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In Mahwah, Historians Consider New Ways To Tell Old Stories

Dr. Carter Jones Meyer, professor at Ramapo College. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Cynthia Forster, director, Bergen County Division of Cultural and Historical Affairs. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Dr. Stephen Rice, dean at Ramapo College. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Listening to Dr. Carter Jones Meyer talk about "The American Home Front During World War I." Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

MAHWAH, N.J. — History has to be repackaged to appeal to a changing world: that was the core message at a gathering of local historians at Ramapo College in Mahwah Tuesday night.

“We need to get younger people to come to our historical sites,” said Cynthia Forster, head of the Bergen County Division of Cultural and Historical Affairs.

“We need to be looking at the demographics of the people who come,” she added, “and how we’re telling the story.”

Forster addressed some 75 people at an annual dinner organized by the Northwest Bergen History Coalition, whose members comprise museums and historical societies in 11 towns.

These include The Hermitage in Ho-Ho-Kus, The Zabriskie House in Wyckoff, and The Schoolhouse Museum in Ridgewood.

In the past year, three new venues have emerged: the Museum at the Station in Glen Rock, the Waldwick Museum of Local History, and the Waldwick Signal Tower.

While each and every historical site is tasked with looking back in time, they all are now considering how to move their mission forward.

“We started five or six years ago prioritizing the history of Bergen County, and that has gone very well,” said Charles Carreras, history professor emeritus at Ramapo and co-chair of the event.

But more needs to be done.

This is an era, Forster said, in which local history venues need to enter the world of smartphone apps, create ever-changing exhibits, and host non-historical events.

She pointed out the recently completed “Music At The Barn Sunday Concert Series” at the Wortendyke Barn Museum in Park Ridge. The four performances drew people from other zip codes.

“They came to hear the music,” Forster said. “But while they’re there, we’re selling them on the Wortendyke Barn and making sure they’ll come back.”

Her office, she said, stands ready to help with modernizing the presentation of history, a task that may be particularly daunting for mom-and-pop museums.

Stephen Rice, dean of the Salameno School of Humanities and Global Studies at Ramapo, introduced Coalition members to students in the history and American Studies departments. One sat at each table.

All, he said, are eager for internships.

“They will take into your museums a love of history and are devoted to passing along a further understanding of that history,” he said.

The keynote address of the night — “The American Home Front During World War I” — was delivered by Dr. Carter Jones Meyer, also a professor at the college.

That era, she said, was filled with themes that are relevant now.

These include: angst regarding immigrant populations; terrorist events in New York and New Jersey conducted by German cells on U.S. soil; and divisive patriotic rhetoric, as presented through President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information.

The other co-chair of Tuesday’s event was Kay Yeomans, curator of the Upper Saddle River Historical Society.

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