Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sound the Alarm! Closure of Pennsylvania Historic Sites!

A friend informs me the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has decided "to get out of the 'history' business." As of November 20, 2009, eighty-five workers, representing one-third of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's staff, were laid off and numerous Historic Sites across Pennsylvania, including Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, were shut down. According to the report of Charles Thompson and Jan Murphy in The Patriot-News, "Some historical sites will close for the winter or have responsibility for their operations shifted to outside groups." Governor Ed Rendell suggests, "volunteers and local groups should be prepared to absorb the responsibility of running the sites for several years, given the economy’s slow growth rate."

Bureaucrats have attempted similar transfers of New Jersey's most significant heritage sites in recent years, further burdening volunteers who already contribute substantial amounts of their time, talent and treasure to the cause. While these same administrators would not recommend turning over recreational park administration, programming, maintenance and policing to volunteers---for obvious reasons---they nevertheless are eager to dump responsibility for irreplaceable historic resources, so as to be able to shift the blame for their inevitable decline and loss upon those who recognize their value and care most about their protection. We must also remember that, however well meaning and motivated, most volunteers cannot provide the time, resources, practical experience, historical background, or technical knowledge needed to make valuable museum collections and historic buildings safely and widely accessible on a consistent basis. And as we all know too well, with exceptional demands on their time, with both heads of households working and with some folks working more than one job to get by, volunteers are becoming scarcer.

Why are Historic Sites so often the first publicly owned resources to be threatened with abandonment? One reason is that they touch a deep chord and rouse public support. Otherwise, they are an easy category of expenditure to eliminate on specious grounds: The attendance at long neglected Historic Sites, often lacking such basic amenities as adequate parking, restrooms, marketing and staff, are compared with popular beaches and large venue parks and found wanting, supposedly justifying their removal from the public inventory. What will the result be? A generation of school children and new Americans denied the educational opportunity to discover their history and to connect with core American values.

Reportedly, the December 25th program at Washington Crossing Historic Park will still take place (as well as the rehearsal crossing), not only to keep the event going, but also to allegedly keep the public from protesting before widespread media coverage. The New Jersey Friends of Washington Crossing Park are planning to protest on the New Jersey side during both the rehearsal crossing on Sunday, December 13th, from 12 noon to 2 PM and on Christmas Day, Friday, December 25th, from 12 noon to 2 PM. They need people to show up during the actual reenactment of the famous crossing at 1 PM, so please support their efforts. While some protest signs will be available, you are encouraged to bring your own.

We understand severe budget cuts must be made to restore health to our public finances, but what little is spent on state owned and operated Historic Sites can hardly be categorized with the wasteful spending that brings us to this great crisis. The lessons of History, made meaningful through the experience of storied places and objects, should be considered fundamental to a thorough and efficient education for every American.

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