGS.—All meetings of the Commission shall be convened at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to honor the historical significance of the building as the site of deliberations and adoption of both the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

This clause stresses that Philadelphia is to be the one and only location for the commission. No commission meetings are to be held in any other locations that were important to the American Revolution including for events prior to July 4, 1776 or subsequent to that date.

SEC. 5. DUTIES.
(a) IN GENERAL.—The Commission shall—
            (1) prepare an overall program for commemorating the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States and the historic events preceding that anniversary; and Pennsylvania.
            (2) plan, encourage, develop, and coordinate observances and activities commemorating the historic events that preceded, and are associated with, the United States Semiquincentennial.
(b) REQUIREMENTS.—
            (1) IN GENERAL.—In preparing plans and an overall program, the Commission—
                        (A) shall give due consideration to any related plans and programs developed by State, local, and private groups; and
                        (B) may designate special committees with representatives from groups described in subparagraph (A) to plan, develop, and coordinate specific activities.
            (2) EMPHASIS.—The Commission shall—
                        (A) emphasize the planning of events in locations of historical significance to the United States, especially in those locations that witnessed the assertion of American liberty, such as—
                                    (i) the 13 colonies; and
                                    (ii) leading cities, including Boston, Charleston, New York City, and Philadelphia;

The general duties suggest an awareness that significant events occurred prior to July 4, 1776, that they were not in Philadelphia, and that the national commission is to work in some way with others who are commemorating those events. Specifically it recognizes that state, local, and private groups may develop plans and programs on their own initiative. Furthermore, the national commission may create committees to include representatives of these organizations. Specifically, the legislation calls attention to the 13 colonies and the big four cities besides Philadelphia. One would think therefore that one such committee would consist of the 13 state semiquincentennial commissions should the 13 states create their own commissions. Could such committees meet outside of Philadelphia or are they bound by the same restrictions as the national commission? Is there any role for the other 37 states plus various territories that are part of the United States? Are they part of the celebration of the American Revolution too?

(B) give special emphasis to—
                                    (i) the role of persons and locations with significant impact on the history of the United States during the 250-year period beginning on the date of execution of the Declaration of Independence; and
                                    (ii) the ideas associated with that history, which have been so important in the development of the United States, in world affairs, and in the quest for freedom of all mankind.

Needlesstosay, this special emphasis is extremely broad. First, the American Revolution from July 4, 1776 to November 25, 1783, when the British evacuated New York City, a local holiday until World War I now revived by the Lower Manhattan Historical Association, is ignored. Second, the legislation now opens the emphasis to people, places, and ideas who were significant to the history of the United States, its place in world history, and the global quest for freedom. Somehow this national commission is charged with identifying and blessing all those over a 250-year period. In New York where I live that practically means grab the text books for 7th and 8th grade social studies American history classes and go to the index….and then fill in the gaps for everything and everyone and everywhere overlooked in the official curriculum.

(c) REPORT SUBMITTED TO THE PRESIDENT.—
(1) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Commission shall submit to the President a comprehensive report that includes the specific recommendations of the Commission for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary and related events.

This report was due on July 22, 2018. The commission had not even met by then (see below). One suspects the July 22, 2019, date will come and go without such a report having been prepared. As for the contents of these specific recommendations:

  (2) RECOMMENDED ACTIVITIES.—The report may include recommended
activities such as—
                        (A) the production, publication, and distribution of books, pamphlets, films, and other educational materials focusing on the history, culture, and political thought of the period of the American Revolution;
                        (B) bibliographical and documentary projects and publications;
                        (C) conferences, convocations, lectures, seminars, and other programs, especially those located in the 13 colonies, including the major cities and buildings of national historical
significance of the 13 colonies;
                        (D) the development of libraries, museums, historic sites, and exhibits, including mobile exhibits;
                         (E) ceremonies and celebrations commemorating specific events, such as—
                                    (i) the signing of the Declaration of Independence;
                                    (ii) programs and activities focusing on the national and international significance of the United States Semiquincentennial; and
                                    (iii) the implications of the Semiquincentennial for present and future generations; and
                        (F) encouraging Federal agencies to integrate the celebration of the Semiquincentennial into the regular activities and execution of the purpose of the agencies through such activities as the issuance of coins, medals, certificates of recognition, stamps, and the naming of vessels.

The report then is to include activities beyond Philadelphia. Even if state commissions had been created in the 13 former colonies, this report would be a major undertaking in itself.

There are a lot of moving parts to this endeavor.

SEC. 6. COORDINATION.
(a) IN GENERAL.—In carrying out this Act, the Commission shall consult and cooperate with, and seek advice and assistance from, appropriate Federal agencies, State and local public bodies, learned societies, and historical, patriotic, philanthropic, civic, professional, and related organizations.
(b) RESPONSIBILITY OF OTHER FEDERAL AGENCIES.—
            (1) IN GENERAL.—Federal agencies shall cooperate with the Commission in planning, encouraging, developing, and coordinating appropriate commemorative activities.

A great deal of communication will be required to make this project work.

SEC. 7. POWERS.
(a) HEARINGS.—The Commission may hold such hearings, meet and act at such times and places, take such testimony, and receive such evidence as the Commission considers advisable to carry out this Act.

Presumably they all are to be held in Philadelphia. One hopes that everyone participating in such hearings is in driving distance or Amtrak-northeast-corridor distance from Philadelphia.

There will be a time capsule.

(1) TIME CAPSULE.—A representative portion of all books, manuscripts, miscellaneous printed matter, memorabilia, relics, and other materials relating to the United States Semiquincentennial shall be deposited in a time capsule—
                        (A) to be buried in Independence Mall, Philadelphia, on July 4, 2026; and
                        (B) to be unearthed on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the United States of America on July 4, 2276.

Unfortunately the Federal Government at present cannot undertake any scientific studies to determine if that location will be underwater or not in another 250 years. (By coincidence see “A Rising Threat to History: Climate Change Is Forcing Preservationists to Get Creative in Rhode Island,” NYT July 9, 2019, print edition.)

There will be no public funding for the commission.

SEC. 9. EXPENDITURES OF COMMISSION.
(a) IN GENERAL.—All expenditures of the Commission shall be made solely from donated funds.

Some lucky non-profit will be selected to actually do the work.

(b) ADMINISTRATIVE SECRETARIAT.—The Secretary of the Interior shall, through a competitive process, seek to enter into an arrangement with a nonprofit organization, the mission of which is consistent with the purpose of this Act. Under such arrangement, such nonprofit organization shall—
            (1) serve as the secretariat of the Commission, including by serving as the point of contact under section 5(e);
            (2) house the administrative offices of the Commission;
            (3) assume responsibility for funds of the Commission; and
            (4) provide to the Commission financial and administrative services, including services related to budgeting, accounting, financial reporting, personnel, and procurement.

And then everything will end.

SEC. 10. TERMINATION OF COMMISSION.
The Commission shall terminate on December 31, 2027.

As one might expect, Philadelphia was a driving force in the adoption of this legislation.

In 2014, the Philadelphia City Council ordered a public hearing of the Committee on Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs to investigate “the impact and feasibility of Philadelphia” hosting the United States Semiquincentennial in 2026, among other events.[5] The following year a non-profit organization, USA250, was established in Philadelphia to lobby for federal government support of the United States semiquincentennial and establish Philadelphia as the host city for events surrounding the semiquincentennial observances.[6]  (Wikipedia)

The American Battlefield Trust has been named the commission’s non-profit partner to serve as Administrative Secretariat, tasked with preparing reports for Congress and helping raise funds for the anniversary observances.

Daniel DiLella, CEO and President of Equus, a leading private equity real estate fund, was appointed Chairperson of the Semiquincentennial Commission in April 2018. In May 2018, DiLella named Frank Giordano as the commission’s executive director. Giordano, who heads Atlantic Trailer Leasing in Philadelphia, led the rejuvenation of two formerly struggling Philadelphia institutions, the Philly Pops Orchestra and Union League club. (Wikipedia)

In the meantime, some activity has occurred at the state level.

Pennsylvania became the first state to formally begin planning for the anniversary in June 2018 when the commonwealth established the Pennsylvania Semiquincentennial Commission. Four months later, on October 17, Gov. Tom Wolf named Fresh Grocer supermarket magnate and philanthropist Patrick Burns to chair the state commission. (Wikipedia)

In 2018 and 2019, I attended the Massachusetts History Alliance conferences held at Holy Cross. While there I met Jonathan Lane, Massachusetts Historical Society. His job is the 250th in the state. Note he works for a non-profit and there is no state commission there. The Massachusetts dilemma is it cannot wait for 2026. The Boston Massacre (1770), the Boston Tea Party (1773), Lexington and Concord (1775), and Bunker Hill (1775) to name some prominent events all occurred prior to July 4, 1776. How will the national commission assist in the planning and development of these commemorations starting next year? What will the state of Massachusetts do?

In August 2018, the State of New Jersey launched its effort when Gov. Phil Murphy signed a measure that called on the New Jersey Historical Commission to create a program focused on the 250th anniversary of the independence of the United States as well as the creation of the state’s first Constitution. The law appropriated $500,000 to fund the historical commission’s planning for the 250th anniversary festivities. (Wikipedia)

Jonathan did tell me he attended a meeting in Philadelphia with about 30 people. According to a press release from American Battlefield Trust there was a meeting with the 33 members of the commission on November 16, 2018, in Philadelphia. I did not notice any additional meetings or events on its website about the commission.

In New York where I live, there is no state commission. Devin Lander, the New York State historian has held two meetings about the 250th. The first was in Saratoga, location of the battle in 1777 that has been called one of the critical battles of the 18th century. But it occurred after July 4, 1776. So did the iconic toppling of the statue of George III in lower Manhattan (July 9, 1776), the hanging of Nathan Hale (September 22, 1776), the Sullivan Campaign (1779), Benedict Arnold (1780), the Newburg Conspiracy (1783), Evacuation Day (November 25, 1783). The second meeting he called was hosted by the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College named after a significant figure in the American Revolution. Additional meetings are expected.

In Westchester County, New York, where I live, the RW250 was formed in 2018. It is applying for 501(c)3 status. It has been holding lectures throughout the county about the American Revolution in the county. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only such organization in the state.

What does all this mean?

1. There will be a big event in Philadelphia on July 4, 2026. Of course, the city already celebrates July so it is not comparable to the Jamestown Quadricentennial which was a one-time event.
2. There will be some international events. Perhaps in London on the same day. Perhaps in Canada which we invaded. Perhaps in Paris which came to our aid after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Perhaps in China where the Statue of Liberty is a revered figure or maybe in Hong Kong.
3. What about multi-state events? How about the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in New York in 1775 by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold with the Connecticut and Massachusetts militias followed by the transport of the fort’s canons under Henry Knox to Boston? Or the Rochambeau Trail from Rhode Island to Virginia which already operates as a below-the-radar National Park Service Project?
4. What about multi-country events? How about the invasion of Canada, the evacuation to Canada, the evacuation to the Caribbean?
5. What about the rest of continental United States beyond the 13 colonies? What about the Spanish colonies? What about the Indian Nations?

At this point it is too early to know as the national commission is in its infancy even though the report was due last year with specific recommendations.

But there are larger issues of concern beyond simply commemorating events, places, and ideas of 250 years ago. How do we connect people today to them? How do we get all Americans to recognize July 4 as the birth of their country regardless of when they or their family first arrived here? The musical “Hamilton” shows that it can be done. To paraphrase, it famously asks of its audience “who will tell our story?” What America needs is not fireworks, tanks, and big extravaganzas. What we need are the stories of our birth as a country that can reknit the social fabric, that can bind us together from “California to the New York island,” and that can make us We the People. That is not the mandate of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission for the American Revolution. Where is our Lincoln to remind us of what happened twelve score and ten years ago?