On eve of makeover, State Museum looks its age – Albany Times Union

ALBANY – Picture this: A museum with exhibits on politics, race, gender and culture anchored with the latest technology that allows for public interaction and creative displays. Sounds like a great place to take the kids or any visitors to Albany, right? 
Across the street from the Empire State Plaza on Madison Avenue, sits the New York State Museum. Since 1976, the go-to field trip has been a destination for school students across the region and by far the most popular spot in Capital Region for tourists and those living here. 
When it opened, moving from its old home in the State Education Building on Washington Avenue, it had delights to marvel at like replicas of lumber camps, an actual New York City Subway car, ice age dioramas, plus stuffed birds and minerals. 
In 2021, the museum is still a showcase for the state’s story, spotlighting different regions from the Adirondacks to Ellis Island and telling of more recent events like 9/11. 
Yet, the State Museum of today is more of a time capsule than the innovative place that was unveiled in the mid-1970s. Many history museums in other states – Michigan and Virginia to name just two – have grown with the times, creating curated exhibits that offer debate on controversial elements of a state’s history and refocusing attention on marginalized populations. In this regard, New York’s grand place has shifted only a little, if at all. 
But that could all change in the next three years. Proposals on remaking the museum – bold and forward-thinking ideas that had their origins in 2015 –  may finally be coming to fruition.  
A view of the exhibit on the Grand Central Terminal in New York City at the New York State Museum August 03, 1981 (Roberta Smith/Times Union Archive)
A view of an exhibit on Adirondack logging at the New York State Museum on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Albany.
A view of an exhibit on Adirondack logging at the New York State Museum. June 15, 1976 (Arnold LeFevre/Times Union Archive)
A view of an exhibit that shows a 38-foot skeleton of an Atlantic Right Whale at the New York State Museum. February 18, 1981 (Times Union Archive)
A view of an exhibit of a longhouse in the Native Peoples of New York gallery at the New York State Museum. October 03, 1992 (Jack Madigan/Times Union Archive)
A view of an exhibit that shows a female mastodont and her calf in the lower Hudson Valley around 12,000 years ago at the New York State Museum in 1989. (Times Union Archive)
A view of the Sesame Street exhibit at the New York State Museum. July 06, 1981 (Roberta Smith/Times Union Archive)
A view of an exhibit on Adirondack logging at the New York State Museum in Albany. June 11, 1976 (Times Union Archive)
Jennifer Davis and Sea Creature, New York State Museum. Jennifer Davis, 7, of Westfield, Massachusetts view sea monster. July 05, 1990.
New York State Museum – leftovers of the State Museum archive of old newspapers. Peter Cassino, of the New York State Department of Transportation, sifts through some of the old newspapers in the warehouse that was being moved. October 18, 1978.
Amine “Harry” Hechehouche, an Albany resident, has been coming to the museum since he was a child. His most notable trip, he remembers, was in the fifth grade when he was a student at Hackett Middle School in Albany. 
Now in his early 30s, Hechehouche works for the state Department of Labor. Behind his mask is an obvious smile of pleasure and nostalgia as he recently walks through the museum, reminiscing. 
“I was 10, it was around 1998,” he said. “They had this Fort Orange stuff, and I remember when it became an exhibit, we came here to look at it as part of our social studies component.” 
The Fort Orange exhibit is intact today, pretty much unchanged from when Hechehouche first encountered it on his fifth grade social studies field trip. He knows his way around almost through muscle memory, as a person who has been here many times before. 
“I think it’s relatively all the same, actually” he said. “I don’t think they’ve added anything. They’ve moved things around because I remember the barrels that they found at the site.”
As a child of immigrants, the museum was one of Hechehouche’s happy places when he was young, not just for field trips but also for weekend activities with his parents. The box TVs of his childhood have been replaced by flatscreens and the descriptions are on newer text placards with bigger fonts, but the museum is still redolent of Hechehouche’s field trip. 
A social media call on State Museum memories brought similar responses. Some discussed their favorite museum memories, such as the no-longer-existing Thunder Room and a dinosaur exhibit.   
Like other commentators, Hechehouche clearly values the museum, the dollar bills he drops in the donation box being among the few in there. He points out the Adirondack section, talking about how it was his favorite, looking at the lumberjack mannequins like old friends. 
The logger is still there. So are the man and woman outside the broken-down car, the subway car with the same occupants, and the Sesame Street stoop. There was nothing Hechehouche could point out that was wholesale different, only things that were tweaked. This was down to the bird calls in the bird exhibit that once frightened him as a child.  
“It was tough to assimilate,” he said. “And coming to the museum every couple of weekends, even if it didn’t change, it was still just a nice thing to do. Something we could afford and embrace the history of the state which we loved.” 
A panel on what appears to be the roof overhang fell off the New York State Museum Sunday, Oct. 18, 2021. The debris hit a terrace level of the building. No one was hurt.
In March 2020, along with museums, galleries and arts organizations across the country, the State Museum had to shutter its doors for the first time in its history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was a time of stasis and economic caution, many arts organizations decided to take advantage of that to make changes or renovations without disturbing the public or day-to-day business. The State Museum was in the same position.   
While the building seemed silent on the outside, inside it was a (socially-distanced) whirr of activity, according to Executive Director Mark Schaming.   
“Like any museum, we have new collections coming in, gallery work that was underway, and research,” Schaming said during a summer interview on the museum’s spring reopening. “We had scientists and archaeologists and historians in the field. We were working with educational programs – virtually and in-person. But in terms of exhibitions and gallery work, we did take the time to work on gallery projects that we wanted to have done when we opened the doors. And as much as we love having people here, it was terrific because it was quiet and we could focus on the team.”  
Schaming went on to name the Birds of New York exhibit, the Minerals of New York exhibit, the Thomas Hart Benton mural exhibit as a few that had been reworked.  
The changes touted for the reopening are not wholesale, Yes, the birds and the rocks are there, but they were also there when the museum first opened. These exhibits have only been taken out of retirement.
 As usual, the temporary exhibits carry the complexities of New York’s anthropological history. Currently, there is one covering the disparity of black education in the state and another marking 50 years since the Attica prison uprising. When these exhibits go away, they are gone, and visitors are left with the well-worn permanent exhibits. And now the popular carousel is also closed for repairs along with all the fourth floor’s public spaces. All that makes it seem like a museum stuck in time.
Back in 2015, Schaming presented a renovation master plan for the State Museum’s galleries to the New York state Board of Regents, which oversees the museum.   
According to a news release put out that summer, the plan was supposed to be funded through a $14 million New York state capital bond item. It proposed 35,000 square feet of new exhibitions, a changeable wall system and new interactive technology and media.   
The changes were trumpeted as the first major renovation of the museum since it moved to the current building in 1976. The release stated that the project “presents the museum with an opportunity to better explain the state’s natural and human history. … The renovated galleries and new exhibitions will offer a more integrated, updated and memorable educational experience for all visitors.”  
The renovation was to be carried out by Gallagher and Associates, a world-class company that had worked on projects both within the United States and internationally like the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, the Saint Pope John Paul II National Shrine in Vatican City and the Alfred H. Moses and Family Synagogue Hall at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv District, Israel.  
The firm’s website includes the New York State Museum on its list of projects but does not mention contractors nor dates. It did however describe the proposed renovation as “a total architectural and interpretive renewal centered on a dynamic program for education. The vision for a modular and evolutionary exhibition program will keep the museum fresh and dynamic accommodating future changes and new storytelling. The proposed new galleries will include: the Natural History Gallery, the Empire State Gallery, and the Native Peoples of New York Gallery.”  
The Times Union recently contacted the firm, but Joshua Gallagher, a senior designer at the firm, said by email to contact the museum about news of the renovations.   
According to a Times Union article published in 2015, the exhibits would be based on the theme of “New York Stories,” and would include:   
The article stated that the renovations were supposed to finish in four years, taking place in phases.   
What happened to these proposals?  
When contacted again last week, museum director Schaming said that work on these proposals has been ongoing, but behind the scenes. Since 2015, the museum and Gallagher came up with a schematic design and then moved on to design development, the phase they are in currently.  
“With design development, you really focus on the themes,” he said. “The stories you want to tell. You really start writing more detailed messages, look at the major collections, what artifacts are going to be exhibited and where and how they sit.”   
He went on to explain that there are architectural questions to answer, such as where the walls will be, and how the technology will be integrated and executed. Next, a plan of action will be created after which they will put out bids for contractors.   
Schaming says that all this has been going on since 2017, delayed by the pandemic, and that he and his team should be done and in possession of a design development document in early January 2022.  
According to the rules, Schaming said, the museum works very closely with the Dormitory Authority of New York, (DASNY) which will advise on the physical building project. The State Museum team is still waiting for DASNY to get back to them, something Schaming says he knows can take time.  
“There can be delays,” he said. “It’s also an interesting time to find people to build things. Some places are dying for work and some places short. So that (DASNY) will help us decide how this thing is going to be built, and we’ll really know that this is what can be done right now. Our rough completion date is the end of ’24.”  
Schaming went on to say that a large team has been involved in the planning. “Exhibit planners and writers,” he said, “and curators across museums. We’ve probably had 25 to 30, curators, content specialists who were going in, getting information, coming up with the artifacts. And then all of our core people who are coordinating this whole thing and our production people.” 
New museums, new audiences 
A revamped State Museum could be an exciting place. But how does all that fit in with the needs and expectation of today’s museum-going public?
Mary Liz Stewart, one of the founders of the Underground Railroad Education Center in Albany, believes that the function of a museum is to reclaim and preserve the voices and experiences of people of the past and to build a relationship between them and us in contemporary times. 
“I would add that … in order to learn about history, one needs to interact with it,” she said. “I would say that science museums are probably a good model for (interactive) thinking. The science museums I’ve been to, there’s a lot of opportunity to touch things, make things happen, investigate on display and getting this result this way.” 
But Stewart felt that other museums, especially history museums, had a long way to go. 
“I think museums have very much a white, male-dominated perspective,” she said. “That kind of perspective needs to be broken through so that other lenses can be brought into perspective.” 
In a post-pandemic world of advanced technology and virtual reality, the museum as a physical place may seem unnecessary, but according to Professor Sean Rafferty, associate professor of anthropology at the University at Albany, it is very much needed. 
“Say you’ve got a kid who’s interested in dinosaurs,” said Rafferty. “You can slap a virtual reality headset on their little head and (let them) have a look at all the fossils they want. But there is no substitute for them actually seeing the size and just the sheer materiality of a dinosaur fossil. 
“Humans are very tactile animals. We like to see the objects and experience them in the real world. This is not to say that VR and other kinds of distance learning technologies don’t have their place in the museum. They definitely do. But they’re never going to replace the real thing.” 
As an archeologist specializing in Native American studies, Rafferty added that a museum is more than just a sight to see. 
“I’m an archaeologist,” he said. “There could be millions of artifacts that came out of the ground. …All of that stuff’s got to get managed, curated under very specific conditions to preserve that information for the future. So that’s the side of museums that the public doesn’t usually see. They see the displays. … But for every object on display, there are hundreds or thousands in the back of the museum that are being curated for future researchers. That’s something which you can’t fit, there is no virtual equivalent for the curatorial mission of museums.” 
Museums are still popular places for both outsiders to learn of a place and for residents to revisit and enjoy. The State Museum has been a destination for families in the region on the hottest and most inclement of days. Besides the lure of a free (pay as you will) and open space for young ones to wander relatively untethered, it also serves as a physical reflection of New York and can educate as well as inspire. 
As loyal patron Hechehouche puts it: “I remember this was my first sort of premise of learning about old Albany and realizing that it was a lot older than we thought. And I think that’s what sparked my love for it.” 
Shrishti Mathew covers Arts and Entertainment for the Times Union. A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, she has previously written for American Theatre, The Daily Orange, and The NewsHouse. Shrishti is originally from Chennai, India. You can reach her at [email protected].