Identity: New York History - Researching & Resourcing to Gain the Public Interest

Researching NY Conference Notes & Thank You! 

First, I would like to express my most sincere gratitude to the Friends of Schoharie Crossing for covering the cost of my attendance to the 2014 Researching New York Conference this past week. Not only were the conference sessions extremely interesting but brought a greater understanding to the central theme of the event -Identities in New York: Imagining, Constructing, Exploring and how much of that perspective could be applied to programs or events at Schoharie Crossing. 

The opportunity to be a part of one of the larger New York History conferences was amazing and allowed me the chance to not only gain knowledge but network with NY state historians, academics, historical societies, museum curators and more.   I only feel that it is right and proper to produce some notes on the relevancy of the conference to what is conducted here at the site, and further propose the use of such events as a terrific way to increase awareness across the state of what Schoharie Crossing has to offer.

Day One: Nov. 20th

(L-R) Christopher Minty - NY Hist. Soc., Christopher Leahy
 - Keuka College, & Eric Morser - Skidmore College

Session I –  Opposing Loyalties: Forging Political Identities 
This session applied a greater understanding of NYC politics just prior to the American Revolution as well as State vs. Federal authority during mid-19th century.  Whiles these two things may seem to have a disconnect, the theme tied them together regarding the political identity of core groups and the formulation of the questions What is America? and Who decides what that is? 
While the first portion delineated political groups in the colony of NY by the mercantile working class loyalist factions against the more elitist landowning lawyer driven patriot factions, the second pitted then Governor Wm. Seward and President Tyler over the right of the State in the 1840’s to try and hang a Canadian named McLeod who was charged with murder.  Both have fine nuances of international intrigue with regional and even local touches.  What the commentary did to pull them together was describe the ways that these two seemingly unrelated topics can be drawn to show a view of NY history as defining how American identity was formed through a developing means – not strictly at a singular unchanging moment – and that ultimately, what defines identity is centrally human perspective. 
Applying this to SXSHS is background overall regarding not only the political climate leading up the Revolution as would affect the Mohawk Valley/Ft. Hunter, but the ongoing political debate over State/Federal authority and power during the early canal years and first enlargement era.  Economics play heavy into that discussion as well and perhaps the NYS economic hardships of the mid-1800’s provoked a more heated debate between the State, the Federal government as well as Canada and Great Britain regarding the incident.  Again, this provides evidence that the early American republic was still “working out” rights of authority as well as its identity globally.

Session II –          Making History Work - Discussion Panel
This session was presented by a diverse panel of historians, curators and preservationists.  Primarily the discussion pertained to the concept of re-approaching collections and partnerships in order to tell a historical narrative from a different perspective.  The focus often lead to commentary on collaboration with organizations, schools, colleges and the community in order to achieve this broad concept. 
(L-R) Ivan Steen - SUNY, John Bonafide - NYS Preservation
Bureau, Michael Lucas - NYS Museum, Kathleen Johnson -, & John Scherer - Clifton Park Historian
Discussion was also had on public consumption of history and it needing to remain relevant to a broad base as well as to current topics.  With the public history field being driven by exhibits, collections and information geared toward the interest of the community and the academic history field detailing greater depth of historical facts but without the reach to the public.  Since several of the panelists where on either side of this “line” there was also discussion on how to bring them together either by linking to public interest, tourism, or other fashion and narrowing the gap or perceived gap between them. 
There was also much conversation on doing the above as a way to gain attendance, attention and funding.  As many are aware, funding for historical societies, sites and other organizations is sparse and the overall consensus is utilizing public interest to draw support of the institutions/organizations.  Additionally, the idea of engaging and gaining public interest could be directing that into the supporting role of advocacy – to donors and government officials. 
Session III – Hodinohso:ni’ in Post WWII New York
This session provided stirring background and information regarding the Iroquois in the years after the American Revolution in New York State.  Much of the presentation was based from the 1940’s until today, but rooted by issues going back to the colonial era and especially post-colonial conditions. 
            The first of the presentations was about Ernest Benedict and provided a great deal of information about his editorial success as a newspaper man and bringing together the larger complex global issues into a regional and local context of the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve that is situation between the borders of Canada and the state of New York.  This was great context for the rise in the American Indian Movement on the heels of civil rights and American social changes. 
            The other presentations outlined the conditions – socially, economically, but most relevantly politically – of the Mohawk Nation in its dealings with the “absentee” Federal/National government and the tense “non-trusting” relations with the government of New York State.  Much of the panelists’ comments regarded an emphasis on the rights of the modern day indigenous peoples and the effects of fractioning within their own communities regarding lands, resources and political sovereignty and governance. 
            Applicable to SXSHS is the notion often expressed by visitors that there is no longer a current, mobile and viable Iroquois or Mohawk peoples when discussing the village and Fort Hunter.  Not only does this give an increasing knowledge base to share, but the link to the over 100,000 Iroquois that live in the U.S. and Canada currently can be found in New York History that is even occurring to this day.   The worldview can also be shared more directly, as information was given about the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge’s new location going in at Waterford, NY.  This provides partnership opportunities to share Six Nations knowledge.

Day Two: Nov. 21st

Session IV – Eleanor Roosevelt: Working Woman
This session was extremely helpful not only in providing information about one of NY’s great leaders, but of the approach taken to interpret her legacy to the public.  The panelists from SUNY and the National Parks Agency (who oversee several Roosevelt sites), discussed the process of this in as much detail as the events of her life. 
            Their stated relentless position is that interpretation should outline the predominate identity of the individual as well as presenting information on how or why that identity or perception was formed – all while maintaining relevancy within the exhibit or collection to the public interest.  Thus, challenging the understanding of who we are as a people and generating not only interest but direction to think differently about the past as well as “how history is constructed.”
(L-R) Franceska Macsali Urbin & Frank Futral of the
Roosevelt Vanderbilt National Historic Site (NPS)
In their approach to Eleanor this is done by showcasing several aspects of her changing identity as a reformer, social and civil rights movement “agitator,” educator, diplomat and more while making use of sites, buildings, photographs, letters, newspapers and other objects. 
            As a way to apply this to SXSHS going forward – more complicated profiles of the important figures of the canal, Fort Hunter and perhaps even the development of the Schoharie Crossing as an historic site may be explored.

LUNCH – Keynote Address – Lisa Tetrault
Lisa Tetrault

During the lunch hours of the conference an address by professor and author Lisa Tetrault outlined the origin of the Seneca Falls Convention and the US Women’s Rights and Suffrage movement.  From the vantage of the myth created regarding the importance of Seneca Falls and detailing the factions within the women’s rights movement, Tetrault discussed the “origin of an origin” when its importance is historically relevant. 
The greater lesson used by way of the information presented in her book and outlined by her address is one that those looking to explore history should be well aware of  - perspective.  Who is communicating the history and to what ends?  As she mentioned the creation of the myth and insertion of false details to encourage or foster the belief or importance, we can all ask ourselves about historical events or people those same basic questions.  Stopping short of stating great skepticism is needed, the broad idea is that everyone should be understanding of history as a matter of perspective and seek out deeper understanding whenever possible.

Session V – Beyond Seneca Falls – Integrating Women into NYS History- Discussion Panel
This panel session of the conference looked to ask the question more than answer it, as to how NYS History can integrate more female narrative and thereby represent greater diversity of women within it?  The answer would seek to go further than placing women into just supporting roles or as “token” mentions in the overall story. 
(L-R) Karen Pastorello - Tomkins Cortland Community College,
Susan Goodier - SUNY Polytechnic
Inst. & Hamilton College, & Susan Lewis - SUNY New Paltz
It seemed that one obvious method would be placing events into greater context while using larger themes illustrating women’s importance as essential.  Through this broadened curriculum, human rights and struggles can present realism by use of relevant details. 
            Applying this to programs for SXSHS there is a way to deepen the understanding of the impact and roles played by women from across the eras – from Mohawk Clan mothers to women on the canal and locally in Fort Hunter.  Instead of casting only into supportive roles, they may be integrated –not just highlighted- into the narrative and presented to the public. 

Session VI –         Public History: Variations on a Theme - Discussion Panel
This session held a discussion outlining approaches to get students and students interested in NYS history through diverse themes viewed differently.  One such way was fostering individual exploration and research in line with significant interests that promote identity within NY Heritage.  The highlight then was doing so within cultural institutions and collaboration with community groups, school, etc. 
            By use of portals to collections and resources to educate what is available and therefore encourage greater use of them, this can additionally generate a more community based identity where materials create an investment in the historical site, society or organization.  A retired librarian turned archivist brought great information about digital collections online that can be used to advocate use of the site and showcase collections. 
Bruce Dearstyne, Independent Scholar
            These methods are all great ways to reduce or eliminate the “disconnect from history” that seems to exist overall in the population.  According to the panelist Bruce Dearstyne, it should be apparent to most in the field that there is a need to “bring about historical context to current events and champion NY history.”  The entire panel seemed to agree with that sentiment – as did the audience – and that an approach that is people centered with solid examples that are relevant can build on larger themes in the community.
            This supports the interest of SXSHS to bring awareness of the site to the community as a resource for many varied options.  The benefit of the site is even greater than the history and by fostering the use of it we can generate a further investment of the public to maintenance, interpretation and preservation. 

The Workers of the Erie Canal – Capital Repertory Theater presentation
The final event of the conference was a performance of part of the Capital Repertory Theater Educational Program The Workers of the Erie Canal: They Built America.  Conference attendees and the general public were treated to the first 25 minutes of the hour long program, followed by a question and answer session.  The group will be presenting this program as part of their 2014-2015 Education Season ON-THE-GO! Tour in the spring. 
Offered to schools and other organizations as a way to bring life to the story with the use of period music and acting out of characters, the program creates a tale using historical documentation to generate composite main characters alongside actual historical figures like DeWitt Clinton and Canvass White.  This program makes great use of the main character and realizes that through the fact that she is an orphan girl.  The performance covers the canal from the political to the social aspects of policy, building, use and widespread effect on the people and state of New York, America and globally. 
As information regarding this program is released to school districts, there will also be accompanying educational information and documents for teachers and districts to make use of when covering the Erie Canal.  Part of the materials that will be distributed will include information about the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor as well as the sites along the way.  This could increase some awareness of SXSHS to districts that may otherwise not know how we can be accessed and that we are a resource for their curriculum.  While there is a cost for the performance to reach a school, there are several grants and scholarships available, much like a field trip to our site. 

Overall recap: 
The sessions provided additional background and information to approach programming, events and everyday interpretation here at Schoharie Crossing.  By networking and adding new elements from various other sites and their perspectives, I am in hopes of bringing something from the conference to the site that will support the mission and allow for a greater reach to the community. 
            Seminars and conferences like this one keep those of us with vested interest into the site on up to date and renew or give fresh ideas. 

Thank you once again for your dedication to Schoharie Crossing.