Combating Commemoration Fatigue
by Johanna Porr Yaun
Insights from the Hudson Valley 250th Regional Collaborative Meeting
On January 19, 2023 I had the pleasure of meeting via video conference with a group of County Historians (and a few Historical Society directors) representing Rockland, Orange, Sullivan, Ulster, Greene, Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam & Westchester Counties.
We discussed the nuts and bolts of each of our county’s Semiquincentennial planning and each contributed some advice based on our experiences. Although each of us have had past success in working on important commemorations in our respective communities, but we recognize that the Semiquincentennial is a unique challenge because a) it is of national and statewide significance, b) it is tied directly to New York State’s heritage tourism resources (19 of New York State’s public historic sites are related to the Revolutionary War) and because c) it will be a full decade long endeavor with lots of moving parts. From 2024 to 2033, New York State will mark the occasion, to be headed by the 13-person New York State 250th Commission signed into law one year ago by Governor Kathy Hochul.
The New York State 250th Commission is slated to be comprised on 13 appointed volunteers with additional representation from the Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, the State Education Department, Empire State Development, the New York State Canal Corporation, the New York State Secretary of State, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York State Office of General Services, New York State Tourism Advisory Council, and the Office of the New York State Historian. As of our meeting date, this state body had not yet met and therefore had not yet developed a plan to pass down to local planners. What I find important to note is that there is also not yet any professional oversight of this project as all involved are either honorary positions serving as volunteers or government professionals with a full plate of agency responsibilities that take priority.
With the clock ticking for the commemorative period to kick-off in December of 2023 (anniversary of the Tea Parties), the coordination and preparation work is falling to local commissions, committees, 501c3s or in some cases individuals who have engaged in this process from a grassroots level. For those of us who have volunteered to manage the county-wide and regional efforts, this current limbo situation puts us in position where we must juggle organizing local events with keeping ourselves nimble enough to anticipate what the directives will be once national and state entities are fully engaged.
For this reason, one agenda item at the regional meeting was Combating Commemoration Fatigue and the group conversation surrounding this issue was lively. The cause of this feeling of fatigue was identified in several ways, some of the factors discussed were: a) the shear density of history pertaining to the Revolutionary War in the Hudson Valley that needs to be incorporated, b) the length of the anniversary lasting from 2024-2033 with important dates of significance throughout the full period, c) the ongoing task of cultivating and maintaining political will and interest from elected officials d) the need to engage stakeholders from a variety of fields such as education, museums, tourism departments, public and academic historians and park personnel in decision making e) the changes that have occurred since the Bicentennial (1976) in both technology and education practices (therefore large scale digitization is needed, new topics need to be explored, and communication through decentralized media needs to be developed) f) the decline of History/Social Studies requirements in education standards has eliminated a natural entry point to interface with students g) that without school system interest, local revenue generated from field trips has fallen away, h) that state and local government decision makers are not fully realizing the heritage tourism potential of this upcoming commemorative period, leaving a burdensome amount of organizing and planning tasks to grassroots consortiums and volunteers to shoulder.
With all these stressors in mind, several ideas were shared to help leverage organizational strategies and community relationships to lay the groundwork for success:
• CRAFTING YEARLY THEMES—The Association of State and Local History worked with the America 250 commissioners to outline 5 themes of a broad conceptual nature. This may be satisfactory for states or regions with less direct connection to the American Revolution. But here in the Hudson Valley it’s important that we consider historically rooted themes that allow our institutions to dig deeper into material culture, primary documents and physical locations that are right here at our fingertips. By intersecting the national themes with those local themes, strategic planning for programming and educational material can be fit into the timeline of a longer story. See Intersecting National & Local Themes
• SMALLER COMMITTEES REPORTING TO THE LARGER BODY—In counties where there are sometimes hundreds of locations, people and monuments of significance to be considered, it might make sense to have smaller committees formed to work on individual topics. These smaller groups with a singular mission in mind will be able to leverage local resources and assistance more competently than a larger association with many tasks on their docket.
• REGIONAL SUPPORT—In contrast, there are other topics that will be best served by broadening collaboration to a regional level. This is particularly relevant in situations where municipal borders have shifted from historical lines or in cases where the regional landscape plays a dominant role in the story. Several examples were discussed such as the 1777 Clinton Campaign along the Hudson River, the 1779 Minisink Campaign along the Delaware River, and the treason of Benedict Arnold and capture of John Andre which crisscrossed the Hudson River. There are also connections to the Washington-Rochambeau Trail that run across the lower Hudson River Valley which tie us into the larger picture of the Yorktown victory and aftermath and the Fishkill Supply Depot which unified all the Hudson Valley counties in the region through a network of supply lines.
• COLLABORATING WITH ADJACENT INDUSTRY LEADERS—In communities where we have strong arts, music, business, artisan and hospitality industries collaborative work can be done to enhance each other’s endeavors and goals. This can take the form of suggesting themes that relate to the history of the American Revolution, even sometimes in abstract ways, to these groups for incorporation into their local projects. This also gives the public more access points to the Semiquincentennial, attracting new audiences and bringing a greater diversity of community voices to the overall project. These types of collaborations can be aimed at both supporting the elements of local history that form a sense of place for residents and at attracting heritage tourism dollars to the community via attracting outside tourists to participate though casual interactions with the things that make our local history unique.
• CREATING REGIONAL GUIDES— County-wide or local efforts can be shared through regional guides (printed or digital) that can be distributed to local teachers, libraries, museums, historical societies, and tourism departments so that they have the resources necessary to plan their own projects. This includes several approaches such as creating a shared timeline of important dates/events, creating field guides with the themes tied into local history, a reenactor directory to showcase the talent that is available locally.
• DEVELOPING A SHARED CALENDAR OR WEBSITE— As events and programs are developed, it will be important to make certain that we are all formatting and presenting the information in a way that can be shared easily to state or regional calendars.
These are just a few of the ideas that were suggested in the course of the Hudson Valley 250th Regional Collaborative Meeting on January 19, 2023. Please feel free to reach out if you have any thoughts to add to this list.
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