THE MORPHING OF A MUSEUM

                        

By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette

 

“Museums originate for the purpose of collecting, preserving, and interpreting collections of objects. Although a membership component is primary to a historical society, a museum may exist without one.”

                                                               —New York State Department of Education

My friend Barney Google says that morphology is the study of the form or shape of an organism or part thereof, and that this definition has led to the formation of the current popular verb “to morph.” That being said, it appears that our Schenectady Museum Association (SMA) is giving serious consideration to morphing into a regional museum that is not necessarily based in Schenectady. If you were shocked when you read this in the Gazette recently, then you haven’t been paying much attention to the interrelationships between and among our various not-for-profit organizations that do so much to enrich the cultural life of our county.

            I am a very new member of SMA. To help me understand its operations, museum director Lee Theisen granted me two hour-long interviews, and I thank him for doing so. It is understandable that the Museum wants to move from a physical site that is inadequate for the sustenance of even a strong local museum much less a regional one. Parking is inadequate for large events, there is insufficient room to display much of its collection,  and for various reasons the Museum wasn’t able to make the minor expansion of the building that it had committed to when it absorbed the Hall of Electrical History nine years ago.

There is also the belief that, tucked away up on a hill, the museum is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and that it would get additional walk-in traffic if it were more visible. Surely it would, but, in my opinion, not enough, in and of itself, to have a significant impact on the Museum’s continued structural deficits. The museum draws about 30,000 visitors per year and aspires to draw 300,000. If not done carefully, that might just make the annual deficit ten times bigger. But with relocation to downtown and emphasis on a theme with wide appeal, it just might work.

When I go to a national museum such as the baseball museum in Cooperstown, I don’t care where it is located with respect to the rest of the town. Tell me its address and it becomes a destination that I will find. But I usually expect that a museum’s theme is intimately  connected with the history of its area. The Johnson Space Center in Houston or the Wright Brothers National Memorial’s museum in Kitty Hawk, NC come to mind.

But a science center in Albany County, the self-proclaimed new Tech Valley? In another couple of decades, that area could become noted for, say, nanotechnology, but that is futuristic speculation. Because of Schenectady, the Mohawk Valley is the original Tech Valley. Through GE’s Global Research Center of the present and its downtown labs of the past, Schenectady is the nexus of a rich history of science and technology.

Our county is home to those who earned more patents per capita than any other area of the country. Because we are well known as the birthplace of GE, no one in Dubuque would be surprised to learn that there is a first class museum of science and technology in Schenectady. If implemented here, that could become the primary destination. And if we build it and they come (those Dubuquers, I mean), they might just spend a few days and dollars here.

I can’t imagine a resident trustee voting to move the museum out of the county, but there is great danger because it would take only a majority of a quorum to do so, and not all current trustees live here. Depending on the arithmetic of the critical moment, the museum could move by a 5-4 vote, and we have learned how dangerous to the republic such voting patterns can be. Even the Yankees can lose a short series.

Until I found our state’s legal definition of a museum, I was quite surprised to learn from the opening quote that a museum doesn’t have to have a “membership component.” But our Schenectady County Historical Society (SCHS) must have, and does. So does SMA, although one with considerably less clout. I say this because Museum members who attend their annual meeting may vote to fill the six or so trusteeships whose terms expire each year, but may not elect officers; that function is retained by the trustees. And since no action of the trustees can be overruled by the general membership, members should pay close attention to the platform of those they elect as trustees at the annual meeting in October. Nominations from the floor may be in order.

The final sentence of the museum’s mission statement reads “The Museum’s collections, programs, and services shall reflect the historic roots and cultural richness of the community it serves.” By its very title, the community that SMA serves is Schenectady County, and most of the current collection and archives are very directly related to our Schenectady heritage. Logic, and very possibly state law, dictates that the only way to “move” SMA out of the county is to dissolve it and charter a museum under a new name in Timbuktu or wherever.

            My first choice, and I’m just a rooter without authority, is that the museum moves into bigger quarters downtown. But if the SMA must first dissolve in order to move away, then, again by state law, it must give its remaining assets to IRS-qualified not-for-profit organizations having a “similar purpose.” So those precious GE archives and artifacts would stay here, the only county in New York State having not one but two organizations of similar purpose: SCHS with regard to the archives and the Edison Exploratorium with regard to the engineering and technological artifacts.

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion page.