By Indiana Nash
Brookside Museum isn’t going anywhere, though its name and focus are changing.
After months of financial struggles, which began well before the coronavirus pandemic, the Ballston Spa institution announced that it’s expanding its scope and will be renamed the Saratoga County History Center.
“We’d like to become the go-to place for Saratoga County history and information anywhere in the world,” said Michael Landis, the public programs manager. “If someone in Japan is [doing] historical research and they Google Saratoga County history, New York hopefully they can get to us.”
Located on Charlton Street, the Greek-columned building was established as a resort hotel in 1792. In the ensuing years, it was used as a school, a private residence, and a boarding house. In the 1950s it was converted into apartments and in 1971, after sitting vacant for several years, it was purchased by the Saratoga County Historical Society.
Over the years, Brookside has held events and touring exhibitions, and worked with local schools.
Yet, in 2019, the museum faced closure due to a sizeable shortage of funds. Museum board members and staff launched a “Save Brookside” campaign, which aimed to raise enough money to keep the place going. Local municipalities like the Town of Ballston donated a significant amount, and many in the community also donated.
However, the museum was also grappling with an identity problem. Landis, who is a professional historian, was one of the people who wanted to help sort things out. He started getting more involved with Brookside in 2019 when put out a call for new board members.
“I had served on the board for other organizations and I’ve done this kind of work before and it quickly became obvious to me that there were bigger problems than just money, although obviously money is the biggest problem, there are other issues,” Landis said
He and other board members began to seriously ask one another what the museum did best for the community and why it should be around for the long run.
“Within Ballston Spa, there’s love for the building and a fondness for the Brookside label so to speak but other than that we weren’t really doing a whole lot,” Landis said, “I and some other new board members decided that we had to do something radical. That if we were going to survive and do something worth wild, we had to reinvent ourselves.”
Over the last few months, and during a pandemic no less, Brookside Museum has started to transition to the Saratoga County History Center. Though the institution’s doors closed in March due to the pandemic, board members and volunteers have hosted virtual community events on hot-button historical issues, like that of the Schuyler statue removal in Albany.
“It went very well. We got two professors, one from Union College and one from Sienna College, to be our presenters. We had close to 100 participants,” Landis said, “That was a first for us.”
They plan to host another virtual community discussion in the coming weeks about historic preservation, exploring which buildings are restored and valued and which are not.
“[There’s] a lot of vested interest in that, community members care about what gets torn down, what gets replaced. So we’ve put together a panel of the best professionals in historic preservation in the area,” Landis said.
They’ve also been organizing virtual exhibitions throughout the pandemic. The first was “#518 Rainbow Hunt: Coping with Crisis,” and featured stories and photos from families across the region who participated in the hunt.
The latest exhibition, which goes live on Thursday, is “IndusTREE,” which will examine the intertwined relationship between humans and trees. According to the Center, Saratoga communities have relied on trees for everything from food to shelter for centuries. The exhibit explores the evolution of harvesting trees, from the first sawmill erected in Saratoga County (in 1762) to the efforts of Thomas C. Luther, who created a 7,000-acre preserve in Malta.
Beyond that, the History Center moving to a more volunteer-based team and the executive director, Michelle Arthur, will depart in the coming months.
“SCHC is extremely fortunate to have had an executive director with such dedication and commitment to professionalism. We have benefited from Dr. Arthur’s leadership, knowledge, and ability to constantly innovate. The exhibitions and programs she developed were an important addition to the community. She will be deeply missed,” said Jere Blackwelder, the board president, in a statement.
The History Center, which will remain physically closed until at least the end of the year, has three part-time employees and will rely more on its 20-plus volunteers.
“We will run with more of a volunteer staff, however, we’ve got some pretty strong volunteers. Field Horne, he was the first employee I think they had when he was just a kid he lived in an apartment in Brookside Museum and was their first executive director. . .he’s back on board and he knows the museum pretty well,” Blackwelder said.
“We’ve got now coming on board some new directors, many of which are town historians or spouses of town historians; people involved not just in Ballston Spa but in nearly all of the towns in Saratoga County. That’s going to help a lot in making this museum county-wide, not just a Ballston Spa location.”
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Center and for Blackwelder, who was elected board president shortly before COVID-19 started impacting the Capital Region. Yet, with all these changes finally in play, Blackwelder is hopeful.
“I think we’re going to do okay. I’m encouraged,” Blackwelder said.