A Historical Perspective on Historical Societies

Hancock House,Ticonderoga, NY (NYSHA)Many of the posts on this New York History website highlight the programs of historical societies or raise issues about their mission, funding, and impact.

Sometimes, a look back in our own history is useful in reminding us how enduring some of the issues are, and perhaps reminding us of strategies that have been up for discussion before.

State Historian James Sullivan, speaking at the annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) in October 1917, articulated several views about local historical societies and teaching history. (His speech was published as “Federating and Affiliating Local Historical Societies” in NYSHA’s Proceedings, Vol. XVII, 1919)

“Some of those which I have seen seemed to me largely associations in which social affairs have become predominant. We may usually judge these on arriving at the place of the meeting, by the number of stylish automobiles which are drawn up outside the door.”

“Other historical associations have the character of conventions of old settlers,” he continued. “The old farm wagons and automobiles of less expensive make bear witness to the character of the assemblage in the interior. These meetings are usually of the people who know the community by virtue of being brought up in it, and therefore have a love for it which is entirely personal.”

Both types have important roles to play but both are missing a key element of the community: “there is a conspicuous absence of young people….unless our historical associations appeal to the young people it is very likely that they will die out and the good work which they do fail of accomplishment.”

Sullivan suggested more activities to appeal to young people, including “excursions to historic places in the community,” outdoor pageants in the summer and “indoor pageants and tableaux in the winter,” and “having their meetings at various places of historical interest in the territory which the association’s membership covers.”

But he saw a more fundamental reason for the disconnect with young people: historical societies “do not keep in touch sufficiently with the present-day world….connect the past with the present.” That is relatively easy to do, he suggested. For instance, a paper on the draft system in the Civil War might be paired with another on how the draft was currently working in World War I. Another example might be to contrast the work of nursing and relief programs in the Civil War with the Red Cross in the ongoing war. Still another might be to contrast the role of transportation. The more history is used to shed light on current issues, the State Historian suggested, the more people will be interested in it.

Sullivan went further. “If our young people are to be patriotic, they must be taught to love something which is concrete and not abstract. The true way to teach a child to be patriotic is to teach him to love the community in which he is living. Unfortunately, our tendencies have been the other way and we have spent our time teaching pupils about things which are very remote and difficult for any exhibition of devotion.”

Part of the problem was the education of teachers, who receive little training in local history. They usually take up teaching in communities some distance from where they grew up or were educated. Furthermore, a teacher “is rather disinclined to neglect any opportunity of becoming a member of the local historical society, feeling that she is not part of the community. This feeling should be counteracted as much as possible by the local historical society’s president, who should seek every opportunity to encourage the teachers to come to the meetings whether they are of a social or a historical nature.”

Historical societies should cooperate, coordinate collecting, share resources, and help lift the whole historical enterprise. In any given region, “a central body of active members may organize and stimulate historical activity and bring about a coordination of specialties such as church history, industrial history, and other like phases.”

Historical societies can make other connections as well. “One of their excellent functions is that of taking an interest in the history textbooks used in the schools, offering prizes for studies in local history by teachers and pupils, and publishing some of the prize essays as pamphlets.”

State Historian Sullivan hit a number of points: the mission and role of historical societies, their sources of membership and support, the need for cooperation among them, their potential role in education, and the need to teach young people about local history, in part as a way of promoting patriotism.

All of those are issues still being debated today.

Photo: The Hancock House, Ticonderoga, home of the New York State Historical Association from 1926 through 1939 (NYSHA Photo).

4 thoughts on “A Historical Perspective on Historical Societies

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Please pass to Prof Dearstyne


    I am involved in an effort to rejuvenate the Nashua (NH) Historical Society’s governance and would appreciate being pointed to any source material that you would consider defining “Generally Accepted Governance Practice” for such non-profits. Issues such as degree to which the membership should have access to the names and addresses of other members, their visibility into such governance processes as the setting of pay rates for paid staff, the tracking of work hours, the tracking and valuation of artifact inventory from accession to de-accession and other such matters would all be of interest.

    If you have written on this topic, or could point me to other sources, your response will be helpful to our efforts.

    Gene Porter
    (NYS expat)

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    To Gene Porter in New Hampshire,
    There are many excellent organizations who make it their business to enhance governance for not for profits. One such that I recommend is AASLH (American Assoc. for State & Local History). The have a special on right now….each topical bundle is only $10. Many local business councils run specials for not for profits.
    Here in New York State we have Museum Assoc. of New York and Museumwise. These two organization are in the process of becoming one but both before and still offer materials and workshops with grant assistance to assist local museum organization build or improve organizational structure and or improve governance. These are very good places to begin. Unfortunately, many local museum organizations are still in the “social club” mode described in Bruce’s article and really have no interest in approaching anything resembling professionalism. I can report that the 16 or so museum historical societies here in Wayne County, NY are all at least a step above the club level and many have and do use the services of professionals to assist in organization and governance improvement. The result is, they are all quite healthy organizations providing real service to their communities.

    If you would like to discuss this further, contact me directly at [email protected] or my ohone number is posted on our Wayne County website under Historian.

    Good luck, Peter Evans

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Mr. Porter,

    Thank you.

    Actually, there are lots of people who post on this website who might be able to advise you, so they might want to respond, too.

    Here are a few recommendations:

    The Museum Association of New York, What Comes First: Your Guide to Building a Strong, Sustainable Museum or Historical Organization (With Real Life Advice from Folks Who’ve Done It) (http://manyonline.org/2010/10/manys-latest-publication-what-comes-first)

    Gerald George and Carol Maryann George, Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning, 3rd edition, published by the American Association for State and Local History and Alta Mira Press.

    The American Association for State and Local History’s Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (STEPS) (http://www.aaslh.org/steps.htm)

    The blogs “Leading by Design” (http://leadingbydesign.blogspot.com) and “The Uncataloged Museum” (http://uncatalogedmuseum.blogspot.com)

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    My thanks to the respondents for their thoughtful suggestions, There are several good leads here that will take some time to pursue.
    Gene Porter


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