Peter Feinman: The MANY / Museumwise Conference

On April 22-24, MANY and Museumwise held their annual conference in Albany. The two organizations are in the processing of merging which should be a good thing. Due to all the commotion over the NYS Regents, the Core Curriculum, and the state requirements in social studies for high school graduation, I have been delayed in posting about that conference.

At the conference MANY distributed a list of its strategic priorities for 2012. Before reporting the salient ones, it should be noted that the same NYSED that is responsible for the schools also charters the museums.

As expected, one strategic highlight is more funding, but that led to a more fundamental issue which needs to be addressed:

“Help ensure that SED has a deeper understanding of the museum community it regulates, the challenges it faces, and that it acknowledges the innovation, imagination and success of museum education programs across the state, recognizing that the educational contributions of museums are equal to those of libraries, archives, and public broadcasting.”

These alternative fund-recipients were not mentioned by chance. These public entities, libraries, archives, and public broadcasting, have a seat at the table and have dibbs on the funding whereas the museum community does not. They also are better organized than the fractured and leaderless history community with its public historians, public and private historical societies and museums, k-12 teachers, professors and independent scholars to say nothing of the county and state tourist departments.

To signify this disparity in the voices being heard at the state level, the MANY objectives went on to include:

“Create a seat at the economic development table for museums and cultural institutions because they are a driving economic force.”

This goes directly to the issue raised in the last post about regional agendas that have become a hot topic under Governor Cuomo. For example, one would think that the Mohawk Valley Consortium of historic organizations would have been an ideal vehicle through which to promote Mohawk Valley cultural heritage tourism (think of the brochures with Governor Mario Cuomo on them) but it has been defunded. If the regional councils sought the collaboration of the historic community in their regions to whom would they turn? Wouldn’t county history conferences help nurture such communities and make them visible? Wouldn’t regional history conferences also accomplish the same?

MANY’s strategic priorities include a section “Preserving the infrastructure.” We also need to consider developing the infrastructure. Libraries are organized, the state history community is not…-or rather it has numerous organizations all functioning independently of each other and not speaking together even in a babel yet alone a coherent voice. We the story of the seven blind people each touching a different part of the elephant without realizing it is one animal except our parts are not connected or in contact with each other. If we want to be as well heard as the libraries, archives, and public broadcasters, then we need to become better organized…-and that includes developing the history community infrastructure at the county, regional, and state levels.

Returning to the MANY/Museumwise conference itself, I attended an pre-conference workshop on advocacy of lobbying. At this workshop of about 15 people including several from organizations which had previously participated in IHARE programs, we learned tricks of the trade of the trade for an effective presentation to our state representatives in Albany. The information was good but often irrelevant. Local history organizations don’t lobby in Albany especially to strangers. They communicate with their own state senators and legislators whom they often know and do so at home, not in Albany. If I can have breakfast with my legislator at a local diner, as I will again when the session ends, why do I need to travel to Albany? Consider this email received as I was working on this post from the New York Council for the Social Studies soliciting contributions for its June e-newsletter:

𔄛- Do you or your local council have any plans to meet with your Assemblyperson this summer to discuss your concerns and hopes regarding Social Studies education? If yes, in what ways might NYSCSS &amp- NYS4A support your efforts? If no, please consider becoming more proactive in communicating with your elected officials and consider building coalitions with other local and regional stakeholders.”

These teachers are not being asked to go to Albany- they are being asked to mean locally with their representatives.

Furthermore, for historic organizations, one of the critical talking points with local legislators was membership items which have been eliminated. So what specifically are we to say to our representatives besides wanting more money. According to the MANY/Museumwise conference program, this basis of this session on advocacy was:

“Budget cutbacks at all levels of government driven by the collapse of the national economy have fallen heavily on museums and heritage organizations across the state. It is vital that we speak up forcefully to make an intelligent and passionate case for the ongoing survival or our institutions.”

Exactly right.

To repeat: what is this statewide agenda we should be speaking up about?

Are local museums and history organizations more effective speaking locally to their own representatives like the individual school districts or in Albany on this agenda for the history community should it be created?

Who represents the history community at the county and regional level?

Who are the state people who need to be contacted and who are the representatives of the history community who should be contacting them?

My agenda is a simple one so I will reproduce what I wrote at the MANY/Museumwise workshop as part of an exercise:

“The Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education supports programs that enhance the cultural well-being, education, and economy of New York State. To accomplish these ends IHARE promotes:

1. County history conferences to foster a stronger historical community

2. Community heritage days to develop a sense of place and a sense of belonging among the residents of a community

3. Teacherhostels and Historyhostels to bring teachers and the interested public to the historic sites for professional development training and cultural heritage tourism

4. An educational curriculum that teaches American history through local and state history.

Together these program are intended to assist in creating a healthy and prosperous community proud of its New York State identity.”

I still like what I wrote during that workshop and will be adding to the IHARE website.

What’s your agenda?

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.

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