Publication Date

May 1, 2004

US MapPublic history agencies and public historians have been at the mercy of the state for so long, the crisis that we are discussing descends to the standard of risky business as usual. Indeed, in most states with which I am familiar, historical commissions and councils, humanities agencies, and to a lesser extent arts councils, are consistently buffeted by ill winds—some of the fiscal kind, others far more political.

Even during times of fiscal stability and economic growth, state support for history and heritage is usually tepid at best. My vantage point on this problem is New Jersey, where, in the mid-1960s, the state established a historical commission that in short order distinguished itself as one of the nation's foremost public history agencies. Although small, the New Jersey Historical Commission (NJHC) was nonetheless forward-thinking and important to my generation of academic historians who wanted to do local and state history. And so, the commission was instrumental in helping New Jersey residents and others to appreciate the state's pivotal role in virtually every chapter of the American historical narrative—from the American Revolution to the Great Migration, from the Industrial Revolution to the New Immigration at the turn of the last century, and from the urban reform movements to the 20th-century triumph of the suburbs.

Such a record of accomplishments, however, never insulated the commission from ill-considered decisions by political leaders (or their subordinates). During the administration of Governor James Florio (Democrat, 1990–94), the then existing budget crunch was used as a rationale to wipe out the commission's meager budget. Later, even during fiscally flush times, Governor Christine Todd Whitman (Republican, 1994–2001) sought the same objective, but for different reasons. Her subordinates posed a curiously cynical argument for public consumption—that the commission's work was best performed by scholars on college and university campuses.

In each case, the commission was saved in large part by an aggressive lobbying effort and the editorial positions taken by New Jersey newspapers (perhaps because many newspaper reporters and editors were once history majors!).

More recently, the current governor, James A. McGreevey (Democrat, 2002–), in the scariest move yet, claimed that the state did not have sufficient financial resources during the last fiscal year for continued support of the state historical commission, the arts council, the cultural trust, and an array of other organizations onto which New Jersey's quest for identity is hinged. In his budget message to the state legislature he called for an end to all state funding for these agencies and groups. It was a shocking prospect that possibly marked the nadir of public support for civic culture in the state.

Fortunately, in calling for an end to state support of agencies and organizations devoted to civic culture, the governor also challenged them to raise such a ruckus that he would have the political ammunition to commit the unforgivable—raise taxes specifically to support the history, arts, and cultural agencies and organizations of New Jersey.

And so nearly a half-year of advocacy battles were waged on behalf of the commission and the infrastructure it supports. Never before had public history been involved in such a controversy over the priorities of the state; never before had so much been at stake.

I spoke not long ago with Marc Mappan, the executive director of the commission. He told me that the battle over the commission's budget may have been fortuitous in that the desperate circumstances that the agency faced last year forced it, and other public history organizations, to think and act more strategically.

Surprisingly, the successful battle to restore most of the funding that the governor had cut from the budgets of historical and arts and culture agencies and organizations disproportionately benefited the NJHC and the larger historical infrastructure.

How could this have happened? Was the commission's success in getting 80 percent of its budget restored a victory worthy of celebration, or was it a short-lived survival, leaving the possibility of having to fight another day? Are there lessons to be learned from the New Jersey case and are they applicable to other states?

Let me offer a few thoughts. Having battled with three governors over the past decade, the public history community learned that without an advocacy organization, it was doomed to be perceived as being impotent and thus rendered all but silent during the annual battle over the state budget. As a state agency, the NJHC couldn't get involved in lobbying, but that turned out not to be a problem. In fact, it was an asset, because small history museums, county history and heritage agencies, and academics joined forces to bring attention to the crisis facing state funding of the history infrastructure. Their group—Advocates for New Jersey History—was undoubtedly inspired by Art Pride, the advocacy organization for arts and cultural organizations, which over the past 10 years has made the arts community among the best organized constituencies involved in sustaining civic culture. Through letters to key legislators and the governor, op-ed pieces in the leading newspapers, and public demonstrations in front of the State House, the history community was heard from in a way that surpassed previous battles for funding.

Significant to its strategy of making a fuss and stating its importance, Advocates for New Jersey History hired a professional lobbyist who communicated the concerns of the history community to key legislators and, equally important, advised the history community on what the legislature needed to hear as to the importance of history at a time of budgetary crisis.
But the most important development during the crisis was that finally the arts and history were joined in the public’s mind as equally important. In many states, the arts are viewed as a higher form than history; hence the disproportionately greater public funding and attention they receive. In merging the interests of history and the arts, the advocates for both sectors found strength in shared numbers and expertise.

In the end, both sectors survived. Now, for the first time, there will be designated funding for the arts and history through a new hotel/motel tax. In pushing the new levy through the legislature, Governor McGreevey kept his promise. But that promise was made far less politically risky by the groundswell of support, and the united effort mounted by the history and arts and culture advocates.

The New Jersey example notwithstanding, several questions that focus on the larger crisis facing the historical infrastructure need also to be considered. Who will be most adversely affected by the crisis? That's easy: the proponents of local history, found equally in the work of professionally trained historians as well as those lay students of the past whose doggedness often sheds light on the obscure, and whose narratives deserve broader attention.

How might we minimize the long-term damage of the crisis we face? That's less easy to answer because it takes time to build the kind of coalition of civic interests that has taken shape in New Jersey. Nonetheless, it is possible to use the crisis to connect the dots between history, neighborhood preservation, K–12 education, and the arts.

And, finally, what are the most effective strategies in dealing with elected officials, and the voters, when presenting our case that public history is in a state of crisis? In New Jersey we found that a cross section of interests responded to the fact that shutting down the commission would imperil the so-called new history—those narratives and interpretations and events that shed light on blacks, women, workers, immigrants, and local communities.

Over the long term, those involved in public history on the state level will learn how to take good advantage of how the past resonates in the lives of our fellow citizens. But that learning process must involve linking our work to the efforts of others who labor in the vineyards of civic culture. In those vineyards we find teachers, social workers, artists, local businesses, the clergy and politicians—the motley crew of our democracy.

— is Board of Governors' Distinguished Service Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey.

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