In spite of the seemingly highhanded way that the Greater Amsterdam School District board closed the Walter Elwood Museum, in the long run it may be a blessing. I say that after spending almost three hours at the museum helping the new director, Ann Peconie, assess the museum’s book collection, which numbers several thousand volumes. At the same time, I got to look at the rest of the museum’s collection.
Even though my expertise is strictly in the area of used and antiquarian books and I don’t know a lot about running a museum, I came away from the visit with several tentative conclusions and suggestions.
First, if the museum moved to Guy Park Manor, it would be a good move in spite of some drawbacks. One of the drawbacks is that one has to cross two railroad tracks to get to the building; but the tracks are gated and I have never had a problem in all the years I have been crossing them.
The other drawback is its size. Guy Park Manor is smaller than the school building that now houses the museum. On the other hand, it is more historical than the school building, having been the manor house of Sir William Johnson’s daughter and son-in-law during the 1700s. But even its size is a good thing, because it is going to force the museum to go through its materials and make decisions about what should and shouldn’t be moved.
Frankly, I was overwhelmed when I saw the museum’s collection of books and artifacts, some 20,000 to 25,000 items. The collection is in disarray and many items are not as well taken care of as they should be. Many need repair and preservation. Only a small percentage of the items have been cataloged on a computer. This is not the fault of the current director. Maybe it is not even the fault of past directors, as the museum has always suffered from a shortage of money.
Secondly, the task of packing and moving is going to be enormous and costly even with volunteer help. This leads to my third conclusion, namely that many items in the museum need to be disposed of through a reputable auctioneer. Some items need to be disposed of simply because they have no value, either monetary or as museum pieces. For example, there are dozens of Bibles from the 1800s in the collection that are in such poor condition that they are virtually worthless.
There are also items of value that have nothing to do with the mission of the museum and are simply taking up much-needed space. Their sale would not only free up space but give the museum money that it desperately needs. I saw a beautiful leather-bound set of the works of John Dryden that have no connection with the museum’s mission statement, which is primarily, although not exclusively, to preserve and promote the history of Amsterdam and surrounding communities. It makes little sense for the museum to hold onto such items.
The first task of the museum then is to decide what items are essential to the museum and carefully pack them for moving. Then it must hold an on-site auction, presided over by a reputable auctioneer to sell off what remains. Finally, after moving and setting up the museum again, priority needs to be given to repairing and preserving those items that have deteriorated over time.
Sale of building
On a side note, once the museum moves, the Amsterdam school board must remember their responsibility to taxpayers and make sure they sell the school building that housed the museum for a good price and to a responsible buyer. After 30 years of living in Amsterdam, I know that buildings sometimes get sold to a friend of a friend rather than to the highest bidder.
As I have argued before, the Mohawk Valley is not the Hudson Valley. It is not Tech Valley. What makes the Mohawk Valley special is not only its beauty but its history. Its combination of Iroquois, Dutch, Colonial, Revolutionary War and industrial history makes it unique. The Walter Elwood Museum, along with Schenectady’s Stockade, the Mabee House, Old Fort Johnson, Fort Klock and a number of other historic sites and organizations are helping to preserve that history.
The Mohawk Valley’s unique history is one of its attractions to tourists, and that is why the Elwood Museum must continue to exist and grow. While the recent closing of the museum and its proposed move may appear on the surface to be a negative thing, if handled properly it could be the best thing that ever happened to it.
The museum could never have afforded the free publicity it has received from news stories about the closing and proposed move. Furthermore, there is in Amsterdam a renewed interest in the museum.
As Caroline Ingalls was fond of repeating in the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, “There’s no great loss without some small gain.” A cliche for sure, and not always true; but in the case of the Walter Elwood Museum, it seems appropriate.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.
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