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Published: Thursday, 7/8/2004

Lean years ahead for history

WE SEE by the papers that the Ohio Historical Society is adopting an "entrepreneurial" approach to financing its programs throughout the state, this at a time when visitor spending in the state reached $28.5 billion in 2003, up 23.4 percent from 2001. But those who remember when Fort Meigs, now equipped with a splendid new visitor center, was about to be virtually shut down, may well ask, "So what else is new?"

Actually, the OHS change of policy, if it is that, is not new. William Laidlaw, the new director, sounded the same theme in a short speech at the final meeting of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission. The OHS, he said, must generate new revenue streams and cut costs.

That's all very well, but as a story in the Sunday Blade suggests, "entrepreneurial" means fewer employees, higher admission fees, reduced off-season hours, and not as many tours at some sites. Among historical sites cast upon their own resources is the museum at Fort Recovery, site of the massacre of more than 600 American soldiers under Gen. Arthur St. Clair in 1791 by an American Indian confederacy under the leadership of Miami War Chief Little Turtle. It was the worst defeat, in terms of the number of combatants involved, of any American force until the Battle of Bataan Peninsula in 1942.

The OHS gives some technical support to that museum, but it is essentially supported by local resources. The same is true of the Garst Museum in Greenville, a fine county-run institution which displays artifacts from the 1795 treaty, which opened much of Ohio to white settlement.

Dr. Andrew Cayton, a historian and author at Miami University of Ohio, has some fears about the new trend toward cost-justified historical preservation. "We live in a Disney culture," he said. "In order to make these kinds of places attractive, you have to spend a lot of money to upgrade them for consumers."

This means gift shops, food concessions, parking, and other amenities. True enough, no doubt, but he notes also that "You need to make a positive, persuasive case that there are good, tangible, concrete reasons why we need these things, that it would make us less a people or a state if we didn't have them."

The 2003 Ohio Bicentennial was, by many standards, a highly successful event run by people who tried to give everyone here an opportunity to take part in the state's 200th birthday, But scant attention was paid to interpretation of the history of the state and to make it clear to Ohioans why it was important to observe the bicentennial.

As yet there is no prospect of a bicentennial volume summing up the significance of Ohio's contribution to the growth of our country or even a cogent, well-illustrated handbook of Buckeye history for use in the schools or by citizens who too often have a hazy idea of what it means to be an Ohioan.

The bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition has resulted in an explosion of visitor-center construction, books, and civic observances along the trail followed by the Corps of Discovery. New state-of-the-art museums and visitor centers bring history alive that is just as remote from today's America as were the events at Fallen Timbers and Greenville, which took place only a decade before the expedition left its camp in Illinois on its 29-month voyage.

One of the co-captains, William Clark, was an officer at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, although that fact is hardly known among westerners who think the expedition is the preserve only of the states west of the Mississippi through which it traveled.

History comes alive when there is a good story to tell.

The Columbus-oriented Ohio Historical Society ought not to forget that while implementing its new mode of lean, mean entrepreneurship.



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