$9.4 million upgrade to ‘Adirondack Experience’
By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor
When the Adirondack Museum reopens for its 60th anniversary season on May 26, it will be as the Adirondack Experience. No, it’s not adding a zipline — but the museum is shifting toward a more hands-on, active model, says director David Kahn.
New exhibits will allow visitors to roll logs in an immersive virtual river flow. They can plunge the box that sets off a noisy dynamite blast in an iron mine, hear sounds and see moving images as if they are riding an Adirondack railcar or hiking in the deep forest.
Many of these changes are part of a new, interactive, 19,000-square foot introductory exhibit called “Life in the Adirondacks” that opens on July 1 in the former transportation building.
Why ‘Adirondack Experience?’
The museum’s new name was originally intended just for the new exhibit, Mr. Kahn said. “But we realized, that title really had legs. It could apply to the entire institution.”
The message: “This institution is not just about dusty old stuff. There’s a lot to do here, for all ages and for different learning styles.”
Mr. Kahn says, “My generation was brought up: You look at the exhibit and you read about it on a panel. Other generations seek a more interactive experience.”
He recalls a young girl in the museum’s quilt exhibit a couple of years back: “We had little pieces of quilt on panels in the gallery, for people to touch. She kept trying to swipe them, like a computer.”
The new exhibits accommodate both, he says: The readers and the swipers.
There are “selfie” stations for picture-taking in Adirondack gear and settings, touch-screen monitors that describe items in display cases or transmit the voices of characters who once lived in these parts.
The new exhibit includes that section on iron mining, with a simulated dynamite blast. The virtual log-jam uses electronically rigged poles that visitors can manipulate, moving the video logs as if they were truly on the river.
There’s also a guideboat set in a virtual waterway, with electronic sensors on the paddles. Guests will succeed — or not — in navigating through a series of obstacles.
That logging exhibit: “It’s a lot of fun,” Mr. Kahn says. He and others from the museum tried it out in model form before it was installed at the museum. “We really got into it.”
For the first time ever, Mr. Kahn notes, they’ve also “finally” added a section on Mohawk and Abanaki Indians of the Adirondacks, in history and today. It includes recorded chants in original native languages.
One of the things that remain in the building is the Adirondack railcar exhibit. There was no sensible way to move it, Mr. Kahn said the exhibit designers determined. It has been updated with appropriate sound recordings, such as clinking silverware in the dining car, he said.
New, ‘classy’ restaurant
The museum restaurant has been upgraded from a snack bar with rewarmed fare to a true cafe, overseen by a chef from Well Dressed Food of Tupper Lake. The new Lake View Cafe has a full kitchen, locally inspired foods and even a beer and wine license. “It’s classy,” Mr. Kahn says, “more like in a big city, a stylish operation.”
More workshops, pumpkin fest
Programming at the museum will include more of the museum’s typical hands-on workshops such as toy boat building, paddle making or rusting framing.
New events are to include a “Pumpkin Palooza,” massive display of themed pumpkin sculptures in the fall.
They’ll also make more use of the short nature trail to Minnow Pond, where next season, the museum aims to have a boathouse with different Adirondack boats that guests can try out on the water.
Central to the 60th year celebration is a gala party on August 4 with a 1950s theme, for 1957 when the museum was founded. “We’ll have a hula hoop contest, cars, 50s songs and a costume contest,” Mr. Kahn says. “It should be a lot of fun.”
‘We were in decline’
“When I was hired five and a half years ago,” Mr. Kahn says, “the board said they wanted someone to reimagine the museum. But I’m not sure anyone knew what that would mean at the time.”
What they did know: “The institution was in decline,” he says.
It was financially stable, due to ongoing generosity of benefactors and the founder. But admissions had slipped from a high of 100,000 people a year in the late 1980s and early ’90s “to about half that,” Mr. Kahn says.
“Last year we served 60,000 people: 50,000 on site and about 10,000 kids off site in schools. Everybody knew that was a problem.”
Permanent exhibits were all 25 to 50 years old. The most recent upgrade in 1991, more than 25 yeaers ago, to its “Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks exhibit.”
“The larger interpretive issue,” Mr. Kahn says: “There was no beginning or end to the story, the way the museum was set up. A visitor would ask, ‘Where do I begin,’ and the answer was, ‘Well, what are you interested in?’
“The museum never had an exhibit that provides an overview of the Adirondack story,” he says.
$9.4 million capital campaign
The oldest exhibit on the multi-building museum campus was “Roads and Railroads,” created in 1969. “So, we decided to start there,” Mr. Kahn said.
Thus began a $9.4 million capital campaign, of which they’ve raised $9 million. That includes about $2 million in state and government grants, but most came from individual donors, Mr. Kahn notes.
“Eventually we many need double that in order to do all we want,” he adds.
Mr. Kahn says the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul was the first of its kind “to look around and see” how science and children’s museums had long taken an interactive approach, focusing on visitor engagement, with much success.
“But history and art museums were lagging behind.”
He says, “Now it’s more of a national movement for history museums, too, but in the Northeast, there aren’t many doing this. Museums here are older and more conservative than around the country.”
Founded 1957; Harold Hochschild
The Adirondack Museum was founded by Harold Hochschild, the head of American Metals and a part-time Adirondack resident who eventually retired here.
Hochschild amassed an eclectic collection of fine art and artifacts from the region, and set up a substantial endowment that, at $50 million today, “is pretty good for an institution of its size, and for Northern New York,” Mr. Kahn notes.
Hochschild himself ran the museum until just before his death in 1983.
Today, The Adirondack Experience has more than 300 acres in the region — about Av121 acres on the museum campus itself, which includes 24 buildings — plus another 84 acres across the road from the site, and about 100 acres around Blue Mountain Lake and elsewhere, including Lake Placid.
The museum’s annual budget is about $5.5 million, Mr. Kahn reports — likely more this year, with the new exhibits, new thrust and anniversary, he predicts. They have 30 to 35 year-round employees, and another 50 to 60 in season.
“We are one of the biggest employers in Hamilton County,” he says. “What we do here has economic implications.”
He said consultants have suggested they will see a 70 percent bump in admissions this season. “But we’d be happy with 40 or 50 percent.”
The Adirondack Experience opens on Memorial Day Weekend, beginning Friday, May 26. The new exhibition hall opens on July 1. Info: www.theadkx.org.
Anne LaBastille’s cabin moves in, too
Following Anne LaBastille’s death in 2011, the Adirondack Museum acquired the famous log cabin that the outspoken Adirondack advocate, bestselling author and international figure built for herself when she first moved to the Adirondacks in the early 1970s.
The cabin was dismantled and reconstructed as part of the new “Life in the Adirondacks” exhibit in the former Roads and Railways transpoertation exhibit hall.
The exhibit will debut on July 1.
The museum also has a collection of LaBastille’s items from the cabin, such as clothing — she was known for her red lumberjack shirts, big blonde hair and pink lipstick — her typewriter and more.
An interactive touchscreen will offer opportunities to learn about the items, and LaBastille’s story.
Her manuscripts and other papers went to Cornell University, Mr. Kahn notes.
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