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.
I refer here to the proposal floated only a few years ago to render this department “historic” by closing sites down. Presumably the buildings and collections were to be maintained by magic and the spirits of the previous occupants which would be a lot cheaper than having to pay real people in dollars. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and the historic sites are with us still.
The website goes on to notice a broad “breadth and scope of historic resources and historic preservation in New York State [which] spans over 400 years of history, and includes Natives Americans, founding fathers, architectural masterpieces, and small town and big city Main Streets and residential neighborhoods.” The references to the small towns, Main Streets, and neighborhoods are an essential component of the sense of place, sense of community, sense of belonging which a good system of education teaching local history also should foster. Thus the two components of the history infrastructure, schools and OPRHP, should be working together now and in the new common core social studies curriculum.
As might be expected, OPRHP has not been immune to the financial “challenges” which have been so overwhelming to historic sites and schools as well. I have my own early warning system to gauge how things are going within the department: rejects on email blasts. With schools the rejects tend to be at the beginning of the school year as teachers retire or transfer and, more recently, are laid off. Transfers within OPRHP throughout the state don’t affect email addresses the way they do between local school systems so the number of rejects has been fairly minimal…-until recently.
For example, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education has had some programs with a site to remain nameless where suddenly the email for the educator bounced back. However that does not mean the site discontinued education programs. Instead the Friends group picked up the slack. The email addresses no longer have a state domain but that of a private group. As a taxpayer, perhaps I should applaud this outsourcing of expenses. Instead of the taxpayer bearing the burden for financing education programs at the historic site, people with a specific interest in that site are picking up the tab. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful saving if private groups would pick up all the costs and the state completely abdicated its responsibility for education? What about sites that don’t have friends groups or have groups of limited financial means? The sad situation is that the state government is not necessarily providing the funding the sites need to be adequately maintained physically to be a valuable resource in the community or an “an important economic catalyst for New York State.”
I recently planned to attend a lecture at the John Jay Homestead here in Westchester. The lecture was being presented by the Friends group in partnership with the state. That Friends group also made the front page of the Westchester newspaper on March 7, (Yes I do mean the front page above the fold with a bigger display than the Super Tuesday primary results). The reason was the announcement of a plan to build a $1.5 million dollar education center which is intended in part to increase attendance beyond the 52,000 annual visitors at present. Private support to build a new education center is nothing new. Last summer in the Mohawk Valley teacherhostel/historyhostel we observed the construction of the now-opened George E. Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm of the Schenectady County Historical Society. The question here is: What is the role of the state in supporting education even at state sites?
Returning to the subject of “economic catalyst,” by coincidence there will be a “Forum for Creative Tourism Development in Central New York State: Maximizing Tourism’s Impact on Total Economic Development” March 18 at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site in Little Falls, 2:30-6:00. Close readers of my posts here may recall that I mentioned visiting a state historic site near to this one last summer where the brochures had “Gov. Mario Cuomo” along with a few for Pataki. Putting aside the issue of how many brochures must have been printed in the last millennium for the site, the topic of cultural heritage tourism is a vital one, consistent with the mission statement of OPRHP and the economic growth in region. The Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls are destination sites, many of the places in between are not. This makes collaboration essential. One site alone is not going to draw the crowds. I always make sure participants sign the guest registers because I know how important body counts are. It also reveals the paucity of visitors to some sites judging by the dates entered for the preceding visitors. The effort to host this conference is to be applauded as are other similar ventures taking place throughout the state.
Whither then OPRHP? Tourism, education, and a greater appreciation of both in Albany are the path to strengthening the history infrastructure in the state. At some point the activities by the concerned people at the grass roots level need to trickle up to the people who set the education standards and provide direction for economic development. That means the grass roots activities by a host of peoples and organizations throughout the state need to become focused and targeted if positive change is going to occur since ultimately direction and leadership are required.
[Since this post was written on March 8, so much has happened that will require numerous additional columns to address. AND IT’S GOOD STUFF!!!]
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.