Regional Culture Pulled Out of New York State Museum Storage



While multitudes of eager bargain hunters crowded stores in search of stocking stuffers and after-Thanksgiving steals on Black Friday, the New York State Museum unveiled its latest exhibit showcasing the diverse terrain and regional cultures found within the state's borders.

Over 9,000 people visited the museum last weekend, foregoing the film debut of Harry Potter and the enticement of the malls to view the museum's most ambitious undertaking in recent years.

The $4 million project boasts a caf?(c) offering distinct Empire State fare, exhibits representing the various regions of New York, and a restored 19th-century working carousel for kids and kids-at-heart alike.

The permanent gallery, aptly entitled "Windows on New York," defies the traditional image of museums as dark, dust-laden buildings cluttered with archaic, hands-off artifacts. The 25,000 square foot project occupies the museum's terrace level, which is flooded with sunlight from 20-foot windows and surrounded by a balcony overlooking the heart of downtown Albany.

The gallery is divided geographically into seven regions: the Hudson Valley, Western New York, New York City, Long Island, the North, the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier, and the Mohawk Valley and the Erie Canal. "Buffalo" and its surrounding suburbs are thus found on the west side of the floor opposite the "Hudson Valley," while "Long Island" is located on the gallery's south side.

In the center of the gallery, a colorfully-lit, 3-D relief map of the state orients visitors while vivid signs guide patrons to points of interest such as Lockport and Seneca Falls.

Unlike the often tedious, research-heavy nature of traditional museum exhibits, "Windows" is a visual extravaganza. Remnants of Andrew Carnegie's massive Manhattan mansion and a stock trading counter from the New York Stock Exchange greet visitors to the New York City collection while an Adirondack biplane, used to detect forest fires, flies over the heads of those viewing the Upstate New York collection.

The Western New York section features a wood and stained glass back bar salvaged from Salamanca, N.Y. and a depiction of the region's natural wonder and honeymoon destination, Niagara Falls. The exhibit also immortalizes Annie Taylor, the first documented survivor of a tumble down the falls who conquered them in a barrel in 1901. The gallery's caf?(c) pays tribute to the Anchor Bar, the originator of the Queen City's famous finger food, the Buffalo chicken wing.

Mark Schaming, the museum's director of exhibitions, compared "Windows" to a "trailer for film," providing patrons with an overview of the state and the museum itself.

"We wanted to have a very visual exhibit and immerse visitors into the exhibit," Schaming said. For the entire film, people could visit the remainder of the museum, which provides in-depth looks at the state's ecological and cultural history.

The exhibit is not filled with new acquisitions, but rather materials resurrected from the museum's extensive collection of six million-plus objects, according to Schaming. The gallery thus provides a home to impressive artifacts for which previously there was no room or no context to display them in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous Packard car, for example, was never on permanent display until now.

The beautifully restored carousel, acquired by the museum in 1975, makes its Albany debut in a circular extension to the terrace gallery tailored to the dimensions of the merry-go-round. The carousel consists of 36 marble-eyed horses, two donkeys, two deer, two chariots and a "love tub."

The carnival ride was made between 1912 and 1916 by the North Tonawanda-based Herschell-Spillman Company, one of the leading manufacturers of carousels in the United States. Before coming to rest at the museum, the merry-go-round delighted children in Cuba, N.Y. and graced Olcott Beach on the shore of Lake Ontario.

The beloved, timeless American classic serves as a focal point of "Windows," illuminating the cultural importance and enduring quality of the carousel. Just as the intricately-carved merry-go-round drew crowds to Olcott Beach in the 1930s, the restored version is likely to attract otherwise ambivalent patrons to the museum's collections.

One corner of the gallery also offers a poignant memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center - an unforeseen addition to the original "Windows" display. Two columns of bronze squares, each representing a victim of the terrorist attacks, are suspended in front of the gallery windows, creating a simple, but moving, silhouette of the Twin Towers.

Pataki's words before the Sept. 13 session of the New York State Legislature are engraved in marble beneath the columns.

"These unspeakable acts have shattered our city and shocked our nation. But they have not weakened the bonds that unite us as New Yorkers, and as Americans - as those who love freedom - and, ultimately, as those who love one another."

A banner of the intact towers with the Statue of Liberty standing proudly in the foreground flanks the memorial, along with a computer terminal displaying the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" series.

Schaming said the museum is working with the Port Authority of New York to acquire artifacts from the site, including a piece of the building, for a more extensive future exhibit.

The exhibit's opening gala was postponed until the spring out of respect for the tragedy.

"It didn't feel like party time in early November," Schaming said.

For students heading home to the Capital Region for the holidays or those venturing on a road-trip over winter break, the museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. While entrance to the state's collections is always free, the museum asks for a small donation to cover its costs and keep the carousel in mint condition.