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Christopher Maag, who writes frequently for theNew York Times, is a freelance writer.
This story appeared in the October 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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Carolyn Mackey loves First Congregational Church. Her great-great-great-grandfather, Elizur Wright, helped build the church in Tallmadge, just east of Akron, in 1825. Seven generations of Mackey’s family have been baptized, married or memorialized here. “This is sacred ground,” Mackey, 77, says, looking with loving eyes at the church balcony, where she attended Sunday school as a child.
But for anyone without deep roots in Tallmadge, the little white church is just another building. To discover that it’s one of the oldest churches in Ohio, you must somehow escape the heavy traffic buzzing along the Tallmadge roundabout, park the car, walk across a wide field and read the faded gray sign beside the church doors (which are locked for all but two hours a month).
Only a handful of people attempt this tortuous path, mostly brides-to-be scouting romantic wedding spots. “The people who come here aren’t exactly history buffs,” says Fred Wybenga, the president of the Tallmadge Historical Society.
So why does the Ohio Historical Society own it? Over the last 20 years, historical agencies in most states shifted away from small buildings such as Tallmadge’s church to focus on alternative ways to attract tourists and jobs.
History has left “the museum and the classroom and now walks with developers, architects, television producers, planners and builders,” according to a report on the society prepared in 2006 for the Strickland administration. The society “just has not noticed that it’s gone.”
Back in 1976, the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) was considered one of the premier groups of its kind in the nation, working hand-in-hand with the Smithsonian Institution to create top-tier exhibits. It had a state-of-the-art museum and a strong network of historic sites throughout the state.
Today, the society can’t afford to keep the state archives open to the public more than three days a week. In January, it will close its main museum in Columbus for more than a year; plans about its renovation are fuzzy at best. With a diminished national reputation, it’s shut out of the state’s political process and struggles to raise private donations and federal grants. The society increasingly finds itself out of funding and out of options.
“The public has to ask how things were allowed to deteriorate so far and so fast,” says John Fleming, a historian who worked for 20 years as director of the society’s National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce.
OHS leaders say they’ve learned from past mistakes and are turning the place around. That process continues despite the sudden death this summer of Bill Laidlaw, the society’s executive director, who was widely praised for making difficult decisions to cut the society’s budget and modernize some of its operations. In September, the society named Burt Logan, president of the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, as its new leader. “We have the right agenda, and we’re moving forward,” says interim director James Strider.
Previous directors have made the same claim, however. Each time, sliding museum attendance and falling state appropriations proved them wrong. Will OHS fail to meet its new goals this time?
“I’d bet on it,” says Amos Loveday, who worked for OHS for 31 years, including a stint as chief curator. Loveday wrote the report for Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration in 2006 that investigated the society’s ongoing crisis. “I really hope I’m wrong,” he says. “But I think they’re going to fail because they really don’t comprehend the environment they’re in.”
Imagine Ohio without history. An Ohio where citizens can’t research their government’s decisions because all the documents have been lost or destroyed. An Ohio that bleeds jobs and loses its young to other states, which use historic neighborhoods to attract successful new businesses.
“The problems are very serious,” says Nancy Hollister, a former state representative and lieutenant governor who co-led a special committee to investigate OHS. “I think the whole thing could implode.”
A history of trouble
For years, the Ohio Historical Society was a very big name attached to a very little organization. With support from former president Rutherford B. Hayes, a native of Delaware, the society was founded in 1885 to look after the Statehouse museum room, which contained priceless Civil War battle flags.
From the beginning, the line between state power and OHS prerogative has been blurry. The society was, as it remains today, a private nonprofit group that reports to its own board of trustees, not the governor. Ohio is the last large state in the country to follow this public/private model, Loveday says, leading to the wide misconception that OHS is a state agency. “We are nothing if not confusing,” says Kim Schuette, the society’s spokeswoman.
The relationship remained informal until 1965, when Gov. James Rhodes decided history would play a crucial role in his plan to expand Ohio’s infrastructure of highways and state universities. For the second (and last, for now) time in its history, OHS had friends in high places. Erwin Zepp, the society’s longtime director, ate lunch with Rhodes several times a week.
The result was a law, Ohio Revised Code 149.30, creating a contract between the state and the Ohio Historical Society. OHS agreed to own and operate the state’s historic sites and museums, manage state archives, collect privately owned artifacts, publish research about Ohio history, help public school history teachers and act as a consultant for local historical societies. Somehow, it also would find time to hire an artist to paint a portrait of every outgoing governor.
“OHS tries to make too many people happy,” says Charlie Arp, who worked for OHS from 1991 to 2003, including his last two years as Ohio’s chief archivist. “They have too many obligations under state law. They can’t do it all.”
Ohio’s only responsibility: Give OHS enough money to perform the state’s duties. That never happened. “Ohio’s leaders have always allocated lots of money for buying and building new things,” Loveday says. “But they’ve never given OHS the money it needs to operate all those new buildings.”
For a decade, a building spree masked the problem. With political backing from Rhodes, OHS spent millions to buy dozens of properties in the 1960s and ’70s, creating a network of 62 historic sites (later reduced to the current number, 58).
One new site was the Ohio Historical Center, the society’s new headquarters and museum, which opened just off I-71 near the state fairgrounds in 1970. Later compared unfavorably to a crash-landed spaceship, the building’s innovative use of cables to support massive cantilevers won architecture awards and solidified the group’s reputation as a player on the national stage. “OHS was widely regarded at the time as among the best.” says Loveday, who went to work for OHS in 1971.
But inside the crashed spaceship, employees saw danger ahead. With all the money for construction, there wasn’t enough to cover operating expenses. “I would agree that the expansion of the site system in the ’60s and ’70s sowed the seeds of our problems today,” says Strider, who has worked for OHS since 1981.
The society became home to the Ohio Historic Preservation Office, which in most other states is a government agency responsible for using historic tax credits to spur economic development. (One such project in Texas turned a closed hospital in a gritty section of downtown Houston into the Elder Street artists’ lofts, which have anchored a neighborhood revival since they opened in 2005.)
Because Ohio’s office is part of a nonprofit group, its power to create jobs remains limited. “Keeping the preservation office inside OHS is really outdated,” says Loveday, who directed the office for six years until 2002. “Ohio has suffered remarkably because the society and the state refuse to look at that relationship.”
Ostensibly a statewide group, OHS ceded the vast urban areas of Cleveland and Cincinnati to those cities’ historical societies, making it difficult to win support from urban legislators. “It was never a politically savvy operation,” says Donald Hutslar, who worked at OHS in various capacities, including as a curator, before retiring after 37 years.
What little support the society did have waned after Rhodes left office in 1971. The apparent lack of respect among OHS trustees for the history of Ohio’s non-white cultures appears to have complicated matters. Incoming Gov. John Gilligan pushed OHS to open urban sites dedicated to the state’s rich African-American history. During a meeting at the governor’s mansion, Loveday watched Gilligan lecture the trustees—all of them white, mostly men, mostly from rural counties—for not being representative of a state with so many cities and so much racial diversity.
After the governor’s dressing-down, “One trustee actually said something like, ‘Those n-words wouldn’t come to a site even if we spend money on a museum,’ ” Loveday remembers from a conversation with the trustee.
The society eventually relented, agreeing to build the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce. Yet, even today, OHS remains a nonpresence in two of Ohio’s three big cities, home to the state’s largest African-American populations. Historical societies in the Cleveland and Cincinnati metropolitan areas “serve 60 percent of the state’s population,” says Douglass McDonald, CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center.
Society trustees were equally indifferent to the politicians who funded them. In the 10-year plan that OHS submitted to the General Assembly in 1974, the society wrote that only by using a private organization—not a state agency subject to the whims of politicians—can “history be collected and interpreted without partisan bias.”
Thirty-five years later, the society still finds communicating with lawmakers difficult. “I don’t think the case has ever been made very well that history is important to the state for economic development,” says Tyrone Yates, a Democratic state representative from Cincinnati.
As its political support diminished, the society never found it easy to replace shrinking state appropriations with private funds or national grants. As early as 1973, OHS reported to the legislature that many Ohioans were reluctant to donate money to what they believed to be a taxpayer-funded agency. That misconception continues to dog the society, Loveday says.
Meanwhile, OHS laid off hundreds of employees over the years, many of whom found jobs in top-caliber museums, historical societies and government agencies around the country. So whenever OHS applies for a grant from the federal government or a major national foundation, it’s almost inevitable to find embittered former society workers or their friends sitting on the boards that make funding decisions. Which means that whatever progress the society makes now, its ability to raise money in the future is limited by its past of mismanagement and bad decisions. (OHS isn’t entirely out of the running, though; it recently won two federal grants for $300,000.) “Probably the most important thing OHS could do would be to reach out to its former employees and try to make peace with them,” Loveday says. “Because those people are out there every day, speaking badly about the organization.”
The society also alienated natural allies. Its archives are a treasure trove for people interested in tracing their family trees, but the lack of staff needed to process new records and keep the archives open more than three days a week have angered some people. “We get lots of people in here who are really unhappy that they drove all the way to Columbus only to find the archives closed,” says Tom Neel, librarian at the Ohio Genealogical Society.
Efforts by the society’s leaders to keep possession of an archive program that even they concede is failing frustrates their colleagues around the state. “It just doesn’t make sense to have three state archives—the OSU library, the State Library of Ohio and the Ohio Historical Center—all within three miles of each other,” says Raimund Goerler, Ohio State University Libraries’ chief archivist.
A crisis builds
By the mid 2000s, OHS found itself isolated from public and political leaders. Its exhibits, once among the best in the nation, no longer attracted much interest. In 2007, the society hosted a show called Once Upon A Dime about American currency. “It was idiotic,” says Mark Passerello, a former OHS Statehouse tour guide who brought his children to the program. “It had nothing to do with Ohio. My kids were bored in five minutes.”
Society leaders admit that Once Upon A Dime bombed. But breaking attendance records wasn’t their intent. “That exhibit was part of our experimentation process,” says Sharon Dean, collections director at OHS. “It helped us learn how modern audiences want to interact with us.” That effort appears to have succeeded. During recent exhibits, such as Rockwell’s America and Capture the Moment, a show of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, attendance at the Ohio Historical Center jumped by as much as 105 percent over the same time periods from previous years.
That success, though, couldn’t begin to make up for its lost clout with a select few politicians. “When you had term limits in the legislature, OHS lost a great deal of power with legislators who had been longtime supporters,” Hollister says.
It’s no surprise, then, that whenever Ohio’s state budget falls on hard times, OHS is among the first on the chopping block. “We’re operating under Maslow’s hierarchy of need,” says Gene Krebs, a former state representative who works with OHS as co-director of Greater Ohio, a nonprofit group focused on smart growth. “I can either give money to a food bank to keep people from starving, or I can give money to the Ohio Historical Society to show people how Ohioans used to buy food. Putting food on the table wins.”
State budget cuts had a massive impact on OHS. Strickland’s approved budgets slashed the state’s appropriations to OHS from $13.6 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to $7.9 million in 2010, a 42 percent drop in just two years. The society was forced to lay off more than half its staff during this decade, reducing the number of full-time employees from more than 400 in 2001 to 184 today. “It really decimates us,” Laidlaw told the Associated Press in June. “These budget cuts really cut very deeply into the bone of this organization. We’re cutting off limbs.”
Laidlaw threatened that unless OHS found partners to operate historic sites, many would close. By the beginning of August, the society had contracted with local organizations to take over operations at 37 sites, and it was negotiating with other groups to assume control at another 10.
Desperate to cut costs, Laidlaw even stopped OHS employees from giving tours of the Ohio Statehouse, one of the society’s most prominent and best-attended sites—instead handing that function over to the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board.
Then there’s Ohio Village, the society’s re-created 19th-century town that was closed to the general public in 2002, but remained available for tour groups and private functions. Starting in January, the village will open just for the occasional school field trip.
And at the beginning of 2010, public access to the state archives will drop from three days a week to one. “That’s an embarrassment,” says Goerler, the chief archivist for the OSU library. “Records hold public officials accountable. They’re fundamental to our democracy.”
A turning ship, or a sinking one?
The Newark Earthworks are some of the greatest construction projects of the ancient world. And unless you’re a serious history buff, you’ve probably never heard of them. The Hopewell Native American tribe spent 600 years building the mounds over four square acres, making the earthworks the world’s largest lunar observatory.
The Ohio Historical Society has owned the earthworks since 1933. It always has leased them to the private Moundbuilders Country Club, which maintained most of the mounds as part of its 18-hole golf course and occasionally allowed public access to them.
“This place is one of the premier cultural sites in the world, and the Ohio Historical Society basically ignored it,” says Richard Shiels, an associate history professor at Ohio State and director of the Newark Earthworks Center. “They simply didn’t understand the importance of this site.”
That changed in 2005, when Newark residents demanded better public access to the golf course. After ignoring Shiels’s phone calls for months, Laidlaw drove to Newark to see the mounds himself. He seems to have been transformed. Laidlaw directed OHS staff to nominate the mounds to UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational and cultural agency, as a World Heritage Site. (UNESCO could announce its decision at any time.) He won support from the U.S. Department of the Interior for the bid and persuaded the department to consider turning the mounds into a national park. (That study has not yet begun.)
Laidlaw gave Shiels his private cellphone number, urging Shiels to call him concerning any problems with the golf club. “Bill realized what an incredible site it is,” Shiels says. “He became one of our best allies.”
But it may be the classic example of too little, too late. Given their size and condition, the mounds could attract tourists from around the world. But in 1997, the society extended the country club’s lease, denying access to outsiders until 2078.
As recently as five years ago, OHS had seven employees looking after a smaller cluster of mounds not leased to the golf course, and it was coordinating maintenance projects with the country club. Due to budget cuts, that number was cut to zero. “The society has some of the most significant historical properties in the nation, and I don’t think people realize that,” says Fleming. “Can they turn that around? I don’t know. It may be too late.”
The society’s turnaround attempts were complicated by tragedy in August, when Laidlaw, who was planning to retire at the end of the year, died while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard. Strider believes Laidlaw had the society headed in the right direction, and he plans to continue the former director’s agenda until the new one takes over in mid December.
“I agree we’re doing too much,” Strider says. “But we’re changing. We’re improving.” The society will cut Timeline, its expensive membership magazine, unless it can find private funding. OHS is preparing to build new history exhibits that will tour the state, educating students and improving the society’s visibility. To make its collections more accessible, OHS paid $70,000 for a high-tech camera to take photographs of its vast archives and load the images onto the Internet.
After years of criticism, the society finally has begun to mend relationships with legislators and other history groups. “The problem they faced is they centralized so much on Columbus that they forgot they had a statewide role to play,” says Greg Myers, president of the Ohio Association of Historical Societies and Museums. “I think OHS is on a healthy track. It’s become much more collaborative.”
By far the society’s most visible change was its decision to turn maintenance of historic sites over to local organizations. “OHS was stretching itself thin,” says Crystal Marvin with the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, which recently took over management of Fort Ancient, an important ceremonial site of the Hopewell Indians located just off I-71 north of Kings Island. “Local people have more passion for these sites than a statewide organization because this is our backyard.”
Others wonder how much damage OHS caused itself by holding onto the sites too long. “We started saying 20 years ago, ‘Look, you can’t continue maintaining all these sites,’ ” Hollister says.
Change is coming to the spaceship, too. In January, OHS will close the Ohio Historical Center for 15 months to construct what it calls a collections learning center. The idea is to put the society’s vast collections into a high-density storage system of shelves, drawers and cabinets that will be open to the public, with only limited space devoted to displays explaining the artifacts’ significance “In the future, there may not be any glass between you and a stuffed river otter,” says Connie Bodner, education director at OHS, standing beside one such otter in a museum diorama. “You’ll be able to come with other experts and may be able to handle the otter itself.”
It’s this plan, which hasn’t yet received much public attention, that has bewildered curators and museum experts. How does OHS plan to keep all those priceless artifacts secure from theft? Most historic artifacts are delicate; if OHS allows people to handle them, how can it prevent the objects from being damaged or destroyed? With few interpretive signs, how will OHS explain the collections’ importance to visitors accustomed to the Internet’s explanation overload?
“We’re just in the very beginning stages of figuring all this out,” Bodner says.
Once all the current exhibits are removed, society leaders have different visions for what will replace them. Strider, who until Laidlaw’s death served as director of historic preservation and outreach, believes the museum will no longer cater to its traditional audience of elementary school field trips. “People using this building will be aficionados of quilts, glass, gun collections—people who in many cases know more about these objects than we do,” he says.
Others at OHS seem to disagree. “If we do it right, a fourth-grader comes here, gets intrigued and then keeps coming back as a seventh-grader, a high-schooler and an adult,” Bodner says.
“We’re still developing the vision,” says Schuette, the OHS spokeswoman. “But we’ve got a really good start.”
Perhaps the most important concern: How will OHS pay for this? The society plans to spend $2 million building the learning center, which will occupy most of the museum’s 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. The average new history museum exhibit occupies a fraction of that space, Loveday says, and still costs $40 million to $50 million to install. “Two million dollars in this business is chump change,” he says. “They’re trying to reach out. But they’re so far behind they don’t even realize that they have no idea how to do it.”
History’s muddled future
In 2002, Hollister led a special committee of concerned legislators to find possible solutions to the society’s ongoing crisis. Suggestions included forcing OHS to relinquish control over the Ohio Historical Preservation Office and possibly turning the entire society into a state agency.
“The [OHS] director has to report to both a very private board and a very public board—the state legislature. That person serves too many masters,” Hollister says. “It’s not a disaster that’s waiting to happen. It’s happening now.”
Many lawmakers believed the society’s reaction to the committee’s findings was inadequate. “The response from OHS was, ‘We have no problems. Everything’s fine here,’ ” says Krebs. “People around the Statehouse found that profoundly alarming.”
Talking recently in the conference room connected to his office, Strider bristles when asked about these concerns. “Like Mark Twain said, ‘Rumors of our demise are premature,’ ” he says. “I frankly get tired of hearing how bad things are at OHS.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how the society can emerge from its crisis without fundamental change. Some observers describe the society and the state as having a dysfunctional, codependent relationship: Both sides get abused, and neither gets what it needs. Society employees work diligently, under constant threat of layoffs, doing historic preservation work that most other states consider to be a basic government function.
Ohio taxpayers spend $10 million every year for the preservation of historical sites, museums and archives, many of which are poorly maintained and rarely open. Perhaps, some longtime observers argue, it’s time for this marriage to end. “I came to the conclusion a long time ago that until the state and OHS revisit their legal arrangement, nothing is going to change,” Loveday says.
“I don’t think they need a divorce,” says Hollister, “but they need a separation.”
Maybe Strider is right, though. Maybe OHS has turned the corner on its problems without structural changes. Or maybe not. True, the city of Tallmadge now is responsible for cutting the grass outside First Congregational Church. But OHS still must install a costly new heating and cooling system, says Penny Shonk, who manages the church for the Tallmadge parks department. The work was supposed to have started this summer, but the project was postponed. Facing an $80 million backlog in critical repairs, the Ohio Historical Society just didn’t have enough money.
“I despair over what’s happened to OHS,” says Arp, the former state archivist. “The issue isn’t the people. The institutional model is the problem.”
Christopher Maag, who writes frequently for theNew York Times, is a freelance writer.
This story appeared in the October 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Usually people believe what they want to believe until reality intrudes.