New York State Museum leadership is under fire again. This time from Albany Times Union columnist Chris Churchill. He points out that it’s been eight years since a $14 million overhaul of the museums exhibits was announced.
The plan, which has apparently disappeared from the Museum’s website, was supposed to take place in four phases over four years. The master plan, completed in early 2015, promised 35,000 square feet of new exhibits, a wall system that would make exhibition space more versatile and updated and interactive technology and media displays.
“In the meantime, the State Museum is limping along,” Churchill writes. “The carousel has been closed for several years. During my recent visit, escalators and elevators were out of service. Hungry visitors were lining up at vending machines. And too many exhibits looked dated and unchanged from decades ago.”
State Education Department spokesman, J.P. O’Hare told Churchill carousel repairs were delayed three years ago by the pandemic and are going to be completed this summer. “Outside vendors for the cafe and the gift shop, he said, terminated their contracts during the pandemic. And Discovery Place, the hands-on learning center for young kids, closed because “the pandemic forced us to rethink touchable exhibits.”
When I visited the State Museum a year or two before the pandemic however, Discovery Place was already closed, much to the disappointment of the young person I brought to the Museum for the first time.
The Times Union, which usually props-up the Museum’s image while failing to seriously report on it’s shortcomings, has been beset by complaints from visitors and staff Churchill says. One commenter on Churchill’s piece on Reddit said:
“I am sick and tired of the New York State Museum losing some of the most talented people in the world because they cannot tolerate the working conditions here. I am sick and tired of the nepotism. I am sick and tired of the misogyny. I am sick and tired of advising students to consider different fields. I am sick and tired of empty halls and empty offices with the remaining staff struggling to carry ever increasing burdens. I am sick and tired of feeling that our only objective is providing material which can be bragged about with notables who never even visit us. I am sick and tired of the personal failings of those in charge being treated like state secrets which we’re not to discuss with any friends and family let alone with the public and the press. I am sick and tired of Mark Schaming and the salted earth he treats as his private garden.”
Schaming, the museum’s executive director, has been the long-standing focus of criticism, but in response, the State Education Department elevated him to Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education, essentially making him his own boss.
“I would think running the State Museum would be a big enough job on its own, especially amid that big transformation we were promised,” Churchill wrote. “I’d love to ask the director/deputy commissioner how he manages both jobs except that … ‘Mr. Schaming is not available for an interview,’ O’Hare said.”
This is not the first abject failure of the State Museum over the last decade. In 2011, the State Board of Regents was presented a plan by Museum staff that was to revitalize the State Museum, Archives and Library. The plan set as one of its primary goals to “initiate reinvention of the the Office of State History.”
“But as anyone who has ever worked in state government can attest, internal change doesn’t come easily,” former State Historian Robert Weible wrote five years later. “Bureaucracies, particularly those in decline, tend to empower micro-managing careerists more concerned with building and keeping their individual “empires” than achieving the larger goals their organizations were created to accomplish. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the plan to reinvent the Office of State History failed. In place of meaningful change came the decision to create a single, relatively low level position in the State Museum: a State Historian who supervises no one but himself and who reports to a Chief Curator. The Chief Curator, in turn, reports to an Assistant Commissioner-level Museum Director, and the Museum Director controls everyone’s budget and work plan.”
Long time readers of New York Almanack will recall the battle this publication helped wage to make the State Historian a stand-alone position, rather than a part time position. That eventually happened, but not before the position was downgraded first.
In 2017, the Museum announced the creation of a New York State History Advisory Group. The group was expected to meet, according to the announcement, “periodically to advise the New York State Historian on issues related to the history field in New York State, including suggestions pertaining to local and municipal historians, academic history, historic preservation, and heritage tourism.”
Has it ever? Who knows. We’ve never heard about it again. But contrast that to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s advisory group on the Adirondack High Peaks, organized two years later. They held public meetings, solicited public comments, released a final report with creative recommendations and led to the creation of the first ever Adirondack and Catskill Park coordinators.
It’s getting old, to say the least. The warnings we raised that the annual conference on history in New York State, which struggled after being all but abandoned by the State Museum and left to the now defunct New York State Historical Association have come to pass.
The last Conference on New York State History was held in 2015. Some participants and organizers moved their conference participation to Researching New York, and annual conference hosted by the State University at Albany’s History Department graduate students. That conference hasn’t occurred since 2019.
The long struggle to persuade the State Museum to start celebrating New York State History Month (which was all but abandoned by 2002) has also ultimately failed, unless you consider creating a logo and a web page with Museum events (and some other events already taking place during the month around the state).
Churchill’s piece cited State Ed’s claim that budgets are declining and revenues are not exceeding expenses, and ends with the following:
“Nobody wants to criticize the State Museum, which remains a special place for many of us. But we wouldn’t be doing the museum — or this region — a favor to ignore its decline. Again: Is this the best New York can do?”
Give Chris Churchill’s commentary a read, and let us – and museum leaders – know what you think.
Photo: Albany’s Cultural Education Center, which houses the State Museum, Archives and Library.