Sunday, December 16, 2007

More on the NYHS

Let me follow up Rob’s post on the NYHS with a few comments of my own, though let me state that I know nothing about the situation he described (or the people involved.)But I too am a former employee of the NYHS (during the time I worked on the Encyclopedia of New York City), but I left their employ in 1992, when my job was finished. This was also at the time of the financial nadir of the NYHS, when it seemed very likely that it would not be able to continue as an independent institution.

Since then it has had, what, four or five different chief executives? This is a common path for troubled institutions, both of the for-profit and non-profit varieties, with a revolving door for saviors, all of whom come in with their own business plans and strategies, a determination to sweep clean with a new broom, until all this innovation and constant reinvention becomes completely enervating. At least in the bad old days, when the NYHS gloried in its antiquarianism, and rarely deigned to notice anything that happened in New York City after the time of De Witt Clinton, it had the virtue, from the perspective of the staff, of a security born of somnolence. Now, if people don’t get with the program of the current genius they get the standard two hours to clear out their desks.

It is hard not to compare the NYHS with the current problems of the Center for Jewish History, which just underscores the difficulty of independent historical institutions have in a non-profit world in which they really have no business existing. (The price of failure for all non-profits in NYC is being incorporated into the Borg-like collective of NYU. In the end, resistance is probably futile.) It’s very hard to be a small non-profit museum these days in NYC. Either you take over a 10 acre lot, like the Metropolitan Museum, or the dinosaureum next door to the NYHS, or you tend to die and wither, and institutions with deeper pockets say the right things while lusting after your collections.

Perhaps this is too cynical, and as I said, living and working in Rochester, I am completely out of the loop, and I am ignorant of the particulars of the situation, or indeed, of how well, financially or otherwise, the NYHS is doing these days. (I liked the exhibitions on slavery, I should acknowledge.) But, writing as a so-called “independent scholar,” I think the episode Rob describes sheds light on the perpetually tenuous state of public history and public historians. Most people agree that history is too important to be left solely to the mercies and ministrations of the self-interested academic colossi that are our large universities like NYU. But outside its borders, in the world where real public historians work, job security is a rare commodity, and you are all too frequently subject to the changing whims of your employer. Tight budgets make for pink slips, especially in the privatized world of public history.

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