Saturday, July 15, 2017

Pete Nelson: Adirondack Experience Gets Diversity Right

adirondack experienceOn 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).

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

6 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Right on Pete!
    I’m looking forward to my own experience of the Experience.

  2. Tom Vawter says:

    This article certainly heightens this Old Forge resident’s resolve to visit the re-imagined Adirondack Experience. Thanks, Pete.

  3. Boreasfisher says:

    Thanks for sharing…a visit is now on my summer to do list.

  4. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    Love the new Adirondack Experience, and especially “Life in the Adirondacks.” I was there at the museum’s opening in 1957, and have been back many times since. The new look is inventive and lively.

  5. Sally Heyn says:

    Peter, I am Hal Burton’s niece and I just read your beautiful 2012 article on my Uncle Hal. My name is Sally Heyn in Owings Mills, Md . I have fond memories of Uncle Hal as he and his family used to come to our house for Thanksgiving. I have lost contact with my cousins Fred ad Mary so I thought I would google them (no luck), and that is how I came upon your article. We love the Adirondacks and tented for years at the various lakes, but now in our 80’s we are cabin campers. What area is Burton Peak in?Congrats on your perseverance to honor Uncle Hal. Many thanks. Sally

  6. Marty Hogan says:

    The display on Anne LaBastille was fascinating. I don’t think it was large enough even as thorough as it was. I once gave Anne a bowl from Belize in 2004. I was stunned to see it in the museum on her writing desk. Touching stuff.

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