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Well-kept secret

Exhibits on Fulton County's past invite visitors

Large collection costly to store

Saturday, January 19, 2013
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Well-kept secret


Gloversville resident, John Nellis looks over the train & villages exhibit at the Fulton County Museum located on Kingsboro Ave. in Gloversville
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Gloversville resident, John Nellis looks over the train & villages exhibit at the Fulton County Museum located on Kingsboro Ave. in Gloversville

— One of the most extensive scale-model collections ever assembled depicting just about every building along the FJ & G Railroad sits quietly on the second floor of the Fulton County Museum in Gloversville.

Few people are aware of it.

Likewise, few people are aware of the museum’s extensive collection of memorabilia from the area’s heyday as a center for professional baseball, showing a time when famous players such as Cy Young and Honus Wagner played at local ball parks.

There is also the neatly kept but seldom visited “war room,” an homage to the men and women who served their country in its wars: Revolutionary, world, Vietnam and others. The display is complete with sandbags, newspapers of historic events and even a table setting that symbolizes the forgotten prisoner of war and the solider who remains missing in action.

These and other displays fill two floors and the hallways of a former school building on Kingsboro Avenue. Some have been there for years, others are relatively recent additions.

The museum itself has been around since 1972, but few know it exists, said President Mark Pollak. “Sometimes it is frustrating. We just don’t get the visitors.”

Attendance, which seldom tops 2,000 people annually, is down about 500 people from the prior year, and local schools have stopped sending children due to cuts in their transportation budgets.

Pollak himself knew little of the museum until he got involved with it about five years ago — and he is a city of Gloversville firefighter who retired after 35 years.

“I never stepped foot in place,” he said. “You think of state history and national history. You never think of the local museum having much to check out.”

Still, the museum is undergoing a revitalization with Pollak and other volunteers breathing new life into the place. The railroad, war room and baseball exhibits are new. Pollak is refreshing the room containing an exhibit of the leather industry, which had remained static for years. In coming weeks, the museum will add a temporary exhibit on the Adirondacks compiled by local author and historian Don Williams.

The museum also installed chair lifts on all the interior stairs, since there is no elevator.

“The mission has not changed,” Pollak said. “It is to preserve and exhibit local history.”

The trouble is that the museum does not have much of a budget for displays, let alone money to preserve and maintain the hundreds of items it has in acquired through the years, or even for heat. This year there are plans to curtail its season by about two months.

“It is too expensive to operate,” Pollak said. The private, nonprofit museum relies on donations, fundraisers and small grants to survive. Still, Pollak said, it is solvent.

Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, and a board member of the Museum Association of New York, said the Fulton County Museum is not alone in its financial problems. “These are really tough economic times for museums. When people focus on bread-and-butter issues, they tend not to focus on museums,” she said.

What makes it particularly difficult for some of the smaller museums is caring for the collections.

“If you have trouble parting with your stuff, you dump it on your local museum, but you do not give museums any money to care for it,” Sorin said. “Every object costs money. You have to heat it, you have to care for it. You are assuming the cost if no one gives you any money,” she said. “Volunteer museums have to be careful what they take. They can’t be a dumping place for items because they can’t take care of them.”

Case in point: The YWCA of the Adirondack Foothills and the VFW Bernard Kearney Memorial Post 2077, both of Fulton County, donated items to the museum when they closed. Neither gave the museum money to help preserve the items, however, Pollak said. “For us, it is nothing to store the items … The only alternative is Mud Road [the Fulton County landfill].”

Pollak said the museum will store the items as best it can. “Instead of lasting 300 years, they may last 200 years.” He said he would love to have a climate-controlled storeroom, but its acquisition is not likely.

Sorin said museums today need to make connections with the community to remain relevant. “Museums spend too much time on collection when they need to spend more time on focusing on community. Museums are about serving people; they are not about protecting objects,” she said.

Marion Viglione, a volunteer member of the Fulton County Museum’s board, said, the museum has a huge collection. “I found it almost overwhelming because there was so much material there,” she said. “This has happened with a lot of organizations. Cartons and cartons of materials came our way.”

Viglione said the museum needs to be selective in what it can and cannot accept. “People don’t know what else to do with things when they are clearing out things. These things are part of our history, but we have to be selective. Otherwise we run the risk of being overwhelming to folks, that there is so much that none of it sticks.”

 
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