Where beauty never fades, meaning is carved in stone, and a gasp of delight waits around every corner

Museums are storehouses of knowledge. The word derives from the ancient Greek Muses — the goddesses of the arts and the sciences.

In our day, we depend on museums to collect and display items that will teach us about ourselves — parts of our past that we may not otherwise know, or pieces of art and culture that inspire or inform us, perhaps teaching us about threads our great, diverse American fabric we might otherwise have overlooked.

Right now, in the New York State Museum in Albany, visitors can learn about Tonalism, which moved painting from the Hudson River School to modern art. They can ponder the crowd at 42nd Street in New York City that Margery Ryerson painted as what, at first glance, looks like splotches of ink until, with focus, figures emerge.

Or, museum-goers could look at a draft, written in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand, of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that changed the course of our country.

Another kind of emancipation is explored in the working model of a statue of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who fought for women’s suffrage. The statue, by sculptor Meredith Bergmann for which this is a model, is to be unveiled this year in New York’s Central Park. Modern women’s rights activists seven years ago started a fund to create the first Central Park statue to depict real women — not fictionalized females. The park has 23 statues of men important in history. They called this breaking the bronze ceiling.

While we have much to learn from the large state museum, we have a particular fondness for the small museums that exist largely as a labor of love. Mary Liz and Paul Stewart founded the Underground Railroad History Project in the 1990s, which purchased the brick row house in Albany — in a state of near collapse — that had once been the home of abolitionists Stephen and Harriet Myers.

“It’s more than a house” is the motto for the building, which is home to a variety of activities and includes a museum that displays, among other items, objects unearthed in the neighborhood.

Mary Liz Stewart says items like a porcelain-vase fragment on display are significant because there is a common misconception that African Americans before the Civil War were either slaves or very poor. The vase is a shining example, tangible proof, of the middle-class life that some African Americans in Albany led in the 19th Century.

We’re also fond of the town-supported museums in our midst, often kept alive by the volunteers active in local historical societies. The museum in the former schoolhouse in New Salem has a new exhibit every year put together by the New Scotland Historical Association, drawing on its collections to let the public know about bygone hotels, or farms, or the Helderberg Ski Club.

 Westerlo spent decades renovating a historic house to now proudly display pieces of town history. Rensselaerville has its Grist Mill museum; Knox, its Saddlemire Homestead; Berne, its rooms of history at the town hall.

We’re reflecting now on these gems in our midst because we received word last week from the office of Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat representing our area, that a bill she has sponsored, along with a parallel bill in the State Senate sponsored by Jose Serrano, a Democrat from the Bronx, was voted out of the Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee.

We wholeheartedly support this bill, dubbed the Museum Education Act, as it underscores the benefits of students learning from museums, and levels the playing field so that students in poorer districts, where field trips to museums have been cut, can get the same benefits as students in wealthier districts.

All children deserve the chance to find their muse.

Fahy and Serrano cite a 2013 study from the Wagner Group as part of the Travel Effect campaign of the U.S. Travel Association that showed students who participated in regular educational field trips were up to 59 percent more likely to achieve better grades, and that 63 percent were also more likely to attend some form of higher education.

The Board of Regents, which oversees public education for the state, designated the Museum Education Act a 2020 legislative priority with budgetary implications amounting to $5 million.

We believe this would be money well spent and hope it becomes part of the one-house budget bills.

The Museum Education Act has waited a long time to come to fruition. Fourteen years ago, its first version included $30 million for a competitive grant program. With the Great Recession, support for the Museum Education Act declined. A new version was introduced in 2016 with a $40 million appropriation. Another version of the bill passed both the Assembly and the Senate in 2018 but was vetoed by the governor.

At that time, Erika Sanger, executive director of the Museum Association of New York, wrote about a survey her organization conducted, which found 90 percent of members responding dedicate a quarter or more or more of their budgets to education; 99 percent conduct on-site education programs; 75 percent offer educational programming at another site in their communities; and 65 percent develop materials for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Unlike in most states, museums in New York are considered educational institutions — as they should be — and are regulated by the State Education Department. If museums own collections, they are granted charters; if they don’t have collections, they are given certificates of incorporation.

But the system, as it was created, does not have a stream of funding. Some museums get money from the state’s Council on the Arts. “The 1,400 historical societies, zoos, botanical gardens, aquaria, and cultural arts institutions that provide instruction to over six million schoolchildren every year receive no direct state support,” Sanger wrote in 2018.

Sanger wrote in a memo this year, lobbying for the bill, that, in addition to paying for transportation for student visits, the Museum Education Act could fund development of digital curricula and teacher training; classroom visits by museum staff; new exhibits to improve student learning in history, science, languages, and the arts; and civics and citizenship classes for New Americans that use museum collections and resources.

“The MEA has the potential to significantly improve the way that museums work with their communities,” Sanger wrote in 2018. “It will help create fair and equal access to our history, art, and culture and enhance learning. In these times of rapidly changing political positions, economic volatility, and shifting demographics, keeping our museum doors open will help New Yorkers learn about and value the contributions of all Americans.”

Those words are more true today. We hope the governor is listening.

More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.