What does all this mean for the New York State history community? The first responsibility of course is survival. For the history community, particularly the archivists and the historic sites, it means the physical survival of the records, artifacts and buildings to which you have been entrusted. As we know from the recent storm of the century with Irene, physical survival of the historical legacy is not something that can be taken for granted. Indeed it was precisely that storm in the Mohawk Valley a few scant weeks following a Teacherhostel/Historyhostel there which led to the very first of my posts to New York History. So in some ways, I am back where I started.
But beyond the survival, restoration, and reconstruction efforts required in the wake of a devastating storm of unprecedented proportions, especially in New Jersey, what should the history community be doing? As it turns out we are witness to history. Think of the events which have happened in scarcely a decade in the country and New York.
2001 Osama bin Laden’s assault on humanity at what became Ground Zero and where a museum is being prepared for opening pending Sandy
2001 The Invasion of Afghanistan with many American soldiers of the same age as the Civil War soldiers we now commemorate during this Sesquicentennial
2003 The Invasion of Iraq – same as above
2008 Primary contest of a major political party between a person of color who attended school at Columbia in New York and a person of gender who bought a home in Chappaqua, New York
2008 The election of the first Euro-Kenyan to the Presidency leading to the saying in Kenya that it is easier for a Luo to be elected President of the United States of America then to be elected President of Kenya
2010 The Rise of the Tea Party and the Storm of the Century
2011 Occupy Wall Street and snow on Halloween
2012 The nomination of the first Mormon, a religion founded in upstate New York, to the Presidency of a major party, another storm of the century, and snow just after Halloween.
Historic museums and organizations are very good at genealogies, the colonial era, the American Revolution, and much of the 19th century, but when we get to the 20th century yet alone the 21st, it’s another story. How can a time when you were alive be an historic period? History is long ago! Right?
Now we live in a time when history is happening all around us. The demographics of our communities have changed enormously especially as some cities become sanctuary cities for the brutalized peoples of the world. We have witnessed the rise and fall of extraordinary new technologies. Remember Blockbuster? How far do you travel to see a movie? It used to be the local Bijou where you would see your neighbors and bond as a community. Then it became the multiplex outside of town with the big parking lots and people were strangers. Then you could rent a video and see no one outside your home. Then you could go to your mailbox for a DVD. Now your fingers do all the work as you can download a movie. The pace of change is extraordinary. Once upon a time in the 1990s there was a movie about a chain bookstore demolishing the cherished local bookstore, now the chain bookstore is fighting the fire that has been kindled by an amazon. The rate of change is phenomenal.
What should the historical societies and municipal historians be doing as history swirls all around us? Is it enough to preserve the past? Is it enough to document the World War II veterans who are dying at an accelerated rate? What about documenting the events of the present? What about the responsibilities to help the historians of the future understand our present by helping to preserve its memory? And if we do try to document the events such as the ones mentioned above, how do we go about doing that? What media do we use? In what format? Who is going to do it when historical organizations are struggling to stay afloat both literally and figuratively and can’t take on new challenges?
I wish I could provide some simple answers to these questions. I can say that the history community as it exists today is stretched to the limit. A community of frequently part-time or volunteer people with limited budgets whether public or private with buildings that need maintenance and archives that need curating operating often separately from the academic scholars and k-12 educators is not able to document how the people of their communities participated in or responded to the great events of the opening years of the 21st century. Here is an area where some serious and hard thought is required to define and support what it means to be an historian in our local globalized-communities where history never stops.
Photo: Avenue C in Manhattan’s East Village was flooded shortly before a massive explosion at the Consolidated Edison power substation on the street took out power to the neighborhood. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user