Public History Practice during COVID-19: Schenectady County Historical Society
The Schenectady County Historical Society is an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the area surrounding the city of Schenectady and educating the public about the rich history of this area. They operate three sites in the region: Mabee Farm, which is advertised as the oldest farm in the Mohawk valley, dating to 1705, it has been repaired and reconstructed into an image of colonial life. It is a very popular place for elementary school field trips. They also own and operate the Brouwer House, which is not open to the public except by appointment, but serves as a studio and workspace for several artists and artisans in the Mohawk Valley region. The last site that they operate is their own archival library, which is located in Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District, which contains a high density of preserved period homes. I am familiar with the Historical Society because it is my local historical organization, and growing up I made multiple visits to Mabee farm and the Stockade. I have always admired their dedication to educating people about our local history and they do well as a public history institution.
Due to COVID-19, all three of the historical sites owned by the Historical Society are closed until further notice. The organization’s website states that they “will monitor the situation and reevaluate our programming in May.” As COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in the area surrounding Albany, which includes Schenectady County, a May reopening is looking less and less reasonable. Until the eventual reopening, no physical events are scheduled, but there are no online events either. Instead, the Historical Society has put some effort into cataloging one of their many exhibitions, this one called “Handcrafted: Folk and their Art,” for online museum-goers to observe. Although I had hoped that other exhibits from the society’s various sites would be digitized as well, this is not the case. The online exhibit in question is set up as a PowerPoint presentation linked from the Historical Society Library’s website. I wished that they had used a format that was just a little more engaging, as I feel that young learners will not be entertained by a 23 slide PowerPoint, but I also feel sympathetic to the people who probably had to rush to create some sort of content so before they were unable to come into work anymore. For what it’s worth, the presentation itself is very detailed and informative, and the pictures that the creator included are very well-staged. In sum, I feel like although their approach may not be very effective as a teaching tool, I understand that they must have been under a lot of pressure, and since they take funding mostly from donations I understand that doing something more extravagant would be difficult in many ways.
Along with the online exhibit, the museum is doing something arguably more important than just trying to give people access to historic objects through digital mediums. The Historical Society is undertaking a project which focuses on collecting stories from people in my local area about their experiences during this extraordinary and terrifying time. They are asking for anything that helps you record your perspective on the situation, things like diary pages, essays, photographs, poetry, letters, songs, visual art, anything that you feel is a good record of this event. Because of our location, we have not seen the same amount of deaths as closely as people downstate in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island have been exposed to. This gives my area a much different perspective on what’s been happening. I think that this is a much more important project than the digitization of the exhibits, and I think they’re working effectively to help future historians study this time and what effect it had on all parts of New York.
Stay safe everyone, and stay indoors as much as you can.