Capital Region

Electric City Archives: Dudley Observatory settles into new home at Siena

The Dudley Observatory's original home in 1856 was this structure in Albany's Goat Hill. Inset: Bill Buell
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The Dudley Observatory's original home in 1856 was this structure in Albany's Goat Hill. Inset: Bill Buell

I love museums, libraries and academic institutions of all sorts. My favorite is probably the New York State Museum in Albany, but give me a day at the Albany Institute of History and Art and I’ll be very happy there, too.

In Schenectady, we are fortunate to have a wonderful place like the Museum of Science and Innovation, also known as miSci, and while the facility shut down Wednesday, for a time to help the cause in the fight against COVID-19, it is on stable footing and not going anywhere. The Schenectady County Historical Society and the Efner History Center at City Hall are two more stable and popular destinations for those delving into local history, and while the Edison Tech Center and the Tribes Hill Heritage Center don’t have public brick and mortar sites at the moment, they are two more educational groups that hope to find a new home and rebound once the pandemic fades away.

We hate to see these kind of groups struggle, and while it wasn’t COVID related, it was sad to see in years past organizations such as the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the ALCO Historical and Technical Society move their homes outside Schenectady County.

Another loss to the county was the departure of the Dudley Observatory late last year from the grounds of miSci to its new home at Siena College. More of a classroom and research center than a museum or an actual observatory for much of its 160 years, the Dudley and a relatively new piece of equipment, its 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegranian telescope, seemed right at home at miSci during its time there (2015-2019).

But in January of 2020, the Dudley Observatory and its director, Dr. Valerie Rapson, had a new home in Loudonville inside Roger Bacon Hall on the Siena campus. Fortunately, they didn’t take the Suits-Bueche Planetarium with them. That wonderful place, a great asset for thousands of school children for the past 60 years in Schenectady, is still a part of miSci.

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According to miSci executive director Gina Gould, there were a couple of reasons for Dudley’s exit from Schenectady.

“It’s hard to have an observatory in the middle of a city, so that just wasn’t working like we had hoped,” said Gould. “And there were a few things that just weren’t meshing. We had a contract with them for three years, and when we sat down at the table to renew I think we made a mutual decision that this might not be the perfect match.”

Heidi Jo Newberg, an RPI professor and president of the Dudley Observatory board of directors, said the parting was an amiable one.

“They are re-prioritizing what they’re doing, and we’re very happy to have a place like Siena College to work with,” said Newberg. “It’s a solid institution that does a lot of outreach and education. It’s a Franciscan school, so we fit in with that part of their mission.”

Rapson, who Gould called “a real star,” now shares air time with fellow astronomer Bob Berman and host Ray Graf on WAMC-Public Radio’s Vox Pop astronomy show, has taken a teaching position at SUNY-Oneonta but remains connected to the Dudley Observatory. The group’s new executive director is Melanie Evans.

“We’re very happy to have Melanie with us, and Valerie is still running our senior science program for us,” said Newberg. “We can’t go into libraries and schools right now like we used to, but we still have a lot to offer people on line.”

At miSci, Gould said the museum still places a lot of importance on its programming relating to astronomy and the space race.

“Our planetarium and all of our space programs are all still intact,” she said. “We can’t open the planetarium right now, but we remain focused on line with all of our academic endeavors.”

As for the Tribes Hill Heritage Center, Dance Heacock’s museum celebrating American Native history, was forced to move out of its location at theViaport Mall in Rotterdam.

“With nobody coming in because of the pandemic we couldn’t afford to stay there,” said Heacock. “We are in storage right now, and looking for a new site when COVID is over. We could end up staying at the mall or finding another location. We are updating our web site and Facebook page and expect to have a better presence on line very soon.”

At the Edison Tech Center, Bill Kornrumpf says the group continues to have an on line presence that attracts visitors from around the world, and that the group’s artifacts, currently in storage at the Daily Gazette, will once again be accessible to the public, hopefully in the near future. The group moved out of its downtown Schenectady location on Broadway in 2018.

“It’s been hard to get restarted after the move, and between that, some health issues and now COVID we haven’t been able to find a new place,” said Kornrumpf, a retired engineer at General Electric and now treasurer of the Edison Tech Center. “We were able to restart our video series about Time Measurement and it’s development and importance to our modern communications and navigation systems.”

Hopefully, 2021 will be a year of rebirth for the Edison Tech Center and the Tribes Hill Heritage Center, and let’s hope that the new partnership between Siena College and the Dudley Observatory proves to be a perfect match in 2021. Formed in Albany’s Goat Hill in 1856, the Dudley Observatory has indeed had a varied existence, but perhaps its bests years are still in its future.

Bill Buell is the Schenectady County historian and a retired reporter for The Daily Gazette. His Electric City Archives runs semi-regularly at DailyGazette.com

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