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Who Advocates in Your State for State and Local History?: The Massachusetts History Alliance Experience

The Massachusetts History Alliance has no logo so I am using this map. Atlas Of Massachusetts. Compiled Under The Direction Of O.W. Walker, C.E. Assistance rendered by more than One Hundred prominent Civil Engineers and Surveyors, referred to on Page 3. Published By Geo. H. Walker & Co. 160 Tremont St. Boston, Mass. Copyright 1891, by Geo. H. Walker & Co., Boston. (in fountain ink) 1891

On June 4, 2018, I attended the annual Massachusetts History Conference. The conference was held at Holy Cross. The University of Massachusetts was a supporter through its Amherst Program in Public History, Boston Public History and Archives Tracks and the Joseph P. Healey Library. Mass Humanities, Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board, Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area, and a vendor also were supporters.

I mention these supporters to highlight the diversity or support required to promote state and local history. The exact counterparts may vary in each state but the overall message is clear. Depending on the state, one needs to reach out to the academic institutions, NPS and state historic sites, non-profit historical organizations. I note by chance there were three teachers from the same school at my table at breakfast and they may have been the only ones in attendance. As you might expect they had a lot to say in the session about the proposed k-12 history curriculum framework changes. I recognize the need for conferences devoted to a single aspect of the history, but at some point there needs to be an entity surveying all the constituencies of the history community.

I did not attend the conference because of a great love for Massachusetts since everyone knows New York is the center of the universe! I attended because for the second year in row, the event was hosted by the Massachusetts History Alliance. This new and still-forming group drew my attention as it had last year because of its mission: to advocate on behalf of state and local history.

Let me begin with an historical overview. For my report on the Massachusetts History Conference on June 12, 2017, see The New York History Alliance In that blog, I noted the creation of the Massachusetts History Alliance on November 16, 2016, at a meeting held at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

You may wonder why I entitled a blog about the Massachusetts History Alliance The New York History Alliance. The choice of that title was due to complete collapse of any organization in New York State even pretending to advocate on behalf of the state history community. For some more history on this disastrous situation in the state, I refer to you to a series of blogs on the developments in 2017.

History Professors Protest for Local and State History

NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post

The NYSHA Saga Continues: Gone but Not Forgotten

The Battle over New York State and Local History Gets Ugly

Create the New York Association for State and Local History (NYASLH)

Since then nothing has happened. As of the writing of this blog there is no advocacy for state and local history by a statewide organization in New York and no prospects for one. The major area of exception is in historic preservation where there are three organizations: one based in Albany, one in western New York, and one in New York City.

With this background in mind, let’s turn to the actions of the Massachusetts History Alliance. In the conference packet, the Mass History Alliance, as it is referred to, declared the following:

Despite rumors that history is dead, the public history field is robust. Increasingly, history is part of the conversation in towns and platforms across the state. Rich visual and other media materials engage millions of people in historical narrative and analysis. That doesn’t mean that enough individuals are engaged in history. To the contrary, the current state of the public conversation shows that there’s a lot of room for our work.  A great motivator!

The second paragraph addresses one immediate concern:

The state of public funding for things historical is still pitiful, and we need to do a lot of work there also. This year the Massachusetts History Alliance started its advocacy work with a focus on the health of the Community Preservation Fund [CPA], which is a great source of funding for many of us. There’s a session to learn first-hand about the CPA and how it works for historical organizations in a few different towns, if you want to find out more.

The two takeaways from this paragraph are:

1. Start advocating by building on an existing program with which legislators already are familiar
2. Provide a training session(s) to the history community on how to use the existing program.

Certainly these are reasonable goals and actions.

Now let’s turn to the actual sessions at the conference directly related to these objectives.

The first one, right after the morning plenary address was an Open Meeting and Information Session of the Mass History Alliance.

Join the board and committees of the Mass History Alliance in an open conversation about current topics. Here’s your chance to ask questions and put in your two cents. Topics: advocacy, the new website, the upcoming board election, next year’s conference, current issues. All are welcome.

I attended this session to learn about what is going on. The first item was that all the people who had volunteered so far to make the organization work had terms expiring July 16, 2018. As a result new board members were needed.

One issue of course was funding, funding not for the organization but for the annual history conference itself. Whether current funders would continue to provide funding for the 2019 conference and if so in what amounts was an area of concern.

A second issue was to identify the “asks.” In other words, to advocate for what? To ask legislators and government officials for what? The Alliance needs to identify what legislative bills are in its own interest, to create its own list of asks, and to identify supporters in the legislature.

While this general discussion was useful, it left open the specifics of how and by whom this is to be accomplished. As noted in my blogs on the dismal state of state history in New York, there are advocacy days in the state capital for various sectors of the state but none for history. Advocacy Day means meeting with targeted legislators with specific asks and not to wax poetic about the importance of history to the social fabric or as an academic discipline. My sense is that the Mass History Alliance still has its work cut out for it.

A second related session was about the aforementioned CPA.


Community preservation includes history. The session will feature a first-hand discussion of a variety of historical preservation, records inventory and preservation, and historical assessment projects funded though the Community Preservation Act across the Commonwealth. Learn more about the Act and how it works, and how it plays out in real life. Hosted by the Mass History Alliance Advocacy Committee.

Communities have to opt into participating in the program. About half of the Massachusetts communities have done so. The program covers affordable housing, open space, and recreation projects so it is not a solely history funding source. During this sessions, people from two historical societies presented on their successful funding requests. Obviously the detail of such history funding varies from state to state. Clearly this type of funding is needed in each state as is the familiarizing of the history community with it. The larger issue for the history alliance is the amount of funding.

The third related session was devoted to the alphabet soup of history-related funding organizations in the state. The acronyms are unique to Massachusetts but as with CPA, it is useful to try to determine what if any are counterparts in each state and the levels of funding. The session was:


In a roundtable, representatives of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), the State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB), and Mass Humanities (MH) will briefly present grant programs that are particularly interesting for historical organizations, followed by a short discussion. Come and get some brochures and get your questions answered. Links to their grant programs can be found on the conference site.

As an outsider unfamiliar with these organizations, some of the discussion was difficult to follow when it revolved around well-known local acronyms. Two observations are, yes, the amounts granted to applicants were small and the aggregate available to each state-wide granting organization also seemed small. It also made me wonder about

1. funding for capital expenditures (MHC has a Preservation Projects Fund where development project funding grants up to $100,000 are available with a total statewide budget of $780,000)
2. funding for collaborative efforts either within one of the regions in the state or thematically throughout the state
3. funding programs for the non-small historical organizations.

Again as an outsider with knowing the lay of land, I may be overlooking what everybody else at the conference knows.

In the President’s report for the July annual meeting issued subsequent to the conference and available on the Mass History Alliance website as a PDF, Pleun Bouricius wrote:

The Mass History Alliance reports a first year in which we became an “official” organization and made some gains. We ran a small advocacy campaign for the

Community Preservation Act, pulled off a fantastic Mass History Conference, and grew to almost double in size. We did however, also suffer from low participation in committee work. Most of the work that was done, was done by very few people. If we are to survive and thrive the coming year and beyond, we need to step up our game considerably in strategic development, communications, regional work, advocacy, fundraising, and the development of our website. All of this needs to be done by a network of volunteers. The more active participants we have, the more readily we can make it happen. I am confident that this year, after our first election, we will solidify ourselves into a functioning organization and start making a difference.

Volunteers are important but there is something to be said for having a full-time executive director and a lobbyist on retainer.

One item in particular stands out in the presidential report:

8) (This directly from the advocacy committee which is active and has gone through a process of deciding what advocacy looks like in the first instance) A local History Advocacy Day will have been held (likely in February, 2018) and plans are under way for further activities and a day for 2019.

This point was elaborated on in the annual report.

8) The Advocacy Committee was active during the first part of the year, and held meetings to determine strategy and plans. The committee determined that advocacy includes collaborative and networked advocacy to the public, towns, regions, and the legislature. i.e. the MHA sets up opportunities and campaigns for people and organizations to participate in. Given limited resources and being new to the game, the committee decided the best strategy in the short term would be to a) meet legislators and b) advocate and encourage advocacy in the field for state legislation already proposed or in existence.

 In the first instance, that was support for the Community Preservation Act. Members of the committee spoke with the Community Preservation Coalition and devised and implemented an advocacy plan that resulted in postcards being sent by the Pioneer Valley History Network members. Members of the committee spoke with Senator Eric Lesser about the act and also about funding for the Preservation Grants for Veterans Collections, Monuments and Memorials, which has run through the State Historical Records Advisory Board. Members of the committee also spoke at length with members of the staff at the Massachusetts cultural Council, learning more about the MCC’s grants that might be open to small organizations, and advocating for readily accessible funds to keep the doors open for tiny archives and museums.

For me this is the heart and soul of the alliance. Yes there are issues about bylaws, 501(c)3, membership, and funding but for what purpose? To fulfill the actions indicated in item #8 starting by advocating on existing legislation.

In the months to come, it will be vitally important to track the successes and failure in this advocacy effort. In the meantime, it would be useful to know if any states have successful state-wide history advocacy groups.

Create the New York Association for State and Local History (NYASLH)

A Map of the History of New York State by Alexander C. Flick & Paul M. Paine (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

The time has come to create the New York Association for State and Local History (NYASLH). There is a void, an absence of leadership in the state history community. There is no one to speak on behalf of the community at the statewide level. Many people work quite hard and often for no money on behalf of a beloved local historical organization, to remember a person, to commemorate an event. These people are the unsung heroes of the state history community but their dedication, their devotion, and their commitment are not enough. There is a need for leadership at the state level and none exists.

The name for the proposed organization is a direct borrowing from an existing national organization. This borrowing should not be construed as suggesting that American Association for State and Local History is officially connected to this effort or is working to build support for creating an NYASLH.

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) is a national association that provides leadership and support for its members who preserve and interpret state and local history in order to make the past more meaningful to all people.

In 1904, the American Historical Association, itself a fledgling professional body, established the semi-autonomous Conference of State and Local Historical Societies to serve the leaders of those agencies. In 1939, a group of Conference members discussed and then proposed the creation of an independent entity. Its job would be to better coordinate the activities of historical societies and stimulate the writing and teaching of state and local history in North America.

On December 27, 1940, the Conference of State and Local History met and disbanded itself. Then the American Association for State and Local History was born. Its first charter stated that AASLH’s purpose was, simply, “the promotion of effort and activity in the fields of state, provincial, and local history in the United States and Canada.”

Now, the AASLH is providing services and assistance to over 5,500 institutional and individual members, as well as leadership for history and history organizations nationally. It is the only comprehensive national organization dedicated to state and local history.

The functions of the organization are fourfold.

1. Advocacy – AASLH knows it is important for all public officials (local, state, and national) to know about the vital work historical organizations do to educate the general public—the constituents of public officials—about your work and its role in a democratic and civil society, making citizens more thoughtful about the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions. Advocacy and lobbying are also important leadership services provided by AASLH. AASLH sponsors, advocates, and lobbies on behalf of state and local history at the national level through strategic partnerships with several organizations.
2. Leadership: We create and run high quality continuing education programs for individuals and organizations, including the first-ever national standards program for small and medium history organizations (StEPs).
3. Community: We facilitate networking and discussion both in person at our Annual Meeting and on-site workshops as well as online through our website, Online Conference, and Affinity Groups.

The organization does not have local or state chapters so there is an opportunity for New York to be the first. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to make the existing one work for us. NYSHA could have done this job but it didn’t.

In a previous blog, I posted an email I had received from Terry Abrams, the Administrative Coordinator for the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies (WNYAHA), on the subject of the Yorkers and his own experiences with it.

In a second email, Terry described his experiences as an adult and his observations about what New York is not doing compared to other states.

As a member of the Field Services Alliance (FSA), an affinity group of AASLH, I have had the opportunity to work with others doing the same type of work I do. One of the significant differences between NY and other states, is the absence of a local history program in a state historical society

There is a simple explanation for the absence of a local history program in a state historical society – THERE IS NO STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. There is the Connecticut Historical Society. There is the Massachusetts Historical Society. And yes there is The Rhode Island Historical Society. There is a New York State government museum in Albany. There is the New-York Historical Society in New York City. And there was a New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown with two museums. But the sad reality is that there is no history organization in New York State functioning in a leadership role.

Terry then noted his experiences with state organizations elsewhere.

If you look at Minnesota’s Historical Society, the Ohio History Connection, and the Indiana Historical Society among others, you can see that all of these states, which geographically, are smaller or equivalent to NY, and population-wise are smaller; all are much more active in promoting and serving local history. 

Just one example, the Indiana Historical Society’s Local History Services department has four full-time people for a state that is just over 36,000 square miles, (ranked 38th), and has a population of a little over 6 million (ranked 17th). Compare that with NY, with just over 54,000 square miles (ranked 27th) and a population just under 20 million (ranked 4th). [information gathered from Wikipedia, for what it’s worth.] 

Indiana Historical Society’s Local History Services department is larger than MANY, WNYAHA and GHHN combined. Keep in mind, also that MANY’s mission is to serve all museums, not just historical agencies. 

I had the opportunity to host the spring training meeting of the FSA this year [2017] at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Historic Site. 17 members from across the country came and shared information about what we are doing, and discussed important developments in our field. Erika Sanger came and spoke about the Museum Education Act, and the work MANY has been doing providing information about Common Core to museum educators, and others. We also had a presentation from Dr. Patrick Ravines, director of the Buffalo State Art Conservation Program.

To get a better sense of what Field Service professionals do, click on “core documents.” You can go through and find almost all you need to know about field services. (The information on the listing of field service providers is slightly out of date). I believe this is what is primarily lacking in the history community of NY. 

In this example, Terry points out the obvious fact that New York is one of fifty states. Therefore it becomes possible to benchmark the performance here against other states. It would be good to attend a best practices session or some other session at a national conference devoted to what the states are doing. While New York loves to brag about being the only state to require municipal historians, an unenforced and unfunded law, it is forced to hang its head in shame for the void in leadership of the state history community, especially compared to what used to exist.

An editorial in the Lake George Mirror  highlights what once was.

Lake George residents have a special interest in the former Association, in part because it was founded on Lake George in 1899, met annually at the Fort William Henry Hotel and counted residents like John Boulton Simpson among its first trustees. It also had its first permanent headquarters in Ticonderoga’s Hancock House, built specifically for that purpose by Horace A. Moses in 1926.

Of greater importance, without the New York State Historical Association, there would be little of Fort George or the Lake George Battlefield left today. New York State had begun to acquire the parcels that comprise the parks in the 1890s, but had little idea of what could or should be done with them.

The Historical Association stepped in and assumed responsibility for maintaining the sites.

Under the association’s auspices, the stone bastion was rebuilt and the bronze statues honoring Sir William Johnson and King Hendrick, Isaac Jogues and the Native Americans were installed.

The association assumed responsibility not only for protecting the sites but promoting them, as a 1930 editorial in the Lake George Mirror acknowledged. “An officer of the New York State Historical Association told the Mirror editor a few days ago that something could be done at Fort George Park if the people of this section would only ask for it,” editor Art Knight wrote.

By “something,” the officer and Knight meant a reconstructed fort and a museum to house artifacts similar to that of Fort Ticonderoga’s, which was already attracting 80,000 visitors a year.

The plight of New York state history has been a constant source of anguish. Bruce Dearstyne, formerly of the Office of State Historian, in a post for New York History Blog, wrote about the history of NYSHA and identified its five goals:

1. To promote and encourage original historical research.
2. To disseminate a greater knowledge of the early history of the State by means of lectures, and the publication and distribution of literature on historical subjects.
3. To gather books, manuscripts, pictures and relics relating to the early history of the State, and to establish a museum at Caldwell, Lake George, for their preservation.
4. To suitably mark places of historical interest.
5. To acquire by purchase, gift, device, or otherwise, the title to, or custody and control of, historic spots and places.

He also mentioned one key ingredient to making the organization work – money.

Benefactors are highly desirable and important. Horace Moses, a wealthy owner of paper mills, provided NYSHA’s first headquarters in Ticonderoga. The Clark family, beginning with Steven Clark and continuing to his granddaughter Jane Forbes Clark, provided substantial resources for NYSHA. But this also means that the organization needs to be attuned to their interests and priorities.

Perhaps instead of in Cooperstown, the proposed NYASLH should be headquartered where the action is. The New-York Historical Society is over two centuries old and began as museum of the world (including possessing Egyptian artifacts and I don’t mean from Cairo, New York). The New-York Historical Society also houses the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. And even though Lewis Lehrman was a candidate for governor of New York, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has no particular interest New York State history. Its purview is American history. Manhattan is the center of the universe so its taking a leadership role in the state is not going to happen.

Our capital, of course, is not in New York City. There are many groups located in Albany or nearby advocating on behalf of a state wide constituency. I expect to attend two such advocacy days in March. There is none for history. Perhaps the Albany Institute of History and Art founded in 1791 could fill this void or agree to house a new non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for New York State history. Maybe somewhere else could. Does anyone have any ideas? Does anyone have any money?

The Battle over New York State and Local History Gets Ugly

The new legislative season is upon us. That means it is time to start lobbying. What are the history community “asks”? What is it the history community would like to see happen? For the museums the answer is clear. There is a Museum Education Act. Erika Sanger, Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York (MANY) has been keeping the museum community, which includes history museums, apprised of the political situation as the bill winds its way through the legislative process.

Other sectors of the state also are advancing their “asks.”  March 5th is Park Advocacy Day. On that day, people from around the state will meet in Albany under the auspices of Parks & Trails NY in partnership with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) to lobby legislators on specific legislation, mainly the budget.  March 12th is Tourism Industry Coalition advocacy day where that sector will lobby. Needless to say over the course of the session, numerous others sectors will lobby as well.

What about the history community? The history community has no “asks.” The history community has no advocacy day. The history community has no state organization to organize the state history community. One might think that once upon a time the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) would take the lead but it didn’t and has officially withdrawn from any role in the history community except as a museum in its own right.

The withdrawal of NYSHA with its legal name change has been the subject of some recent posts. The situation now is ugly and with no hope of resolution. The recent chain of events began with a letter posted here by Ken Jackson, Columbia University and founder of the New York Academy of History, signed by dozens of people in history community both in and out of New York State. That letter lead to a reply by Paul D’Ambrosio, Fenimore Art Museum, also posted here.

His response didn’t go over so well with one reader. Normally, I would not post an anonymous comment but how many concerned New York State Historians are there in Chestertown who have been involved with NYSHA? His comment originally posted on New York History Blog which had reposted my original blog is presented below:

Paul is gaslighting here.

The letter above is signed by the President of the Society of American Historians and a Past President of the Organization of American Historians; two former trustees of the New York State Historical Association and nine Editorial Board members of NYSHA’s journal New York History; the current and former Chairs of the New York Council for the Humanities (now Humanities New York); the President emeritus and a former Executive Vice-President and Library Director of The New-York Historical Society; the President, former President, and Secretary of the New York Academy of History; the founders of the New Netherland Research Center, the Jacob Leisler Institute, and Gotham Center for New York City History; a Retired New York State Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation; a Senior Historian emeritus of the New York State Education Department; a former Manhattan Borough Historian; two Pulitzer Prize winners and a National Book Award recipient, and most of New York State’s most distinguished historians.

Let’s review what they are asking for:

“We ask you as an important public official to contact Paul D’Ambrosio (email to: or phone (607) 547-1400) and the Board of Directors (Douglas E. Evelyn, Kathleen Flanagan, Nellie Gipson, Shelley Graham, Robert S. Hanft, Josef E. Jelinek, Erna Morgan McReynolds, Anne G. Older, Jeffrey H. Pressman MD, Thomas O. Putnam, John B. Stetson, Ellen Tillapaugh, Richard Vanison, and Charles B. Kieler) of the newly-named Fenimore Art Museum to urge them to take actions to preserve not simply the name NYSHA, which he insists belongs to FAM, but also the duties and responsibilities of NYSHA. Please urge him to do the following: 

  1. Continue NYSHA as an organization with real functions;
  2. Enable New York History to keep publishing by placing it in the hands of a reliable not-for profit publisher who will invest in it and expand it;
  3. Resurrect education programs for public school students;
  4. Request that NYSHA strengthen its ties with the State Historian office, the State Museum, the New York Academy of History, and local historians/librarians, to ensure a real and active state network;
  5. Continue all other established activities such as the Dixon Ryan Fox Prize.”


I would encourage readers to read the original announcement which outlines what has in fact happened to what was the New York State Historical Association.

Personally, I think the comment is of no value except to vent or to have the objections listed for the record. I don’t doubt the depth of passion, sincerity of conviction, or extent of hostility by the author towards Paul D’Ambrosio. What I question is the benefit of writing. The Fenimore Art Museum when it legally was NYSHA was a failure as a leader in the history community. Why would you want to try to force it be something it has no interest in doing and no ability to succeed at it? NYSHA can’t be reformed; it is time to move on.

The same applies to the December response by Ken Jackson to Paul’s response to Ken’s initial letter.

It gives me no pleasure to write this letter.  For years, even decades, I loved Cooperstown – its 1950s style Main Street, its grand hotel, its picturesque lake, its spectacular golf course, its famous Hall of Fame, and its quirky bookstores.  And I was especially fond of the New York State Historical Association – its lectures, its week-long seminars, its unforgettable journal editor (Wendell Tripp), its grand headquarters, and its tradition of excellence in all that it did.

 But that was then.  Since you took over the presidency of NYSHA in 2011 and since Jane Clark ended her term as board chair more than a decade ago, NYSHA has gone steadily downhill.  In particular, you have been a terrible steward for the institution.  I would go further and say that you have said one thing and done another and been duplicitous and dishonest at every turn.  I know of no one who has done more to undermine history in the Empire State than you have.

 Allow me to respond to your “Dear Colleague” letter of 29 November. 

  1. You complain that you were not allowed to comment on my general letter of 15 October. How laughable. You changed the name of a century-old institution in the middle of the night without consulting anyone in the history community, but you want me to consult you prior to writing a letter protesting your nefarious, unjustifiable, and despicable action.  The fact that the Board of Regents and the Internal Revenue Service have somehow endorsed your moves only proves that they had no idea what they were doing.
  1. You argue that the name change from the New York State Historical Association to the Fenimore Art Museum was intended to remove confusion with the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. How odd that the two institutions managed to survive for more than one hundred years in the same state without suffering the consequences.  But in any case you should wish for such confusion.  Although it has (or did have) a smaller endowment than NYSHA, it has at least ten times your impact, your attendance, your programming, your educational outreach, and your influence.  It has a larger and more valuable art collection than NYSHA.  But the NYHS has never denied that it is first and foremost about history.
  1. You boast of 7,000 school children visits every year. I will not waste our time by reminding you that that is not a number to boast about.  In fact, you have eviscerated your education staff, which no longer has a respected leader or professionally trained educators.  And your commitment to National History Day is similar to your other windbag claims.  It is paid for by New York State taxpayers and hangs on the coattails of the national organization.  NYSHA formerly was involved in teacher education with in-service and pre-service programs and with a highly-regarded statewide teacher’s conference.  No more.
  1. You speak of your “vital resource” research library of 100,000 volumes. First-class libraries add that many books every year, but you would not know that because you do not care about the library, as evidenced by your piecemeal reduction of its staff.  Now there is little professional work that the survivors can perform, such as accessioning materials, working with patrons, and responding to research questions.  Uncatalogued documents are stored in any empty space.  One former staff member estimated the backlog to be about thirty years, and that was several years ago when you had more library employees.
  1. You refer to The Farmers’ Museum as a “prominent history museum.” Surely you jest.  It is not a farm, and was never a village.  It is a bunch of old structures dragged from different places and cobbled together into some kind of imaginary arrangement.  It is really a zombie museum with no director, curator, or Ph.D. trained educator.  I actually like the place and think it probably works for elementary school children, but a prominent place it is not.
  1. Then, there is the quarterly journal, New York History, the one serious enterprise that solidified NYSHA’s claim to represent a big state with a great tradition. Unfortunately, you have slowly strangled the journal as well.  You eliminated the print version and then moved it briefly to SUNY Oneonta.  Now you are moving it to Albany and plan to divest it completely in 2019.  You made a deal for the State Historian to edit and care for it, but he has no staff, no budget, and no reputation in the field.  You did not consult the editorial board, many of whose members had served for decades without compensation, about your plans.  Why was this a stealth decision?  Meanwhile, you continue to publish a glossy, four-color magazine, Heritage, which is expensive to print and distribute.  The state has many art history publications, but only one periodical which represents the entire state.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, there is the little matter of the endowment. Two years ago, NYSHA had an endowment of about $50 million, which would make it among the wealthiest historical societies in the United States (and more by the way than the more successful New York Historical Society).  Somehow, those monies have been transferred to the Fenimore Art Museum, which is an institution of an entirely different color.  You say it will teach history through art, but no serious person thinks that is the only or best way to teach history.  And in any case, over many decades, that money, most of it from Stephen Clark, was given to the NEW YORK STATE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION, not the Fenimore Art Museum.  I do not think I am alone in wondering how this bait and switch happened, but I suspect there is more to be said on the issue.

I could go on and on about all of the things you should have done to celebrate and recognize the history of this great state.  It saddens me.  But you are correct about one thing.  The history of New York State is far too important to be left to any institution that you might lead.


Kenneth T. Jackson
Jacques Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
Director, Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History, Columbia University
President, New York Academy of History
President Emeritus, New-York Historical Society
Former trustee, New York State Historical Association

Let’s assume as with the anonymous comment above that everything Ken writes is true both on a personal level and as a performance analysis, so what? Unless legal action of some kind is contemplated, there is nothing anyone can do to force Paul D’Ambrosio and the organization he leads to take a leadership role in the state history community. It seems more likely that he and his board have no such interest and there is no way to compel them to develop one. Why even try? Instead of wasting any time and effort and trying to transform the Fenimore Art Museum into an effective NYSHA, the history community is better off saying good riddance and creating an alternative: the New York Association for State and Local History NYASLH), a name suggested by Doug Kendall, Hartwick College, in partnership with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).  But that is a subject for another post.    

Bring the Yorkers Back to New York

In a recent post about the absence of any institutional or organizational leadership in the New York State history community, I used the image of the Yorkers without any explanation of what a Yorker was. Two readers submitted comments about the Yorkers to an even earlier post on the subject of the NYSHA even before I had distributed the post with the Yorker image. Their comments and suggestions form the basis of this post.


In the first instance, the comment from Chris Philippo provided a link to a blog by Tobi Voigt, Detroit Historical Society, writing in 2014 for the 75th anniversary of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Her interest was getting young people involved in local history. In the course of writing the post she thought of New York’s experience with the Yorker program.

[S]tarted in the 1940s, this junior membership program worked through membership chapters across the state. [I wonder how many chapters there were.] According to a mid-1950s brochure [image above]:

“A Yorker chapter may be formed by organizing five or more students with an adult sponsor. Each chapter member receives a subscription to THE YORKER, bi-monthly magazine of the junior historians [This magazine must on file in some libraries and/or archives], a membership card, a gay felt emblem [I presume he meant “gray” but given how words change meaning I wouldn’t swear to it.] reminding him [or her] he is one of an army of 7,000 students of the story of the Empire State. He may write for THE YORKER, may enter any of the Historical Association’s three museums free at any time, whether coming with a student group or individually.”

Yorker chapters (which included boys and girls) were encouraged to:

“go on pilgrimages; present assembly programs, plays, radio scripts; assemble collections of historic books and objects; participate in essay and other contests; make historical murals and sculpture; assist local historians and in historical celebrations.”

The chapters had regional and state officers and gathered each spring for a convention.

After this historical description of the Yorker program, Tobi turned to her personal reflections on the organization and its meaning for the present.

Yes, these junior membership programs were clearly a lot of work. And I know they folded for some very valid reasons, but I absolutely love the concept. For years I have been pondering how the junior membership program can be reinstated/reinvented.

Firstly, we are always quoting that statistic that says “If a person doesn’t visit a museum before age 12, they aren’t likely to become adult museum visitors.” Could a junior membership program encourage students to get involved and then become life-long patrons?

Secondly, we talk about the decline of social studies and history in public school curriculums. These junior programs had an extracurricular academic component. And better yet, they had the students out DOING history. For the Detroit Historical Society, at least, they saw historical study as a way to develop informed citizens and future leaders. Can a new junior membership program help us make history relevant in the lives of kids today?

I love that programs like National History Day [which NYSHA still supports] have stepped in to fill the void, and my organization supports that year-long, school based program as a contest coordinator. But I still find myself wondering if individual museums and historical societies can create their own special program. If we created a new junior program, I’d be sure participation in National History Day would be included as an activity.

What are your thoughts?
Does anyone have a junior membership program? Please consider writing a blog about it!

Did you have one that didn’t work well? Please share your lessons learned.

Is anyone else out there as intrigued about this concept as me, or am I quickly becoming as antiquated as junior memberships themselves?


As to the situation here in New York, I received an email from Terry Abrams, the Administrative Coordinator for the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies (WNYAHA), on the subject of the Yorkers. He wrote:

I have been reading with avid interest your blog posts about the state of New York State history. I have thought a lot about the many valid points you have raised, and I want to respond to some of them. Most of what I want to say has already been said by others, and I am in agreement with much of what you have discussed. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to add another voice to the chorus.

I think the decline of NYSHA can be traced back to the elimination of the Yorker program. When I was in Jr. High School, we had two Yorker clubs, one for the seventh graders, and one for the eighth graders. Living in western New York, a big part of the attraction for joining was going on the overnight field trips to Cooperstown, and Albany, respectively. As I recall, in order to join the Yorker clubs we had to write an essay on some aspect of local or NY history. While the advisors for the two clubs were pretty lenient as far as letting students join, this did at least indicate an interest in history. I also recall going on field trips to local area museums during the year. The big event in 7th grade, was toward the end of the school year, when we traveled to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Farmer’s Museum, and the Fenimore Museum. In 8th grade, we went to Albany to see the Capitol, and the State Museum, which at that time was still located at the top of the Education Department building.

I can’t say for certain how much influence this experience has had on my becoming part of the history community. I do know, however, that at least two of my classmates are active members of their local historical societies. Incidentally, the two clubs were named after local historical landmarks. He 7th grade club was called The Grant Club Yorkers, named after the pole raised locally for President Grant’s re-election campaign.

Grant Club Pole Marker

The 8th grade club was called the Octagon Yorker club, after the Rich-Twinn Octagon house, part of the Newstead Historical Society in the village of Akron in the Town of Newstead in Erie County.

Rich Twinn Octagon House

At that time the other Yorker clubs had disappeared, but I know that there were ones at the high school level at one time. While the schools now have History Day, I wonder how much the loss of Yorker clubs has affected student’s interest in history. While searching online about when they disappeared (sometime in the mid 80’s apparently) I came across this: (go to the history link at the top of the page and click on “Yorker Museum” It will download a pdf about the history of the Yorkers in Sherman.)

I know that it varies from place to place, but it seems that fewer and fewer historical societies have a relationship with the schools. Do any of them coordinate with History Day?

Terry raises an interesting question. According to the National History Day website quite a few museums and libraries in New York are listed as contacts for students. One also should add municipal historians to the mix of resources and contacts. Of course, one major difference is that the Yorkers focused exclusively on New York State history, National History has an annual national theme which can be applied locally by participants but does not have to be.


So what can we learn from this trip down memory lane? The Yorker program working in conjunction with National History Day is a great way to reach out into the student community and connect it with local history. Logically it should be operated by NYSHA which still maintains its connections to National History Day. Obviously that is not going to happen.

Here is a program where it would be beneficial for the New York State history community to meet with the New York State Council for the Social Studies. It is a volunteer organization. The annual conference this year will be in Albany in March. There are eight regional councils covering most of the state. Perhaps the New York State Historian could take responsibility for the revival of the Yorkers with the support of the Regents. Let’s add Yorkers to the list of what needs to be done.

Save the History Community: Clone Erika Sanger

In recent posts, I have reported on the absence of any private state-wide organization advocating on behalf of the history community.

History Professors Protest for Local and State History

NYSHA Responds to Advocacy for Local and State History Post

The NYSHA Saga Continues: Gone but Not Forgotten

The former New York State History Association (NYSHA) located in Cooperstown has not fulfilled that role. Effectively it is a local farmers’ museum and national art museum. While these two functions are perfectly legitimate ones that focus raises significant critical issues regarding the leadership within the history community in this state…or, more accurately, the absence of any leadership.

Simultaneously with the NYSHA posts, I also introduced the actions of another private state-wide, organization, the Museum Association of New York (MANY) with its executive director Erika Sanger. What follows then is a report of events in the last two weeks contrasting the actions of NYSHA and MANY. The contrast provides insight into what a proposed New York State History Society (NYSHS) should do.


To begin with, MANY sent a query to its members for information about the Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) funding process as it relates to the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA). The request was in preparation for testimony Erika was to give before the Committee on Tourism at its budget hearing on December 5. That request led to a response by Rosa Fox, the municipal historian for the Town of Huron who also is responsible for three buildings. That response generated a new post, not directly about NYSHA but related.

Before turning to the results of the query, let’s examine the difference between NYSHA and MANY.

1. MANY is a membership organization with museums from around the state (including zoos, aquariums, art museums, and science museums, as well as history organizations; NYSHA is not.

2. MANY has a full-time person dedicated to state-wide issues; NYSHA does not.

3. MANY testifies to the legislature and Regents on statewide issues; NYSHA does not.

4. MANY solicits the opinion of the state-wide community; NYSHA does not.

So regardless of the particular details of the December 5 testimony, one can immediately differentiate the two organizations and decide what one would like the NYSHS to do if it existed.

The results of Erika’s survey have been circulated through the MANY distribution network so it is not necessary for me to repeat them here. I will just note a response of 89 organizations of various sizes, budgets and regions in the state. Many organizations were not familiar with the REDC process in general or found it daunting to apply. That process itself was the subject of a recent post about “Hunger Games” the apparently routine nick name in Albany for REDC funding.


The awards for 2017 were just announced last week. As has become my custom, the grants will be analyzed in a series of posts as they relate to the history community. As also expected the phrase “Path through History” does not appear anywhere in the report. In the responses to MANY, the 35% of the organizations that did seek REDC funding reported on all the categories they used and not just NYSCA. These funding sources included:

Art and Culture Initiative
Arts and Culture Facilities Capital Grant program
Historic Preservation and Recreational Trails.
Market New York (I LoveNY)

One should note that NYSOPRHP is a well-established source of funding for the history community and that the NYS Museum has zero funding in the current arrangement. I will be reporting on these grants in the new year with one exception.

MANY was the recipient of an award. It issued the following notice:

MANY is thrilled to announce that we received our first Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) grant for Administrative Workforce Expansion! We would like to thank Governor Cuomo and the members of the Capital Region Economic Development Council for their support of the Museum Association of New York and the New York State museum field.  

The grant will allow MANY to hire a Marketing and Social Media Coordinator to manage digital marketing and communications, enrich our service to the field, promote professional development programs, share funding opportunities, and improve economic stability in New York’s cultural sector.

Thanks to everyone who signed our letter of support and congratulations to all the organizations who received support. You can find the full list of grant awards here.

In this notice, one observes pluses and minuses of the program. First, MANY is to be congratulated. Second, one notices that even though it is a state-wide organization, it was obligated to apply through the Capital Region since it is located in Troy. The current setup means that even if NYSHA had sought any funding it would have had to have done so through the Mohawk Valley region. Remember there is a Mohawk Valley region in REDC funding but not in I LoveNY or the Path through History. This application process highlights the hunger games competition among the regions with no provision for state-wide organizations.


Wait, there’s more from MANY. The organization has been active with the Museum Education Act. During this busy past week, it sent out the following notice:

Dear Friends, Colleagues, and MANY Members,

On Tuesday, the New York State Board of Regents unanimously endorsed the $1.6 billion state aid proposal along with their 2018 budget and legislative priorities. We are thrilled to report that for the first time ever the Regents designated the Museum Education Act as a budget priority and proposed $5 million to fund it.

Under their state budget priorities, the Regents describe this new program as:

Expanding Access to Education Programs through Cultural Institutions – Support the Museum Education Act and establish competitive grants to support cultural institutions that seek to establish or improve museum education programs designed to improve and support student learning opportunities, including supporting the development of local curricular aids.

And if this action was not sufficiently awesome on its own, the State Education Department released a video on today of Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s statement about how increasing equity has been the driving force behind everything SED does. In talking about equity, the Commissioner specifically mentions passing the Museum Education Act and linking museum education programs with pre k -12 schools to enable students to learn from the museums’ “incredible collections”.

We are grateful to Chancellor Betty Rosa, Regent Roger Tilles, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Executive Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin and Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education Mark Schaming for their support of museums in New York. 

But, we’re not quite home yet. To get these bills passed in the upcoming legislative session will require your help.  We will soon be sending out new tools to help you call and meet with your legislators. We will also be selecting dates for you to join us in Albany to advocate for passage of the Museum Education Act.


Again let’s look at what Erika has been up to as executive director for MANY.

1. Testifying before both the Regents and the Legislature.

2. Getting $5 million approved as a budget it (that’s real money!)

3. Calling on members to advocate with their own legislators apparently both locally and at the state capital.

It should be noted also that MANY has retained a lobbyist and has re-instituted the practice of conference calls for its members with the lobbyist for updates on the world of politics in Albany.

In short, Erika and MANY are doing on behalf of the museum community what nobody is doing on behalf of the history community. Is there more that needs to be done even within the museum community? Definitely, but at least someone is trying. Should there be a NYSHS based in the capital region acting on behalf of the history community as MANY is for the museum community. Definitely. Will there be? What does it take to make it happen?

The NYSHA Saga Continues: Gone but Not Forgotten

Defunct NYSHA School Program (

The story of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) remains a fluid one with continuing new developments. To recap, in the spring of 2017, NYSHA recast itself as the Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers’ Museum. The change has led to questions regarding the statewide functions it once had and which have diminished over the years. In my post on the subject on November 26, I called for the need for state advocacy for local and state history, an effort which needs to happen in the absence of NYSHA performing that role.


A comment on my post emphasized the distress felt over the decline of NYSHA:

Successive administrations at NYSHA and the Farmer’s Museum have managed to slowly obliterate a once world class historical association, through antipathy, mission creep, or outright neglect. Stephen C. Clark Sr. and Louis C. Jones pulled off quite the coup when they brought NYSHA from Ticonderoga. With the help of Dixon Ryan Fox, Edward P. Alexander, and Clifford Lord it made huge advances. In the last few decades we have seen fundamental aspects of the organization they helped build decline and eventually fade away entirely. The educational program for schools, the Young Yorkers was a great vehicle for promoting NY State history in schools, as well as ensuring visitation to the museums throughout the school year. It built relationships with NY youth that built appreciation for NY’s history and gave them a vested interest in the organization. The Seminars on American Culture brought people from all over to Cooperstown experience history first hand and learn more about their past. The New York History quarterly was a first class publication and invaluable to both professional historians and amateurs alike. Wendell Tripp’s contribution to the production of that publication was yeoman’s work and he deserves recognition for his years of work on it.

Now it is all gone, a legacy squandered by later generations. In a few years no one will really remain who remembers what the organization once was. It is ironic that an organization based on the preservation of history has forgotten its own.

Someone needs to write the history of NYSHA before everyone is gone and the lessons of its decline are lost to the ages.


Also in response to my post and the charges brought against by the New York Academy of History (NYAH), Paul D/Ambrosio, the President and CEO of the two museums sent me an email which he asked me to post. I did so on November 30.  Here is what has happened since then.


At approximately the same time of these posts, the museums sent out a funding letter under Paul’s name. Certainly that seems like a routine occurrence especially for this time of year. One recipient of the letter who read it at the same time as reading the two posts here, then wrote me:

I find it strange that in the fund raising appeal letter there is no mention of either NYSHA or Research Library…. On this donation form one can chose to make a donation between the Fenimore Art Museum, The Farmers’ Museum or Both!   In prior years there has been a third choice for donations, that of The Research Library.

In Paul’s email to me which was posted, he wrote:

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 recipient of the funding appeal asked, “how certain is he of that figure?  Perhaps he has forgotten that the library collection has been significantly reduced?” I can’t speak to the specifics on the format of the funding letters in previous years or the state of research library today compared to years ago. Who does know what happened?


In his email which I posted, Paul also commented on the status of New York History, the academic journal for scholarship on New York State history. In the New York History Blog on April 2 reporting on the changed name, Paul is reported as saying that no decision has been made on whether the Fenimore Art Museum will support the journal New York History beyond 2017. In his email to me, Paul wrote:

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.

I posted this on November 30 to the IHARE website, a couple of days after receiving the email from Paul. By coincidence, on November 30, Jeff Pressman, the Chair of the Trustees of Fenimore Art Museum, announced that the concern for the fate of New York History could now be put to rest. Effective January 2019, responsibility for the journal would be transferred from the Fenimore Art Museum to the New York State Museum. Specifically, Devin Lander, the New York State Historian would henceforth be responsible for the publication of the academic journal working in conjunction with Cornell University Press.

Just as the Fenimore Art Museum has the right to focus on its mission as an art museum, so too it has the right to discharge its statewide responsibilities. It use to run the annual state history conference; that task was transferred to Bob Weibel when he was the state historian. When he left, there was no one to do the job. One presumes that the new state historian will assume responsibility for that conference in 2018 just as he will for the journal in 2019. With a podcast on state history also under consideration, one certainly hopes that state historian position will have the resources it needs to fulfill its responsibilities.


One other area of statewide activity by NYSHA which I have not seen reported on is history prizes alluded to in one of the replies I received. According to the Fenimore Museum website,

The Dixon Ryan Fox Prize is presented each year to the best unpublished, book-length monograph dealing with some aspect of the history of New York State. The New York State Historical Association named the award for its former president Dixon Ryan Fox in 1997 to recognize his contributions to New York state history. The prize consists of a $3,000 purse. Manuscripts may deal with any aspect of New York State history. Manuscripts may not have been accepted for final publication at the time of submission to the New York State Historical Association. Biographies of individuals whose careers illuminate aspects of the history of the state are eligible, as are manuscripts dealing with such cultural matters as literature and the arts, provided that in such cases the methodology is historical. Works of fiction and works of article length are not eligible.

Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2017. There are no application forms. For submissions, please send an electronic, printable file of the full manuscript, table of contents, and an abstract as separate PDF files to No hard copies are accepted.

Questions? Please contact Martha Membrino in the Publications Department at the New York State Historical Association at or by phone at 607-547-1416.

For more information about NYSHA and the prize, please visit our website at

According to New York History Blog on April 2, the editorial board was scheduled to meet in June to decide the awards for 2017, which would be presented at the Fenimore Art Museum’s annual meeting in July. The same applies to The Paul S. Kerr History Prize, awarded annually to the best article published in New York History. There is no listing on the Fenimore Art Museum website for a winner of the $1000 award in 2017, the last entry is 2016.   I also was unable to access the website for the Dixon Ryan Fox award listed in the notice above. When attempting to do so I received the reply

The connection has timed out

and I saw no listing for this award on the Fenimore Art Museum website. The current status of these two history awards remains unclear.

It should be noted that the Fenimore Art Museum does contain historical items. On December 5, it issued a press release:


The grants will provide funding for new programs and a publication based on the museum’s collection of documents pertaining to the life and death of founding father, Alexander Hamilton, focusing predominantly on a collection of thirty-five letters exchanged between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, leading up to their fatal duel on July 11, 1804. These documents, although familiar to historians, have remained largely unknown to the public until recently when they were brought to light in the song “Your Obedient Servant” from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

The Fenimore plans to design a virtual gallery of the Hamilton-Burr Collection and offer four programs. Two of these programs, for professionals of small historical societies and libraries with archival collections in Suffolk County, will use the printed publication and digitization of the Hamilton-Burr duel letters as a case study. For teachers, the museum will provide lesson plans for inclusion on its free, online educational portal, Harvest of History, and offer two online distance learning sessions exclusively to social studies teachers in Suffolk County as a means to support and encourage active use of these dynamic resources in the classroom.

The press release also notes the continued support for the New York State History Day school program.

At this point, there is really no reason to pursue the fate of the NYSHA any further.  As Professor Lisa Keller of the New York Academy of History and the New York History journal put it in her comment in response to my post:

NYSHA no longer exists. It was vaporized when Paul D’Ambrosio moved his $50 million endowment meant for New York history to his non- New York history art museum.

The Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers’ Museum will continue to function as museums serving those specific niches. The statewide activities including the state history conference and state journal will pass to the New York State Historian. The history awards may fall by the wayside unless the State Historian office can pick up the tab or some other arrangement is made. Exactly where the Regents and its Museum Advisory Council are in all this is not clear. The good thing is these changes move to a more robust New York State Historian office; the downside is it still leaves the New York State history community rudderless without a venue or vehicle through which to advocate for New York State history.