On July 1st I attended the grand opening of the Adirondack Experience’s new multi-million-dollar exhibit Life in the Adirondacks. Situated overlooking Blue Mountain Lake, The Adirondack Experience (formerly the Adirondack Museum) is a regional icon with an unparalleled collection of Adirondack historical artifacts. Their new exhibit, intended to interactively place visitors in the context of the Adirondack Park in all its human dimensions, is located in the former Roads and Rails building.
Life in the Adirondacks is a dramatic change in approach and style for a museum renowned for its depiction of history through objects of every description from the last two centuries of human activity in the region. I spoke with one of the staff who manages collections and she told me the count of items on display in this exhibit space was down from 3,000 to roughly 500. Those who know the former exhibit will see a much cleaner, streamlined, modern presentation with a number of new “hands-on” interactive displays. Life in the Adirondacks is bracketed by two video presentations. The first is a visually striking short film in a small theater that introduces visitors to the spectrum of human passions concerning the Adirondack Park. The second, near the exit, is an excellent collection of short interviews with various leaders and advocates in the Park, representing different sides of the difficult questions we debate here, from land use to preservation to local economies.
I suspect many will be happy with Life in the Adirondacks and some will not. Those who marveled at the previous iteration, with its fully reconstructed blacksmith shop, numerous horse-drawn vehicles and tools and techniques related to road and railroad building, may be disappointed by the sparseness of the objects on display. Folks new to the Adirondacks or who are more interested in their own context in the current Park will enjoy the questions raised by the new exhibit, and those who seek a more immersive experience, including children, will probably love it. My wife reported that the kids she observed were engrossed with the new interactive attractions.
Comparative judgments aside, the Adirondack Experience really nailed the critical role of human diversity in painting a rich, contextual picture of the Adirondack Park and our place in it. As a co-founder of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative I commend them for it. But this is no mere platitude for a few touches here and there that pay lip service to a trendy concept some see as little more than political correctness. Rather, the designers of Life in the Adirondacks have recognized diversity as deeply integral to a true historical perspective of the Adirondacks and they have made a strong commitment to tell that story. For example, near the beginning of the exhibit there is an entire wall of photographs and text devoted to the historically broad racial and cultural variety of workers, homesteaders and freedom-seekers who worked or lived in Adirondacks from the early 19th century forward. Theirs is largely an untold story and it is good to see their lives prominently represented. The display poses important questions about what it meant to belong here and what it means today.
This diversity wall challenges the deeply entrenched, romanticized and ultimately false historical narrative of an unexplored wilderness penetrated, exploited, protected and ultimately revered by white men, all told from the perspective of the dominant cultural forces of the time. Hence in many Adirondack histories we have the Philosopher’s Camp, Murray and Colvin, all worthy subjects; but not the miners of Witherbee, the homesteaders of Timbuctoo or the indigenous peoples who lived here for centuries.
My favorite part of Life in the Adirondacks shows by its inclusion just how strong this bias has been: for the first time in its fifty-year history, the Adirondack Experience has an exhibit devoted to the Mohawk and Abenaki who have called the Adirondacks home for hundreds of years. The theme of this new space is contemporary, focused on the lives and traditions of people living here today, complete with demonstrations of crafts and culture. But at the same time it gives lie to the silly idea that the Adirondack region was an unpopulated wilderness at the time of Euro-American exploration.
Life in the Adirondacks’ focus on diversity carries all the way through to the video at the end, where difficult questions of inclusion and belonging are raised by Aaron Mair, recently President of the National Sierra Club and a frequent visitor to the area. The fact that his comments are just one part of the variety of opinions expressed in these interviews, cements diversity as not some separate topic to debate, but as a fundamental fiber in the tapestry that truly comprises life here in the Adirondacks. Bravo to the Adirondack Experience for understanding and interpreting the meaning of diversity so well.
Photo: Entrance to the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake (courtesy Adirondack Experience).