State Museum Exhibits Capture the Spirit of New York


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The New York State Museum’s exhibits are always outstanding. But the three special exhibits at the Museum now – on the bicentennial of the Erie Canal, New York State in World War I, and the centennial of woman suffrage in our state – are unprecedented and exceptionally strong. It is worth a trip to Albany just to see them.

The storylines and captions are superb, with clear development and explanations, enough text to tell the stories, but not so much that visitors’ interest will wane. The artifacts, photos, and documents are engaging, even dramatic. For instance, the canal exhibit features a reconstruction of a “windlass” – a large apparatus for lifting cargo from canal boats into a warehouse. It is a restoration of a 19th century windlass located by Museum staff some years ago in Mohawk, New York, dismantled, moved to Albany, and carefully restored and reassembled.

The exhibit connects the canal to larger events and developments, including the spread of new reform ideas, particularly in central New York. One of the artifacts is a chair made by fugitive slave William “Jerry” Henry in 1852 to thank citizens of Syracuse who had rescued him the previous year from a U.S. Marshal who had arrested him for return to slavery. A large crowd had freed him from jail and spirited him away to Canada and freedom.

This chair is one of items “on loan” to the Museum for this exhibit and the other two. The exhibits demonstrate the State Museum’s ability to bring together historical items from its own rich collections and other sources and meld them into a unified exhibit.

The exhibits are particularly adept at presenting things in a way that engages visitors. The World War I exhibit, for instance, has a reproduction of a trench of the sort that New York soldiers – and other U.S. and allied soldiers – used for cover during the war. The difficult, squalid conditions are apparent, including vermin and rodents.

Another theme that comes out is that of dynamic leaders, for instance, Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt in the suffrage exhibit, but also average people who joined campaigns for social justice, e.g., women who signed petitions, wrote legislators, marched in suffrage parades, etc. But New York history seldom fits a neat pattern, and this exhibit also shows that many men – and some women – opposed woman suffrage. A document from the State Archives shows the Married Women’s Property Act, passed by the Legislature in the spring of 1848, predating the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention by a few months. This is a reminder of how long political reform processes can take in our state.

There are also some very imaginative connections. For instance, Lillian Wald, a leader in the woman suffrage movement, was also a champion of child labor reform and established the visiting nurses’ services in New York City. The woman suffrage exhibit includes a display that describes the nurses’ work and includes examples of what the nurses carried on their rounds.

These exhibits demonstrate what might be called “the spirit of New York” – traits that make our state unique, or at least distinct, among the states. They illustrate vision and tenacity, e.g., building a cross-state canal mostly through the labor of men and horses and paying for it entirely with state resources.

They illustrate leadership and patriotism, e.g., New York’s contribution to the war effort. They illustrate the long arc of some campaigns for social, political, and economic justice and equity.

The exhibits show New Yorkers at their best but also where we came up short, e.g., anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism during and after World War I.

The exhibits also show New York in a national context, sometimes leading (e.g., the Erie Canal), and sometimes lagging (e.g., votes for women, where several other states had taken action before 1917 though New York was first in asserting the right of women to vote in 1848 and our state furnished many of the leaders of the movement.)

These three exhibits also exemplify the exciting opportunities, but also some of the challenges, of capturing and presenting New York history to the public. “New York State resists tidy conceptualization,” say the editors of The Encyclopedia of New York State. “The way to view New York State as a unified whole is by embracing its full complexity, not by trying to trim it to a single narrative.” These exhibits certainly testify to the theme of complexity. But they also exemplify how imaginative museum historians and curators can develop and present exhibits that help people grasp and understand examples of that complexity.

This is exciting history, presented in an engaging and informative way. It is an example of being “visitor centric.” As noted in the new book The Manual of Museum Learning, “the museum is visitor centric, with visitors at the center of everything it does. Museums are for people first and foremost.

Collections remain at the heart of museums, but their value can be realized only when they are effectively interpreted for museum users. Visitor centricity includes many things, both large and small, but all stem from an institutional culture that is geared toward service to the public.”

More information is available at:

Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial. This exhibit runs through May 13, 2018. The website indicates that a six-panel travelling exhibition is available from the State Museum.

Enterprising Waters: New York’s Erie Canal. This exhibit runs through October 20, 2019. This is actually the first phase of a two-phase exhibit. The website holds out the promise of an exciting follow-on exhibit: “Look for Phase Two of Enterprising Waters in 2018, when the story of the Erie Canal continues with components on the Canal’s growth, politics, industries, social reform, and the Canal legacy.”

A Spirit of Sacrifice: New York State in the First World War. This exhibit runs through June 3, 2018. A detailed timeline and a teacher’s guide are available for download from the Museum’s website.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at dearstyne@verizon.net.

One thought on “State Museum Exhibits Capture the Spirit of New York

  1. Robert E. Mulligan, Jr.

    It is a pleasure to see the New York State Museum getting a little love. The three concurrent exhibitions are indeed worthy of a special trip to view them. With a relatively small staff, the museum pulled everything together. They had good help from the staff of the Archives and Library, a welcome change from the past, but researching the topics, collecting loans and stored artifacts, writing the labels, and finally designing the “look” of the exhibition – all this is labor intensive work. And then to publish an impressive, major catalog for the Spirit of Sacrifice exhibition – I think anyone would have to be impressed with what these organizations have done.

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