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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.

Friends With Benefits: NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

“The fact that some conservancies are able to solve it
[investment shortages in parks doesn’t reduce the need
to do more.” State Senator Daniel Squadron (NYT, July 14, 2016)

How many historic sites does the NYSOPRHP maintain? That is not a trick question. At the NY Statewide Preservation Conference, May 5-7, in Albany and Troy, the question was an unintended running joke among several sessions. Generally the number was between 35 and 40 with a variation due to how to classify a site given a site can be recreational and historic. But this is not a post about the combination of recreation and historic sites in one bureaucracy (it wasn’t always that way). Rather it is a discussion about what it means to be a state historic site.


The opening session I attended was “Olana 50/50: Partners and Practices.”  As it turns out, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Olana, the home of Hudson River Art painter Frederic Church, becoming a state site. In the presentation by Sean Sawyer, President of the Olana Partnership, he shared with the audience that a Church descendant still lived in house as recently as the 1950s but that situation was dire. The state of the house was so perilous that household objects were tagged for sale with “Everything must go” sign before a concerted effort led to the site being rescued. That effort involved such luminaries as Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and Nelson Rockefeller, not your typical historic site rescuers. A turning point was reached when Life magazine, circulation 8.5 million, featured the site under the title “Must this Mansion be Destroyed?” The answer obviously was “no” and here we are 50 years later and Olana still stands tall although not without some threats from a potential nuclear energy plant.


The Save Olana Issue Cover (article on page 64)

I used to take teachers to Olana as part of a Hudson River Art Teacherhostel/Historyhostel. Wint Aldrich who has spoken in an IHARE program and is on this email distribution list, called Church’s  “The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana” the painting which changed history. Harvey Flad who has spoken in an IHARE program and is on this email distribution list testified during the hearings on the impact of landscapes in cultural history and of its contribution to the character of the community. Sawyer cited both these individuals as critical to the nitty-gritty of saving the site in the 1960s.

Also present on the panel was Amy Hufnagel, the Director of Education, The Olana Partnership. During the Teacherhostels, we met with an education director who was a Parks employee. That individual later transferred to another Parks position. In 2012, Rose Harvey, NYSOPRHP Commissioner, contacted Sara Giffen, Sawyer’s predecessor as President, The Olana Partnership, about it taking over responsibility for the education at the site. Sara agreed and the result is the taxpayers no longer pay that salary, the cost has been outsourced to a private non-profit. While on one level that seems like a good deal for the taxpayers; but on another is raises questions about what it means to be a state-owned site and what happens if there is no Friends group with the financial wherewithal to bear such the cost of an educator.

To drive the point home, recently the private Olana Partnership advertised for a director of collections and research, Ph.D. preferred. This is a “newly-created senior management position.” True given the paintings at the site, it is not a typical historic location and has specialized needs. Still this is serious money and it testifies to the heft of the Friends group.

The Olana Partnership operates in a rarified atmosphere as a Friends group providing multiple and substantial benefits. When Sara stepped down as President it was after a reign that had raised millions on behalf of Olana.  The recent annual benefit for the Partnership was held in Manhattan. How many historical sites have fundraising dinners 100 miles away from the site? The prices at the fundraiser also probably differed from that of many other organizations. For tables one choices were:

Grand Preservationist at $75,000
50th Anniversary Supporter at $50,000
Landscape Benefactor at $25,000
Restoration Patron at $12,500

and for individuals:

$5,000: Premium seating
$2,500: Preferred seating
$1,500: Seating

Clearly we are dealing with a Manhattan historic site that happens to be located upstate in Columbia County (near an Amtrak train stop and a great place for a second home). I do not mean to suggest that there is anything illegal or wrong with having a Friends group with this financial power (see also the John Jay Homestead in “Martha Stewart country” Katonah in Westchester County). But clearly this Friends group operates in another league compared to the other sites.

Patriots Day

“Enemies Conversing” — Old Fort Niagara’s British Redcoats meet face-to-face with an officer of the Continental Army, portrayed by event organizer Tommy Thompson of Hoisington’s New York Rangers, and an American militiaman, portrayed by Tony Consiglio, also of Hoisington’s, during Patriots Day Weekend. (Photo by Charlotte Clark)

As it turns out, State ownership of a site is not as straightforward as one might think. There are other arrangements besides the Friends with benefits at Olana.  I receive a hardcopy of the Fortress Niagara newsletter, a journal of the Old Fort Niagara Association at Old Fort Niagara State Park (I have been there). A recent newsletter had an article about John Simcoe, a prominent person who founded the city Toronto and who bears the same name as a character in AMC “Turn,” the cable TV series about a spy ring in the American Revolution based in Setauket. According to the newsletter, the very active Friends group has a staff of nine and works very hard to engage the surrounding community in the history of the site. In this case the Friends group which is on the NYSOPRHP website site for the Fort seems to operate the site in its entirety on behalf of NYSOPRHP without any state employees present at all.

According to its newsletter, the Fort was able to secure $15,000 in education funding through the office of its state senator. This funding is both for schools and the general public programs. Given that it occurred outside the REDC process and there are no member items anymore, I am sure all historic sites both public and private in the state would be interested to know how such state funding was obtained.

Earlier this year when I was invited to attend the Oneida Indian workshop on planning for the anniversary celebration of the Battle of Oriskany from the American Revolution, I recommended that State and NPS staff from Fort Stanwix in Rome, the Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site in Oriskany, and Herkimer Home State Historic Site in Little Falls be invited as well. Although I have been to all three sites I did not realize or had forgotten that Oriskany has no staff. As the NYSOPRHP website states, the “Oriskany Battlefield is managed in partnership with the National Park Service at Fort Stanwix National Monument.”  The Herkimer Home does have Parks employees but only a few months got a site manager after a long absence.

An interesting related note appeared in a recent post New York History Blog:

Grant Cottage is one of several New York State historic sites that operate without a State Parks employee present. The non-profit Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage has managed Grant Cottage in cooperation with NYS Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, along with the Department of Corrections.

So not only are there multiple state historic sites with no state employees, there even is a partnership with the Department of Corrections. Land ownership does change over time!

As one can see from this brief survey there are a variety of different arrangements with state historic sites. This situation is not unique to state historic sites. For example in New York City, Central Park with its private conservancy rakes in tens of million dollars annually including a gift of $100 million four years ago. Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library and Battery Park in lower Manhattan also do well. That leaves a lot of lesser known and often small parks scattered around the city that live primarily off of what the city government provides. This has been an issue of contention by the Mayor. One could tell a similar story about the public schools and their friends groups, the PTAs. Not all schools, parks, or historic sites are created equal.

It’s not that Rose Harvey isn’t aware of the situation (the two of us spoke briefly about it once at the Jay Heritage Center, a private site).  But it does raise the question of what the State warrants when it takes ownership of a site:

  1. Is it responsible for the maintenance of the site including the grounds, the buildings, the interiors and the exteriors?
  2. Is it responsible for curating the collections?
  3. Is it responsible for there being an education director?
  4. Is it responsible for there being a site manager?

When the state chooses to outsource these responsibilities to private organizations (are we a Republican state after all?), then its responsibility is to monitor that these tasks are being completed according to the established and agreed upon standards. I am not suggesting no monitoring exists. Certainly the number of visitors is factor. Highly visited sites require more maintenance. Weather and landscape/environment can drive costs. Also many historic sites serve more as recreation parks where locals can walk, hike, bike, picnic, paint, and bring their dogs rather than as historic sites. Is there a state of the state of historic sites that delineates the actual situation and condition of them? It used to be on American Revolution in the Hudson Valley Teacherhostels/Historyhostels there were separate site mangers for each site visited, even those in close proximity to each other.  Then there weren’t. Is that to a legitimate lack of need for them or to an economic cutback with no Friends to provide those benefits?

The Underground Railroad in New York State: Black Lives Still Don’t Matter

Underground Railroad: Seward House

While recently investigating the dismal record of the more-or-less defunct Amistad Commission that was the subject of two posts, I came across the Underground Railroad on the website of the NYSOPRHP. That subject was a topic of an earlier post on March 6, 2014, Resurrecting the NY Freedom Trail about efforts in Manhattan to create a freedom trail.

The New York State Freedom Trail today is perhaps even less well-known than the New York State Amistad Commission. It began as a state project with similar high hopes and followed the same trajectory to substandard results.

The New York State Freedom Trail Act of 1997 proposed the establishment of a Freedom Trail Commission to plan and implement a New York State Freedom Trail program to commemorate these acts of freedom and to foster public understanding of their significance in New York State history and heritage.

There was an Underground Railroad traveling exhibit “Journey to the North: New York’s Freedom Trail” which could be borrowed by contacting Cordell Reaves who does still work at the OPRHP. There were hundreds of sites identified. There was a commission which was to issue annual reports to the Board of Regents. The State Education Department supported it unlike with the future Amistad Commission. So what happened? Where are these reports? What action has been taken?

The regulations which is still on the books states:

§ 233-b. New York state freedom trail commission. 1. a. There is hereby established within the department [of Education] the New  York state freedom trail commission. The commission shall consist of  twelve members, to be appointed as follows: three members to be  appointed by the  governor, three members to be appointed by the board of regents, two members to be appointed  by  the temporary president of the senate, one member to be appointed by the minority leader of  the senate, two members to be appointed by the speaker of the assembly, and one member to be appointed by the minority leader of the assembly. Such members shall be representative of  academic or public historians, corporations, foundations, historical societies, civic organizations, and religious denominations. In addition, the following state officers, or their designees, shall serve as members of the commission: the commissioner of education, the head of the state museum, the head of the state archives, the head of the office of state history, the commissioner of economic development, the head of the state tourism advisory council and the commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation.

Impressive group isn’t it? Assemblyman Englebright has gotten nowhere with his attempt to create a state history committee that brings together precisely these state organizations and here the regulation does that but only for the Underground Railroad.

Just as the Department of Education was supposed to provide the support for the Amistad Commission, the OPRHP was to for the Underground Railroad Commission. There was to be a master plan including “sponsoring commemorations, linkages, seminars and public forum[s].” There were to be annual reports for five years beginning no later than 1999 so perhaps it was intended to die in 2004 even though it was never repealed.

Clearly nothing happened afterwards but did anything happen even after the regulation went into effect? A FOIL request in 2016 to the State Education Department was forwarded to the State Historian and produced the following response:

The New York State Museum History Office has no records pertaining to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission. I am under the impression that the New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation were involved with this commission. Also note that there is a published book on the commission that may be helpful: New York State Freedom Trail Program Study: Report to the New York State Freedom Trail Commission, published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1999.

That report was initiated in 1997. I have a copy of it as I attended a meeting when it was later released. It is not one of the annual reports required by the regulation. The answer as to what happened after the regulation went into effect appears to be that the Freedom Commission like the Amistad Commision like the Heritage Areas like the Path through History was a project of regulations and press releases but devoid of substance.

So let’s see what is going on now. I started with the Parks website. Since Parks was the designated support department, that’s where the website ended up. I clicked on

Discover the many important historic sites, museums and interpretive centers related to Underground Railroad, slavery and anti-slavery themes in New York State which took me to a non-New York State government website. The map contained many hotspots presumably where underground railroad sites are to be located. I selected the Albany flag. I did so because Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, co-founders of The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence and The Underground Railroad History Project in the Capital Region have participated in IHARE Teacherhostels/ Historyhostels, I have been to the Residence with and without teachers, I see them at various conferences, and it received at $70,000 grant in the 2015 REDC Awards announced last December. I have attended their annual conference but it is not held on the Path through History weekend nor is the one in Peterboro. As you might suspect given this buildup when I clicked on the Albany flag a blank inset box appeared. There was no information at all about any underground railroad site in Albany, just a flag indicating there was. It made it look like the project simply had been abandoned in mid-stream.

The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence (Lakestolocks)

The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence (Lakestolocks)

Paul Stewart did write about the residence:

In a similar spirit, the site doesn’t feel monumental—it feels intimate—and it doesn’t act like a traditional museum—it functions as a center for outreach and generates conversation about a history that continues to demonstrate its relevance as part of a lineage of struggle that can easily be tied to the aims of Martin Luther King, and, in our contemporary world, Black Lives Matter.

But not on the Parks website. Sorry Paul, those black lives don’t matter there.

Then in 2013, a change occurred. As reported in New York History Blog

New Map, App Feature NY Underground Railroad Sites

Federal and state partners have recently released a new online map and mobile app to help people explore New York State’s connection to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. The map includes sites, programs and tours that have been approved by the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program or the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.

The New York sites were now part of a national effort led by the National Park Service.

Ruth Pierpont, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation at OPRHP said in a statement issued to the press: “We are happy to partner with the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor and I Love New York in making this user-friendly map available to promote an understanding of this important, and still under-recognized, aspect of the history of our state.”

This map was available on an app and on the web. So now there were two New York maps of underground railroad sites, one at NYSOPRHP and one which can be accessed through the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor if it occurs to someone that for the purposes of the underground railroad in the entire state of New York the Erie Canal Heritage Corridor website is the place to go.

On that map, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence can be located by clicking on one of the stars in the Albany region. The website link for the Residence takes you to “Body and Home Improvement” which asks why you should hire a water damage restoration company, the advantages of metal roofing, and Healthy Meal Prep Options: Lemon Pepper Chicken. Keeping links up-to-date can be a challenge especially if no one is responsible for doing it.


Images from website directed to by New York State Network to Freedom -Underground Railroad

Note: The error on the web link has been corrected – “Note: was once associated with the underground workshop. This website is not affiliated in any way with its previous owners.”

I then decided to try the star for the First Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie where I know the Mid-Hudson Anti-Slavery Project meets. Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College, one of the founders, did speak to teachers in a IHARE program and IHARE once helped fund a stop of the Amistad replica in Poughkeepsie. The click on the website link from the map took me to “Oops! That page can’t be found.”

Finally, I tried the one site in Westchester where I live. It is for Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow which also has participated in IHARE programs. I was a little surprised to see it on an Underground Railroad site since it was Loyalist property that was confiscated after the American Revolution and didn’t exist in the 1800s. The historic site has focused on runaway slave ads from the time slavery was legal in New York and it wasn’t part of the Underground Railroad movement. In this case the link from the Erie Canal Heritage Corridor did work. When I reached the Philipsburg Manor website I did a search on “Underground Railroad” and found nothing which is to be expected.

In case you were wondering, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence is not on the Path through History website either. This makes sense since it doesn’t mean the qualifications of I Love NY for a tourist site regardless of its listing on the National Park Service Erie Canal Heritage Corridor map.

There is more that could be written about the New York State Freedom Trail/Underground Railroad Heritage trail with its defunct commission, no staff, inadequate websites, and the lack of support for conferences, public forums, and teacher programs but the point should be clear. Unfunded, dysfunctional, silo organized history projects are standard operating procedure in New York State. Although black lives don’t matter in New York State history it’s not because the State is racist, it is because the State’s ineptitude occurs on an equal opportunity basis.

New York State Heritage Areas: Real or Not?

New York State has heritage areas – 19, scattered around the state.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) defines these areas on its website: Continue reading “New York State Heritage Areas: Real or Not?”

RIP The Path Through History Taskforce

Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales begin, there was a New York State Path through History Taskforce. Some of you may even remember it. August 28, 2015, marked the three-year anniversary of the failed project and since the NYS Historian who was a member of that taskforce has resigned, it is beneficial to examine the fate of this taskforce for the lessons it teaches about what happened. Will we learn from the past or are we condemned to repeat it?

At the kickoff event for the Path project, attendees received two glossy, multicolored booklets. One had a list of the “iconic highway signage” which was to be produced; the other had the conference agenda, a description of the regions with a listing of the selected sites, and the taskforce bios. Continue reading “RIP The Path Through History Taskforce”

NY History And Economic Development Councils

This posts is the second in a series of posts examining the awards approved by the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) from the perspective of the Path through History.

In the first post we saw that in 2013 and 2014 there were only two grants directly connected to the Path through History and both were media-based awards. There also was a glimpse of hope in an award that could potentially generate a Route 28 Path through History. This awards hints at the unrealized potential of the Path through History project. Continue reading “NY History And Economic Development Councils”

Should the History Community Lobby?

Should the New York State history community lobby in Albany and if so, for what? These questions occurred to me as I recently participated in two days of lobbying. The events were arranged by Parks & Trails New York and the Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York Parks on Park Advocacy Day, and by the Tourism Industry Coalition for Tourism Action Day.  The former is works essentially on behalf of NYS Office Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) while the latter consists of 23 organizations including 9 counties, 2 cities, New York and Syracuse, one region, the Finger Lakes, and hospitality organizations. Continue reading “Should the History Community Lobby?”

Busing New York:Field Trips and Local Paths Through History

field-trip_students_busOn May 30, 2013, I wrote about a high school teacher who took a class to Greece and wondered how that teacher would go about creating a visit to New York State. He used a travel agent because multiple paths through Greek history exist and he could pick the one he wanted. One might think that something similar could be done in New York but consider the following examples.

The Historical Society of Rockland County has numerous bus trips throughout the year. They sell out and are well received. They also are mainly in Rockland County which the Society, of course knows well. After that post about Greece, I received a private email which I am authorized to share. The Society would like to expand its bus programs beyond the county but encountered problems. Continue reading “Busing New York:Field Trips and Local Paths Through History”

Path Through History: An Historical Perspective

The Path though History project does not operate on a tabula rasa. When Henry Hudson arrived, there were no signs to guide him. Today there are more signs then one can count. For Path through History the challenge is not to create ex nihilo but to create order out of chaos. Continue reading “Path Through History: An Historical Perspective”

OPRHP and NYS Cultural Heritage

The ongoing look at the history infrastructure in New York State continues here with the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). Within this overall department, Historic Preservation defines itself quite rightly as “an important economic catalyst for New York State,” although the validity of this assertion often is overlooked by the powers that be. Continue reading “OPRHP and NYS Cultural Heritage”