Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

Imperiled Promise: History and the NPS (and OPRHP)

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service is the title of a study commissioned by the NPS in partnership with the Organization of American History (OAH). Although first published in 2011, it was slow to see the light of day. In 2014, it was the subject of a pre-New York State History Conference workshop which I attended and wrote about during the NPS Centennial in 2016. I had intended to delve more deeply into the report itself which I downloaded but never quite got around to writing about it. In this post I wish to begin to address the findings of the study. As you will see, the comments are doubly important for New York State:

1. We have many NPS sites in the state
2. The issues raised frequently apply to state historic sites as well.

The findings also are related to the fledgling Massachusetts History Alliance’s efforts to forge exactly what the name says, a history alliance in Massachusetts. I recently attended its conference held at Holy Cross and will reporting on those developments in future posts.  There is a lot going on and it is difficult to keep up.

According to the Executive Summary of Imperiled Promise, history is at the heart of approximately two thirds of nearly four hundred national park units. At the time of the report, 182 NPS employees carried the job title of “Historian.”  However, the authors pointed out that people without the classification may do history-related work as well. I don’t know what the comparable figures are for the NYSOPRHP.

The attendance of the sites is part of the story. By way of perspective, a local news report in 2016 provided the following NPS attendance figures for 2015 in Dutchess County:

Vanderbilt Mansion drew 431, 961 visitors ranking 133rd of 368 NPS destinations but 6th for National Historic Sites. By comparison the White House had 526, 623 visitors.  Other NPS sites in Dutchess include, FDR ranked 11th and the related Val-Kill ranked 26th.  All these sites were outdrawn by Walkway over the Hudson, a state site with 448, 719 and some by the Dutchess County Fair with 394,422.

These numbers can be deceiving especially in a PowerPoint presentation. Vanderbilt Mansion on the Hudson River serves a community park much like Central Park. It is a lovely setting for painting, photography, dog-walking, jogging, and other park activities that just happen to occur on land which has an historic mansion. Similarly the Walkway over the Hudson River is another spectacular recreation setting. By and large both sites with free grounds access are day trips if not after-work visits. By comparison, the Grand Canyon drew an estimated 5.5 million people the same year. Besides the admission fees, people who visit it spend money on meals, souvenirs, lodging, and transportation. Attendance numbers need to be treated very carefully depending on what one is trying to prove or demonstrate. They also highlight a divide noted in the report between the recreational and historical sites managed by the same organization. As I recall at a preservation conference in 2016, even NYSOPRHP joked about the number of historical versus recreation sites under its umbrella. Obviously in New York, Jones Beach and Niagara Falls will outdrew any traditional historical site and that does affect the allocation of funding and management time.

Returning to the Executive Summary, the following observation bears notice. I know that my blogs can be very pointed but pay attention to what was reported in this NPS-commissioned study:

“[The NPS’s mission] has been imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce, by agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, by longstanding funding deficiencies, by often narrow and static conceptions of history’s scope, and by timid interpretation.”

Not exactly subtle or complimentary. Do these conditions apply at all at the state level as well?

Naturally, the authors of the study have recommendations to remedy the situation. The issue of whether or not these recommendations were implemented or whether the report was filed on the consultant reports  shelf as one NPS Ranger delicately phrased it will be deferred until after they are presented.

The first recommendation required a commitment by the NPS to history as one of its core purposes. That commitment required the NPS to “invest” which has the implication that at some point money is required to do what the report recommends is needed to be done. The investment should be for:

1. creating a robust place-based visitor engagement with history
2. connecting the history of the site to the histories beyond the boundaries of the site
3. forthrightly addressing conflict and controversy in history and its interpretation in the present.

To achieve this vision, the NPS would be obligated to overcome the legacies that undermined the effort.  The negative legacies included:

1. underemphasis and underfunding of historical work
2. artificial separation of cultural resources management from interpretation
3. artificial separation of natural resources interpretation from cultural and historical interpretation
4. overemphasis on mandated compliance activities
5. a misperception of history as a tightly-bounded fixed and accurate story instead of being an ongoing process of discovery with changing narratives and multiple perspectives.

To address these concerns, the authors proposed almost 100 recommendations (which I will not list).  They involve the management, workforce development, and funding. In general terms, one may say there is an issue of the “historian” function at an historic site. What is the training necessary to become an historian? How does one maintain competence in the field or engage with ongoing scholarship to remain current? Are there organizational meetings devoted to history that staff at historic sites should attend? How can existing state and regional organizations support history in addition to curating and exhibit presentation? Would some kind of history certification process be beneficial such as teachers have using professional development to increase their salary? How relevant is all this for the local often volunteer municipal historical society and museum?

Two items in the Executive Summary recommendations bear special notice. They both involve bringing together and creating an empowered leadership. The authors of Imperiled Promise challenge the NPS to create two groups:

1. History Leadership Council, an internal group comprised of the most talented and influential historians and interpreters
2. History Advisory Board, an external-based group comprising the nation’s leading public history professionals, innovative curators, insightful scholars, savvy administrators.

The authors felt that if such groups were formed with legitimate leadership and authority from the NPS, the other challenges could be overcome. In-other-words, they proposed a top-down solution that would gradually impact the grassroots level at the individual sites. Care to guess what actually has happened?

In any event, one can readily observe that similar considerations apply at the state level as well. One may even add that historic sites are owned and operated not just by the states but by counties, cities, towns, villages, and privately.  As it turns out, all history organizations in the state would benefit if some of the recommendations were opened up to extended beyond the NPS itself. In future posts, I will explore in more detail what the Imperiled Promise report specifically recommended and provide some examples of what the NPS in New York actually is doing.

“The Year without Summer” (1816): When Republicans Recognized Climate Change Existed (SHEAR CONFERENCE)

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held its annual conference in New Haven from July 21-24. I was only able to attend the weekend sessions on the last two days. Below is my summary and comments on the second session I attended on Saturday, July 23.

“The Year without Summer” (1816) and Climate Change: Perspectives on the New Climate History from the Early Republic

Tambora

Mount Tambora Caldera, Sumbawa, Indonesia

(Jialiang Gao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sherry Johnson, Florida International University

Johnson spoke as a Latin American historian. Her initial investigation sought to uncover connections between the United States and the Caribbean involving the summer of 1816. She called that effort Plan A and found no documentation to support her first hypothesis. When hurricanes had increased in the 1770s, there were food shortages in the Caribbean. As a result, the Spanish authorities turned to Philadelphia to trade for food. The environment forced Spain to make this effort and she wondered about the political impact at that time. However, she found no evidence of crisis in food production in 1816 contra to the Plan B hypothesis. Turning to Plan C, she hypothesized that some areas reaped benefits from crises elsewhere. The Year without Summer ended up being a null event for the Caribbean as it was still able to obtain the food needed from the United States.

Sam White, Ohio State University

White spoke as an environmental historian. He began with the observation that climate history has not generated much traction yet. In the United States, geography departments carry less prestige than they do elsewhere in the world. The focus here tends to be on what people have done to the environment, more reflective of American values. The emphasis here is on human agency rather than on the environment in its own right. The wilderness legacy in American culture looms large in academic studies.

In addition to these more general comments, White did speak on a more technical basis on the environmental issues related to the Year without Summer but it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that aspect of his presentation. It was his general observations that he may have hoped would have a more volcanic impact on the scholarship paradigm. Whether his conference eruption will generate such a seismic shock remains to be seen.

Sean Munger, University of Oregon

Munger examined the more traditional elements one associates with historical scholarship – what effect did the wild weather have on the economy, psychology, and religion of America. He averred that people applied the science of astronomy as they it knew to bring order to the chaos that they experienced. The summer had a universal [meaning global] dimension to it in addition to the local impact that one could detect with one’s own senses.  He posited a dual-layered environmental view in response. At the local level, people dealt with the immediate issues of home, farm, and harvest. At the cosmic level, people looked skyward for answers to explain what was happening on earth. Astrology, theology, and science all were brought to bear.

As a result of the volcanic dust suspended in the air following the volcanic eruption, people gained a different view of the sun than in normal times. Sun spots became more visible. It wasn’t that the sunspots were a new phenomenon or that they had increased in number, but that people could see more of them now. One consequence was the newspaper coverage incorrectly attributing the weather change to the increased sunspots. Naturally, sooner or later, such cosmic changes led to the prediction that the world was coming to an end. Sure enough on July 8, 1816, an “astronomer” prophesized precisely such an event. I wondered if William Miller had been aware of such prophecies and if they contributed to his own more scientific calculation of when the world would come to an end.

John Brooke, Ohio State University (Presiding)

Brooke mentioned the comparatively recent explorations by Van Humboldt in South America and their impact on the grappling with the events of 1816. Through what theological framework could people make sense of what was happening? He reminded us that the War of 1812 had recently concluded and also had impacted American life.

Alan Taylor, University of Virginia (Commentator)

Taylor reiterated the points made about historians needing to place closer attention to climate in their studies, but he concluded that the Year without Summer was not a pivotal event in American history. There was a drive to systemize thinking at that time even if it is not convincing to us. People then [as now] seek to discern patterns to explain the world they are experiencing. Today, we are not as quick to attribute climate as an independent entity willfully impacting human life. Taylor recognized the internal discussion within the discipline on landscape acting on human history versus human agency. The latter preference is consistent with the American narrative of the power of people over nature.

I have a note that political events of the War of 1812 and post-Waterloo trumped the concern over climate change but I am not sure how much of that derived from Alan’s comments, my own thoughts, or both.

In the Q&A, the topic was raised of the challenge to integrate the information presented in the session to the traditional American narrative of human agency.

In looking back on this session and reading my notes, it occurs to me that the session, or at least the notes I took, may have veered off its original intention. I don’t know what was submitted to SHEAR [shouldn’t abstracts and session descriptions be posted on the SHEAR website?]. The initial paper by Johnson illustrated an historian at work at her craft, proposing an hypothesis, testing it, and then going back to the drawing board to try again.  But the tenor of the presentations, particularly what was of interest to me, addressed larger issues which go beyond the specific event of 1816. In hindsight it seems that some of the issues raised warrant their own sessions or discussions. Left unmentioned in the presentations was the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. How could any attempt to impose a pattern on the events in nature omit such a recent disturbance or combine both of them? These same years marked Methodism’s arrival as the leading religion in America. How did they interpret these events? In any event, the session stimulated additional thinking on my part so in that sense it was a successful one.

Heritage Tourism Lessons from Jurassic World

Jurassic World, the latest tourism movie, has broken box office records. It showcases the plight of executive directors of destination tourist sites in continually developing newer and more exciting exhibits to attract an increasingly bored public with limited attention span and which wants to be stimulated. The exhibits at Jurassic World are even more dangerous than Yul Bryner in Westworld and create an even more thrilling experience than our best American Revolution or Civil War reenactments.

Jurassic World’s operations manager is Claire Dearing. She is apparently is best-known for wearing high heels and managing to keep them on no matter the circumstances…including when running for her life!  She has been referred to as a “business suit-clad executive” who refers to the dinosaurs as “assets.” She also is said to “describe the parks in terms of revenue, not awe.” She “spends most of her time… hosting potential sponsors.” Any resemblance to actual managers of destination tourism sites is entirely coincidental.

Lessons of Jurassic World

What are the lessons of Jurassic World for the New York history community? Contrary to the Flintstones and Raquel Welch, dinosaurs are not part of human history. Mastodons  (not mammoths) however, are. As previously discussed in New York History, they were present in the Hudson Valley and discoveries of mastodon bones were events of great significance in colonial times and early American history.  Mastodons posed important theological questions and helped dispel the accusation of America being an inferior land because it did not have the large beasts of the Old World.

While their remains have been discovered throughout the state including on Broadway, many of these discoveries occurred in Orange County. Museum Village along Route 17 displays mastodon bones and skeletons. The County Historian, a rare full-time position, has a degree in anthropology with a focus on the Orange County mastodon discoveries of the early 19th century. While the efforts to resurrect mammoths (mastodons) is still in the infancy stage, we should not overlook the appeal of mastodons, and their history, in tourism and education.

Another important lesson we can draw from Jurassic World is the importance of the blockbuster. This type of movie is distinctly different from the run-of-the-mill release. We are all familiar with museums launching blockbuster exhibits. The famous King Tut exhibit is perhaps the most well-known. A few years ago the New-York Historical Society had a blockbuster exhibit on Alexander Hamilton,an individual currently boffo Off-Broadway, soon to be on Broadway (I am attending the opening July 13 as will many members of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society), and now in the news for the wrong reasons.

In the Hudson Valley one of the biggest blockbusters has become Halloween. This is not the holiday of my childhood, but holidays are assets which can be leveraged into annual revenue streams. Consider this headline from last October:

Cashing in on Halloween: Holiday brings in tourists, money.

Historic Hudson Valley has made a decision to minimize its focus on traditional family weekend tourism and instead go all-out for blockbuster experiences. This means performances of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at Halloween and “A Christmas Carol” at Christmas by Hudson Valley storyteller Jonathan Kruk and other events like Pirates of the Hudson (due to Johnny Depp) and Pinkster which has an historical basis.

The numbers speak for themselves. The visitors for these programs are over 100,000. The estimated average expenditure is $92 per person on dining, shopping, and lodging in addition to the ticket prices for the events. Rob Schweitzer, director of marketing for Historic Hudson Valley, estimates that one-third of the visitors stay overnight and make a long weekend of the visit. In other words, these events generate revenue – including tax revenue just as the Past through History is supposed to do.

Another lesson from Jurassic World is that size matters. Right now New York is undertaking the largest construction project in America: the new Tappan Zee Bridge. This massive project involves monstrous-size equipment and a daily chronicle of events. It even has a name: the Left Coast Lifter.  It also has a nickname: I Lift N.Y. Recently the Historical Society of Rockland County held a second boat tour on the River Rose, a Mississippi paddle wheeler, which included 125 people, many of who were shut out of the last tour. A local front-page newspaper headline read “TZB Tourists See History in the Making.”

Think about the wasted opportunity here by Rockland, by Westchester County which could have cruises from the Tarrytown side of the bridge, and by I Love NY to see I Lift N.Y. Imagine morning and afternoon tours and a sunset cruise during the summer. That is a potential for over 10,000 people month on the River Rose who besides paying the cost of the cruise may do other things while in Westchester, Rockland, or both. How difficult would it be to create a weekend program that included a cruise to see the biggest erector set in America, visit nearby historic sites, and have a meal on a scenic river boat or in the historic Old ‘76 House? Food, lodging, shopping, revenue, tax revenue. Let’s take advantage of the tourist opportunities which are staring us in the face.

One final lesson from Jurassic World is storytelling. Steven Spielberg has made a fortune by being a great storyteller and historic sites also have great stories to tell. They may be primarily for local consumption, like the stories families tell on Thanksgiving or other family occasions. These are the stories of community heritage which should be celebrated as part of the social fabric by the members of a local community. There are also are stories of state, national, and global significance which can be told as well.

The history community needs to become better storytellers, to use its site as a stage, to invite the audience to become part of the experience. Jurassic World is an artificial reality of special effects; we have the real world with real objects that can be touched and places that can be visited. Let’s perform our stories. Let’s tell our histories. Let’s bring the past to life our way.

Memories of the Way We Were and Are

Long time readers of my posts may recall the importance of Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl.” Her explanation of how she originated the idea for the corporate merger is a classic expression of the serendipity of the unexpected juxtaposition leading to thinking.

The eureka moment occurs not when one expects it but when things click in one’s mind. That’s why I enjoy thumbing through a newspaper rather than simply extracting predetermined information from the web – you never know what connections will be made…nor do the editors of the newspaper who are examining each article in isolation. Continue reading “Memories of the Way We Were and Are”

Bring Back the Mastodons!

It is time for New York State to boldly go where no state has gone before and go back to the future to resurrect the now extinct mastodon. The effort to bring the mammoth back from extinction recently was the cover article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Russia and Japan are working to create mammoths. New York should not be left behind in the de-extinction race. I hereby challenge Governor Cuomo to launch a new “Manhattan Project” so we are the first to bring the paleolithic era to life through the creation of Mastodon Park, our own Ice Age animal, the mastodon. Continue reading “Bring Back the Mastodons!”

Size Matters: New York’s Mastodons

Tectonic forces and global cooling and warming set the stage for the dawn of New York State history. The stage was not a barren one and long before King Kong climbed the Empire State Building that scrapped the sky, giants walked the ground that would become the Empire State. These giants would be called “mastodons” and they became important in religion and nationalism in ways that before their discovery no one could have imagined.

The story of mastodons and New York begins in 1705 in Claverack, Columbia County. A Dutch tenant farmer picked up a five-pound tooth that had rolled down a hill and landed at his feet. Being a sensible sort of person, he naturally traded the tooth to a politician for a glass of rum. The tooth thereupon made its way up the political food chain until it arrived in London. Continue reading “Size Matters: New York’s Mastodons”

The History of New York In 4,000 Words?

With my 100th post to The New York History Blog, I embark on a new venture. I have been asked to write a 4,000-word history of New York. That is a lot of history to cover in very few words. I am not sure if it is even possible…at least for me. I have decided to divide the subject into a series of topics and to post these shorter pieces to New York History.

Unfortunately the number of topics seems to mushroom so it is not quite as simple as writing seven 500-word posts. I expect when all is done is to have vastly exceeded my assigned allotment and to require substantial pruning if not outright dismemberment. Continue reading “The History of New York In 4,000 Words?”

Another Storm of the Century: What Are Your Historical Responsibilities?

New York has been hit with another storm of the century (8 days, 2 hours, 25 minutes without power for me). I have lived through so many storms of the century that I must be challenging Methuselah for the longest-lived human being. Maybe it is time for the phrase “storm of the century” to be bid a not-so-fond farewell to be replaced by something more appropriate if less grandiose, like “storm of the year”! Continue reading “Another Storm of the Century: What Are Your Historical Responsibilities?”