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The 250th Anniversary: A Commonwealth of Virginia Case Study

On January 30, 2021, the Virginia Consortium of Early Americanists held their seventh annual conference. I had never attended one before. I do receive the notices of the event and other history-related conferences in Virginia. While many of them seem interesting there is a cost factor in time and money given the other conferences I attend. The last conference I attended in person was in March in Manhattan. My travel expenses since then have been zero. In addition, I have had the opportunity to attend multiple conferences and talks that I otherwise would not have attended if they hadn’t been online and often free. For that matter, some of them never would have been held in the first place save for the online nature of the event. For the host organization, there are comparatively limited scheduling issues now and no travel or food expense either.

Of course, by now, many people are zoomed out. The explosion of such events can become even more time consuming. Still there is the opportunity to pick and choose including walking away from the computer when enough is enough.

With this background in mind, I turn to the session in Virginia that did grab my attention:

Keynote: A Conversation with Fran Bradford, Deputy Secretary of Education for the
Commonwealth of Virginia about Virginia’s 250th Commemoration of American Independence

During this time of America’s Third Civil War, the challenges of the 250th commemoration (celebration) of the birthday of the country have not yet been fully realized. The presentation by the Commonwealth of Virginia provided an opportunity to address multiple facets of these challenges from a logistical, organizational, and ideological perspective.

First, the speaker was from the state government and appears to have a significant position. I don’t know how many “Deputy Secretary” positions there are, but it sounds like an important job title. By comparison in New York, the Deputy Commissioner of Education has not participated in any of the 250th anniversary meetings I have attended so far. True, I don’t know what has happened behind the scenes. So far at least, the public face of the 250th has been the State Historian. No disrespect Devin, but the positions are not comparable.


Second, during Bradford’s presentation, she mentioned some private history organizations in Virginia. These are the heavy hitters. They are the organizations with the movers and shakers on their boards, the connections to the state government, and who can generate funding. In the Q&A portion, the topic was raised about the smaller organizations that do not have the full-time staff, expertise, and access even to know about the various funding opportunities and assistance available or how to apply for them. Bradford made a note to bring the subject at the next meeting.

Every state has its own story to tell. In this regard, the situation in New York State is dire, has been for years, and shows no meaningful signs of improvement. The topic has been the subject of multiple blogs particularly related to the defunct New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) leaving the state without a statewide history advocacy organization:

History Professors Protest for Local and State History (November 26, 2017)

NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post (November 30, 2017)

The NYSHA Saga Continues: Gone but Not Forgotten (December 7, 2017)

Save the History Community: Clone Erika Sanger (December 18, 2017)

The Battle over New York State and Local History Gets Ugly (January 19, 2018)

Create the New York Association for State and Local History (NYASLH) (February 1, 2019).

Despite the efforts of such heavyweights as Ken Jackson and the New York Academy, there has been no real change in the situation in New York. The Museum Association of New York (MANY) led by the aforementioned Erika Sanger has tried to fill some of the void but the organization’s mandate is museums which is not exactly the same thing as history. In Westchester County where I live, a private group has created a non-profit 501(c)3 organization led by Connie Kehoe, the Deputy Mayor of Irvington. Still there is a long way to go.

In Massachusetts, I have seen the Massachusetts Historical Society take a leadership position for that state. The Massachusetts History Alliance has been trying to become a statewide advocacy organization for the history community. I was invited to speak to them in one of their online programs on this topic

Obviously this past year has not been a good one for lobbying for new state funding.

However, once the Federal government gets involved with actual funding and leadership, it will operate through state organizations. Therefore it is absolutely essential for states to begin preparing the 250th anniversary infrastructure if it wants federal assistance.



Third, another topic raised by Bradford in her presentation was anniversary burnout. Virginia has already had a couple of quadricentennials this century and possibly other anniversaries as well. Sometimes anniversaries can involve the same sites that are just recovering from the last anniversary.

Consider the situation in New York:

2024 Bicentennial of the return of Lafayette who toured the state
2024 Centennial of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation which owns historic sites throughout the state
2025 Bicentennial of the Erie Canal with the celebration of the construction already underway
2026 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with the anniversary of Revolution events already underway and events to continue until 2033
2027 Bicentennial of the end of slavery.

In addition there is one important national anniversary which has received no attention or very little:

2024 Centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

Other states may have their own anniversaries they wish to celebrate during the 2020s.

Which do you think is most likely to happen for these multiple anniversaries?

Each one will be treated on an ad-hoc piecemeal reinvent the wheel basis or a coherent, comprehensive, well-thought out approach will be developed with state leadership encompassing all the anniversaries?

I am trying not to laugh as I type these words because we all know what is going to happen.


A fourth issue mentioned by Bradford is tourism. Apparently that topic has been an important in the private discussions held so far. Certainly the Jamestown Quadricentennial was a major tourist event. Given the various American Revolution sites in Virginia, the Commonwealth is right to have big expectations here.

State tourist departments ae not necessarily experts in national and state history. They rely on the history community to identity the locations, events, people, and topics related to a particular anniversary. Individual history organizations do not necessarily have the expertise or time to develop regional, state, or multi-state paths through history.

Consider the situation in New York.

I live in Westchester County. There are American Revolution events which occurred here.

The most famous event in the County perhaps is the capture of John André in Tarrytown. The capture involves West Point in Orange County, André’s fleeing through Putnam and Westchester Counties, his being taken across the Hudson River to Tappan in Rockland County where he was imprisoned (in a restaurant) and hanged (not in the restaurant or in an open field as portrayed in the TV series Turn). An André program then requires four counties to collaborate.

Speaking of André, what about Arnold? He was involved in multiple states and two (three) countries. No one county, state, or even country can do full service to his story.

How about Rochambeau? Imagine programs linking New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Virginia. Or re-enacting John Adams riding by horse from Massachusetts to Philadelphia? Or cannons being brought from Fort Ticonderoga to Massachusetts?

I mention these examples simply to show the need for cooperation and collaboration at multiple levels needed for a successful anniversary. Here is where federal planning would be most useful. Otherwise we may end up simply with fireworks on July 4, 2026, in Philadelphia and uncoordinated events if states simply act on their own.


The final item in the presentation was the one I brought up in the Q&A. If you are a regular reader of my blogs then it should be no surprise that I asked about education. Specifically, I brought up teacher training programs and curriculum. Bradford certainly is aware of these topics but it is too early in the planning process to address them. As a Deputy in the Education Department, she certainly is in the right position to play a leadership role in these areas.

The education situation in New York is more problematic.

Did You Know that There Was a Regents Museum Advisory Council? (November 9, 2017).


I close this blog with the one item not addressed in the presentation. As we were meeting online, the Woke San Francisco school board decided to remove the name of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among others from its school buildings. Presumably the curriculum will reflect the demoted status as well. The American Revolution discussion now has moved beyond the simple choice of using the word “celebration” versus “commemorate” as a way to further divide the country. It is becoming whether July 4 should be a day of mourning, that we would be better off without people like Washington in the first place, and that we should have remained British colonies rather than be led by these racist slave-owners. But that is a topic for another blog.

NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post

New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown

In a previous post, I reported on a petition initiated by the New York Academy of History in support of local and state history.  Much of the details of the letter were against recent actions of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA). That organization has undergone some changes in 2017 as reported in New York History Blog by editor John Warren and columnist/advocate Bruce Dearstyne.

My post also led to a response by Paul S. D’Ambrosio, President & CEO, Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum aka NYSHA. He sent me an email asking if I would publish it. I agreed to do so and he then sent a second draft which is published below.

This is in response to the recent blog post by Peter Feinman entitled “History Professors Protest for State and Local History.” The post was unfortunately misinformed and inaccurate, and it is regrettable that no one from Fenimore Art Museum (the “Museum”), formerly known as the New York State Historical Association, was approached for comment prior to its publication. Accordingly, I write to you now to correct the record and provide an accurate description the Museum’s current and future activities. 

Most crucially, the notions that NYSHA is “defunct” or “ceases to exist,” or that any of its programs are “at risk,” could not be more incorrect. The organization formerly known as NYSHA has simply changed its name (formally adopting the name that it has legally used as a “d/b/a” for many years), while continuing to carry on a wide range of activities promoting an appreciation of art, history, and culture. The Museum thus has been, and remains, a private, non-profit organization chartered under the New York State Education Law and recognized by the IRS as exempt from taxation under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). Indeed, the Museum’s status as such was re-affirmed by the IRS on October 17, 2017 in response to a submission including the Museum’s amended charter.  

The charter amendments were driven by the Museum’s desire to reflect the broad range of its long-standing activities, to avoid the misconception that it was a state agency, and to correct the ongoing confusion with the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. The Museum also desired to address the fact that its collections have never been limited to New York State and, in fact, our important art collections, including our American Folk Art and American Indian Art, have been national in scope for decades. The charter amendments thus allow the Museum to present an institutional identity to the public that fully reflects its collections and the experience it offers.

Most important to the concerns in Mr. Feinman’s blog post is what the charter amendments did not change – the scope or quality of our educational programming. We still host more than 7,000 school children each year in organized tours on a range of historical and artistic topics.  We continue to operate our Research Library, a vital resource for the region with more than 100,000 volumes and a large collection of unique original manuscripts. The Library continues to be staffed by professional librarians as it has been for many years. We continue to serve New York as the statewide coordinator of National History Day, a competitive program that reaches more than 10,000 students throughout the state. We maintain a close partnership with The Farmers’ Museum, a living history museum dedicated to promoting an understanding of the rural and agricultural history of New York. We share most of our professional staff with this prominent history museum. Please know as well that we are committed to ensuring the continued publication of the journal New York History, and that its future is not in jeopardy. Finally, of course, we bring world-class art exhibitions to New York State every year, including artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Ansel Adams, and (upcoming in 2018) Thomas Cole.

In short, our museum campus continues to thrive as Fenimore Art Museum, and we maintain the same reverence for our state’s rich past as we always have. We are firmly committed to providing cultural enrichment and a better quality of life for New Yorkers, and critical educational opportunities for the youth of the state.

I would be happy to answer any questions anyone may have about Fenimore Art Museum and its range of activities. Please feel free to contact me directly at or call me at 607-547-1413 if would like to discuss this matter further. Thank you for your attention and interest.


Paul S. D’Ambrosio
President & CEO
Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers’ Museum

His response reflects the dual nature of the Cooperstown organization. On the one hand, there is a museum, actually two museums. I have been to both museums as part of Teacherhostels/Historyhostels and attending conferences. Those conferences have been both a local one for social studies teachers (which I believe have been discontinued or at least I stopped getting notices about them) and state ones such as for the New York State History Conference which NYSHA helped run.  The museum part of the operation of the organization is not defunct. It continues to function as a museum and my post was not directed towards this aspect of its identity.

The second part refers to its statewide identity and function. In previous posts I have written about the need for the history community to organiza and advocate. I confess when I wrote these various posts, the name that came to me as the perfect vehicle to express what I wanted was the New York State Historical Association. Here is where I have a problem with NYSHA. It is partially addressed in the letter from Ken Jackson that initiated this sequence and not really addressed in the respose by Paul D’Ambrosio. The true issue is not the functioning of the museum but the absence of any leadership position as a statewide advocacy group for history.

At the end of my post, I suggested the following actions be taken:

Let’s pick three days to advocate on behalf of state and local history during the 2018 legislative session:

1. a day when the legislature is not in session and advocacy can be done locally (such as a Friday)
2. a day when the legislature is in session (such as a Tuesday or Wednesday)
3. a day when the Regents is in session (monthly meetings).

We need to become a squeaky wheel.

Notice what Paul D’Ambrosio’s response in his post was to my suggestions  – there is none whatsoever. In my email to him, I even asked what he thought of my suggestions. In other words, I gave him the opportunity to revise his own response to include an endorsement or recommendations of his own on behalf of state advocacy for history. His email response to me is private but clearly his published response does not address the deeper concerns I raised. One should note that he once was a member of the Regents  Advisory Council on Museums reported on in post dated November 9, 2017 so he has been involved at the state level. What lessons can he share from that experience as part of an advisory council that nobody outside a small circle even knows exists?

Over the past few years, I have participated in advocacy days for tourism and state parks. Both of these days are organized by private organizations with full-time staff  who have the mission of having a statewide perspective. They are not trapped in the day-to-day necessities of running a museum, park, or hotel. Their job is to monitor the events in the state capital as they relate to their respective sectors and to be on top of developments. Obviously teachers and libraries also pack a wallop along with numerous other sectors like preservation.

History and museums have no such state voice. Yes, MANY exists and with a lobbyist but it is a small staff and I am not sure it has the resources to create a Musem Advocacy Day (MAD) in New York. MANY is not a purely history organization either since its mandate includes art museums, science museums, zoos, and acquariums. And the 600-pound history gorillas in New York City tend to do their own thing without consideration for a state leadership role. There are more fulltime people at the New-York Historical Society building than in just about any individual county in the state. It operates in a separate world from the history museums and societies in the towns and villages throughout the state …. or even their equivalent organizations in the neighborhoods of the city.

NYSHA should be the history organization that galvanizes the history community. It isn’t and it is not going to be. So what do we do instead? Perhaps being squeaky as I suggested in the earlier post isn’t enough. We need to get MAD!

Peter Finch in Network

And just as was about to post this blog to the IHARE website, look what I received.

November 29, 2017

Dear Friends, Members, and Supporters,

I’m pleased to share the news that I have been invited to testify on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Development’s Annual Budget Oversight Hearing of the 2017-2018 State Budget. The purpose of this hearing will be to review the impact and effectiveness of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grants awarded throughout the State and arts projects funded by NYSCA.

I would like to include information from as many members of New York State’s museum field as possible in my remarks. This is a link to a survey that will take less than 5 minutes of your time to complete. Please click the link above and submit your answers before Friday, December 1 at 5 PM when the survey will close.

The information gathered will be shared with the Committee next Tuesday and with you later next week. Please feel free to forward this email to colleagues.

Unless you choose otherwise, I will aggregate and reported responses anonymously.

Thank you for sharing your information and helping me to prepare my testimony.

Erika Sanger
Executive Director
Museum Association of New York

History Community Coordination: An Update

Readers of The New York History Blog may recall that in a previous post I asked if anyone had heard about what had been discussed in Cooperstown at the NYSHA conference in a private meeting involving the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS), the New York State historical Association (NYSHA), and the New York State Historian among others.

Some of those discussions have now been reported in the APHNYS newsletter. The following excerpts are from the newsletter. Continue reading “History Community Coordination: An Update”

What Can New York Learn from Connecticut?

New York is not the only state turning to cultural heritage tourism or seeking to develop its historic community. Let’s look at our neighbor to the east and see what lessons we might learn from them.

Note – this post contains five items on what Connecticut is doing and four recommendations on what New York should do so it is too long to read on a computer at work in one sitting. Continue reading “What Can New York Learn from Connecticut?”