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Director’s Note: March 2014

This note first appeared in the Society’s Winter/Spring 2014 Newsletter.

The Spectacle of Toleration project is wrapping up this year, and we at the NHS are beginning to reflect on what we learned and how to properly document the experience. One end product will be a published volume of a number of the papers presented at our October conference edited by two of the project’s steering committee of academics, Christopher J. Beneke, Associate Professor of History at Bentley University and Christopher D. Grenda, Associate Professor of History at Bronx Community College.

One of the important lessons we learned, which had nothing to do with religious tolerance of Rhode Island’s history, was about public history. The project was meant to assemble current scholarship on an historical issue and then transmit that information to the public. In our planning we saw those two processes as sequential and more or less separate. But many of the participating scholars faulted us for not making the conference more open and inviting to the public. For not bringing the public into the academic conversation. As one participate commented:

I think historical societies can do what universities cannot do, namely create those spaces where academics and other stakeholders come together to have conversations that universities don’t always have…each field will have its own canon of theories and otherwise that have to be put into play in any article…most people outside of that narrow field won’t get the theoretical literature, and so there is not a whole lot of conversation across stake holder communities. But a historical society is different. You can create the kinds of programming that bring the university out into the public. –Dr. Anver Emon, University of Toronto

The integration, or at least bridge-building, between the academy and the public could be the model for a modern Newport Historical Society. There is no doubt that a center for study that is passive – that is found only if you know enough to know it’s there – is not sustainable, or perhaps, even ethical for today’s world. If we are, as we believe, a repository of important and useful information, it is our responsibility to make sure that those who might make use of us know we are here. This includes more than the traditional audiences of scholars and local consumers of local history. It means talking to elected officials, to the business community, to artists and to school children. It means reaching out beyond our City and our State to talk to anyone who might be interested in how people thought, learned, did business, solved problems and interacted with each other and the world in times past. And it means collaborating and connecting with organizations and individuals who have similar goals, audiences or information. Most particularly, just to close the circle, this means reaching out to those who are creating knowledge in our area, and making sure that this becomes as public as possible.

Part of reaching out to new audiences is also our responsibility to engage with government. This fall I participated in a state-wide planning process set up by the Rhode Island Foundation and the EDC (now the Commerce Corp). The project was meant to inform the State’s strategic planning process by bringing together folks from all areas of RI’s economic activity, including its historical societies. Click here to read the online report.

As often is the case, it is impossible to know what will come of this, but it was an opportunity to bring the idea to all kinds of folks that understanding the State’s history is the beginning of envisioning the future. After all, our endeavors today rarely represent something entirely new with no connection to anything done before. We have a history of innovation, enterprise, problems and solving them, bold moves and the consequences of inaction, all in our past right here in Rhode Island. These stories are case statements, and we ignore them at our peril. The NHS wishes to help to bring the knowledge and experience of our past to bear on our planning for the future. More of this in the year to come, as we continue to collaborate, to converse, and to open our collections for the inspiration of others.

–Ruth S. Taylor, Executive Director