Recent Events and Continuing Initiatives
Teacher institutes include "Landmark Events in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Transformation of American Identity, 1765-1800 and 1890-1920" funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and workshops on Native Americans, at the University of New Hampshire, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, and the Nuweetooun School and Tomaquag Indian Museum.
In cooperation with the Center for the Study of Community at Strawbery Banke Museum, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, CNEC sponsors the Piscataqua Oral History Project. CNEC also sponsors the New England Indians in Science and Technology group. In cooperation with Canterbury Shaker Village and the University of New Hampshire Library, CNEC supports research on the Shakers through the Elder Henry C. Blinn Research Fellowship Program.
The "Global New England Conference," cosponsored with the New England American Studies Association, was held in Salem, Massachusetts, April 16-18, 2004.
The Heritage New Hampshire Lecture Series presents speakers through the generous support of Heritage New Hampshire.
The Need for a Center for New England Culture
In no American place is the persistence of regional identity stronger than in New England, and many have argued that core American values and characteristics originated and still flourish in its six states. New arrivals and those with deep family roots in New England share in celebrating its economic opportunities, historic places, educational institutions, diverse communities, and natural wonders. In the face of social and economic changes, New Englanders turn to enduring images of the rocky Maine coast, town commons, Revolutionary War heroes, brick mills, and even the Boston Red Sox as reminders of the need to preserve a special place. To increase understanding of the significance of New England's past and the value of its contemporary culture, the University of New Hampshire will establish a Center for New England Culture (CNEC). Funded through private donations and a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center will be dedicated to the preservation and study of New England culture.
New Englanders have worked for centuries to conserve culture through preservation, documentation, celebration, and just plain living. Nevertheless, New England is at a crossroads in the effort to understand its history and prepare for the future. New England's museums, state historical societies, and libraries have renowned collections of New England materials, but opportunities are rare for these institutions to collaborate on broad investigations of regional culture. Many smaller institutions don't have resources to preserve and present collections to the public. Robert Frost saw the "slow, smokeless burning of decay" which could beset forgotten resources, whether a woodpile or a library or a collection of family letters.
A similar challenge faces New England's educational institutions. Few educational institutions have the resources to promote comprehensive, in-depth research on the region, and none can bring together the many individuals interested in such work. Only a handful of schools support place-based curriculum. Teachers report a dearth of materials for teaching the region's history, especially that of the twentieth century, Native Americans, African Americans, and the many old and new ethnic communities. There is a crying need to document New England's everyday life and its folklife. These needs are a challenge not just to the preservation of a cultural record and history, but also to the conservation of contemporary cultural and civic life.
Despite these difficulties, New England is known as a place in which people make sense of their lives and times by assembling the fragments of experience as part of the region's cultural mosaic. Humans always attach stories to places, and this seems especially true in New England, given the palpable presence of the past. There are resonant stories of pilgrimage, from the English of Plymouth to the Cambodians of Lowell. It is an old region in American terms, with centuries of frontier settlement, war, economic and environmental transformations. It also has a long history of religious, racial, and ethnic struggles over the meaning of New England experience. A defining characteristic of New England culture is the importance of memory. Writers from the earliest times to the present warn that the sense of communal purpose can easily be lost, and with it, community, spiritual growth, prosperity, and history itself. Memory, with an accompanying streak of prophecy, is one of New England's legacies to the nation.
Another legacy is the rich cultural landscape that embodies memory. Mills, factories, and hi-tech offices speak of Yankee ingenuity. The town common represents political values, education, and religion. The complex fabric of New England cities, with ethnic neighborhoods, preserved buildings, and soaring skyscrapers present a history of urban life. A third legacy is the natural landscape-special places marked by human experience and preserved for future generations, in northern mountains, along lakes and rivers, and at the sea's edge.
The challenge to New England today is not just the preservation and study of these legacies and the communities that hold them dear. Forgetfulness goes hand in hand with celebration, if celebration freezes icons and symbols of the past apart from the complexities of contemporary life. Critical thinking must complement celebration and preservation so we can understand why New Englanders and other Americans do or don't identify with its culture. Reexamination of the past will help us to understand how earlier New Englanders negotiated conflicts so we can do so today. We can learn new lessons from study of the early encounters of Native Americans with Europeans in peace, thanksgiving, war, and revival. We can profit from study of religious freedom and intolerance, or from the study of the tensions between Yankee heritage and the complex cultures of the American melting pot. Study, teaching, critical thinking, and public conversation at the Center for New England Culture will help us understand how people became New Englanders in the past and how they do so today.
We are all the curators of the museums of our own lives, and families and communities usually know best the ways to preserve language, community, and environment. New England's environment has been challenged in earlier times by deforestation, industrialization, and urbanization. Now we must develop new ways of understanding how communities can sustain the use the natural resources of forest, farm, river, and sea. Moreover, we must understand how communities make urban and suburban neighborhoods good places to live. This will require new ways of thinking, bringing together scholars, teachers, and students in the humanities and the environmental sciences to work within local communities as repositories of traditional knowledge. Here business must play a leading role, since a diverse, creative, and sustainable economy will secure New England's future. The Center for New England Culture provides a forum to examine New England's legacies and prepare for its future.