Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Out With The Old, In With the New.

With all that lies before us in restoring the financial health of a state bankrupted by poor management and chicanery, rescuing our depleted heritage seems a distant priority, a noble but hopeless cause. The truth is, the State Historic Sites have never known good times, but are paraded out like poster children when New Jersey's cultural Brahmins want to tug at patriotic chords to fleece the public treasury. In the end---as with the Bagger bill of years ago, which created a grant fund for operating support and programming for history organizations---the State Historic Sites are quietly disqualified in the final equation from public funding as being too needy after a generation of neglect and administrative indifference. Likewise, the state owned and operated Historic Sites serve to inflate the salaries and self-opinion of unqualified managers and political appointees who can always be counted on to do more harm than good.

Yet, in truth, we can do something of great lasting value for the people of New Jersey without much, if any, expense. Since the adoption of the state constitution in 1947, the state owned and operated Historic Sites, including our Revolutionary War battlefields and monuments, have been tossed into the bureaucratic netherworld that became the DEP. In a revision of state law in 1966, the Historic Sites Council was created as a panel of experts to succeed the old Historic Sites Commission in the administration of the state owned and operated Historic Sites through an Office of Historic Sites. The Historic Sites Council never functioned in this assigned role, becoming instead a review board for historic register nominations, while the State Park Service absorbed the Historic Sites in its recreational embrace. Consequently, each Historic Site was assigned to the management of the nearest park superintendent, which amplified their salary range, but left this irreplaceable heritage as the widely-acknowledged "orphans" of the Division of Parks & Forestry.

To justify this takeover, allowing persons unqualified and even hostile to assume paid control, the DEP has deeply entombed the State Historic Sites within its bureaucracy, so that after 106 years, they no longer have even token organizational presence in state government. Formerly, under Title 13 (Source: 13:1B-101, 13:1B-105), the Office of Historic Sites and the Historic Preservation Office were identified as “administrative units” in the Division of Parks and Forestry and were the current successors in “authority to the former Historic Sites Commission.” Under the former law and regulations (Source: 28:1-4248), “The historic sites and historic preservation unit, with the approval of the commissioner, shall adopt “regulations for the proper disposition and administration of any monuments or historic sites owned or maintained” by the State pursuant to this chapter, or any non-State-owned monuments or historic sites for which the State has “responsibility.” The Commissioner has “the authority to establish by regulation such additional or subordinate administrative units within the historic sites and historic preservation unit as may be appropriate for the efficient and effective administration of the department.” (Source: 13:1B-15.101, 244 13:1B-15.102, 245 13:1B-15.105246)

Under the former statement of “Powers and duties” (Source: 13:1B-15.105, 28:1-6247) the offices of historic sites and historic preservation unit:

a. Have responsibility for the custody and care of all monuments, the title to which is vested in the state, whether erected within or without the state, and which are not in the control or custody of any other state commission or agency. The historic sites and historic preservation unit may make suitable arrangements for the care of any such monuments with county or municipal officers, or with local commissions or societies, if, in its judgment, such arrangements are proper and desirable.
b. Formulate comprehensive policies for the preservation, restoration and public presentation of all historic sites within the State.
c. Make the necessary research, prepare exhibits and furnish the services required for a proper and adequate interpretive program.
d. Prepare and disseminate informational materials to inform the public with respect to New Jersey's historic sites.
e. Consult and co-operate with groups and organizations in order to advance the purposes of the historic sites program.

The DEP evaded the letter and intentions of the law. Several years ago, a former Parks Director "created" a so-called Office of Interpretation and Resource Management at a bureau chief level to supersede the Office of Historic Sites, even though he had no authority under the law to do so. Now they have apparently "updated" the laws to entirely eliminate the Office of Historic Sites from its former legal responsibilities.

I keep asking: Why is New Jersey the only state without a professional system of state-owned and operated historic sites? We have learned from sad experience that the State Park Service lacks the professional qualifications to administer such cultural treasures. The inevitable consequences are tragic. Dispersing the various sites under the supervision of the nearest park superintendent is wholly dysfunctional. More importantly, no one in the management hierarchy has relevant background in historical interpretation, historic sites administration or museum collections management. When a professional support system is desperately required, all we get is window dressing. I point to the long-standing Federal model---despite its imperfections---where national historic parks operate under the Department of the Interior and are not assigned to an environmental regulatory agency.

As a no-cost solution, we urge legislative creation of a State Historic Sites Commission, composed of volunteers with experience in historic interpretation, historic sites management, museum studies, artifact conservation and public history, appointed by the Governor with State Senate consent, to take over the administration of the state owned and operated Historic Sites, overseeing the Administrator of the Office of Historic Sites, with direct line-command of all Historic Sites personnel and budgetary expenditures. Even in this climate of financial emergency, lending dignity and respect to the hard-learned lessons of history will enrich present and future generations, even with reduced budgetary support. And, simply said, no money could be better spent towards the education of our children. Without adding to the already crushing economic burden heaped upon the people of New Jersey, we can and must remove the State Historic Sites from the dark cellar of the DEP. Most importantly, we encourage the incoming Administration to clean house and to send those responsible for this sorry state of affairs out into the economic mess they helped to create!

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