Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Save Pennsylvania History!

Today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is running an op-ed that urges Pennsylvanians to protest Governor Ed Rendell's cuts to historical institutions. The author is Bernard Dicken, an independent history consultant who lives in Pittsburgh.

I heard today that students at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA are collecting signatures. I think it might be time to initiate a similar movement at Messiah College. I will be taking this to my students this week. It's time to rally the troops!

Here is Dicken's clarion call:

Late last year, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission fired 38 percent of its workforce. Historians, curators and educators lost their jobs -- jobs they performed not for the small amount of money they earned but because of their desire to preserve the history and culture of Pennsylvania.

Gov. Ed Rendell has threatened additional layoffs and the possibility of closing the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg. If these cuts continue, the places that many of us visited on elementary school field trips or family vacations will never be enjoyed by our own children.

Where, one might ask, is the protest, the public outcry, the march on the Capitol and the letter writing campaign to save our historical sites?

In these days of recession, falling home prices, high unemployment and budget shortfalls, the arts and humanities will certainly suffer. But Pennsylvanians should not turn a blind eye to the wanton disregard for history shown by the recent hatchet job in Harrisburg.

There are many things wrong with state government and many places where wasteful spending must be curbed. But preserving Pennsylvania history is not one of them. After all, President Barack Obama, despite the recession, is not talking about closing the Smithsonian.

Harrisburg's backward thinking on this issue is evidenced by the fact that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recently announced plans to invest time and money into commemorating the upcoming Civil War sesquicentennial. One would think that Gettysburg National Military Park -- a federally funded site which recently underwent a multi-million dollar facelift and has a solid stream of money from Washington -- could handle the celebration of Civil War history on its own and that Pennsylvania would choose to invest its dwindling resources into preserving its own unique historical sites. But no one has yet seized on this apparent paradox.

It is clear that this latest round of cuts is not going to be the last. With this dangerous precedent, the elimination of state funding and grants for nonprofit museums and historical organizations likely will follow. No cultural agency that gets a dime from the state is immune.

Those historical organizations across Pennsylvania that have not yet felt the pinch seem to be proceeding with the "at least it's not us" approach. Yet in the end, it is the responsibility of every individual who works in the arts and humanities to protest these cuts.

The elimination of these jobs is a frontal assault on the value of history. Anyone who preserves history for a living should join the resistance. The power of the pen, we know from the study of history, can achieve amazing things.

The academic world, too, needs to get involved. Each and every year, colleges and universities turn out hundreds of students with history degrees. Some offer programs specifically designed to train students for work in museums, archives and other "public history" endeavors. If things continue, current and future students will end up with thousands of dollars in debt and no prospect of finding work.

Perhaps it is too much to think that history professors in Pennsylvania might ask their students to pen a letter to Mr. Rendell in support of the value of history and against these recent cuts. But they should. The survival of history departments in Pennsylvania colleges and universities depends on the availability of job prospects for their graduates.

This effort to save Pennsylvania history is not just for those who work in history or culture. A network of regional museums benefits everyone by creating a broad, unifying identity for all of us who reside in the commonwealth. It provides heritage tourism destinations for residents and visitors alike.

The building of a network of museums to preserve Pennsylvania history and teach it to the next generation was a great triumph of past generations of preservation-minded Pennsylvanians. We owe it to them to save what they built.

More importantly, a healthy respect for history is a hallmark of any forward-thinking, progressive society. Let's not let this recession bring about our regression.