“Is the 9/11 exhibit open?”
When the phone rings at the New York State Museum, that’s the No. 1 question. On the museum’s web site, the 9/11 exhibit gets the most hits.
“We have the nation’s largest collection of 9/11 artifacts,” says museum director Mark Schaming.
But the New York State Museum in Albany was an exceptional institution long before it became the keeper of 9/11 objects and memories.
The state-run facility is one of the largest and oldest museums in the nation, with a collection of 12 million specimens and artifacts and a crew of scientists doing research in earth sciences, biology and human history.
On Feb. 14, Schaming stepped onto the museum’s timeline of history himself, as the state Board of Regents appointed him as new director and boss of its 148 employees.
New York State Museum
WHERE: Cultural Education Center, 222 Madison Avenue, Albany
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Monday - Saturday; closed Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.nysm.nysed.gov
Schaming, 56, succeeds Clifford Siegfried, who retired in December. He’s the 13th director since the museum was founded in 1836, and he’s the first with a master’s in fine art.
He rose to the top job after working at the museum for 25 years, first as an exhibit designer and then as director of exhibitions and programs.
In 2001, within days after the 9/11 disaster, Schaming traveled to Fresh Kills on Staten Island, the sorting ground for rubble from ground zero, launching the museum’s 9/11 collection and exhibits and shooting more than 800 photos.
He grew up in Delmar, attended St. Thomas the Apostle School, and then Bethlehem Central High School. He earned an undergraduate degree at Buffalo State College, studying printmaking and photography, and did his graduate work at the University at Albany.
Schaming is married to Corinna Ripps Schaming, associate director/curator at the University at Albany Art Museum.
The couple lives in Delmar and has two daughters: Rachel, a visual arts student at SUNY Purchase, and Hannah, a junior at Bethlehem High.
The Gazette chatted with Schaming, a tall man with a big smile, earlier this month on the third floor of the museum, where his office has a bird’s-eye view of the Empire State Plaza and the state Capitol.
Q: When you were a child, did you go to the old museum building?
A: The New York State Museum was probably the first museum I went to, growing up here. I remember coming off the elevator and you’d see the Gilboa stumps and the Gilboa forest.
Q: How have exhibits at museums changed since those days?
A: First, there were the blockbuster exhibitions in the ’70s. I saw the Tutankhamun show at the Met. Then the Internet came along and people thought that this is going to threaten museums, which certainly hasn’t been the case. I think it’s actually driven people to museums. When you look at something on the news, you look at a story, you see a documentary, it’s great. And you learn a lot. But media presentation is sterile compared to what you see in a museum. It’s a very different experience being in the presence of artifacts and objects.
Q: How does the New York State Museum serve the state?
A: We do projects all around the state. We’re traveling exhibits and programs. Our archaeologists are out there now at hundreds of sites. We’re not just the biggest museum in the Capital Region, we’re New York state’s museum.
Q: Tell me more about the traveling exhibits.
A: Right now, the 9/11 exhibit that was in Rochester is in the World War II Museum in New Orleans. That’s on a national tour. In terms of New York exhibitions, we have Ekmair [Frank C. Ekmair] prints that we had here in the galleries last year, and we’re talking to sites in Buffalo and Syracuse and downstate. The Seneca Ray Stoddard exhibit that we’re going to launch here in June, we’re going to offer that across the state. Berenice Abbott, a photography exhibit, is another one.
Q: How has your new job been going?
A: I spent my first month thinking “what would a new director do here, coming from the outside?” So I decided that I would meet every staff person and look at every collection and talk to every person and see what they do. They show me these fantastic collections and the research. It’s just unbelievable. It is both inspiring and humbling. It’s an enormous honor to work here.
Q: What are your plans for the museum?
A: No. 1, this museum has to become a statewide entity. And we’re moving that way. We’re sharing exhibits across the state and bringing collections here, and we’re branching out to other museums to do that. That’s one thing. Second, everything we do has to do with New York state. When someone comes here, they want to know more about the state. That has to do with science, art, everything. And third, every thing we do has to have an educational component. It has to teach people something, make their lives better somehow, to tell them more about themselves.
Q: Will the museum become more high-tech?
A: We’d like to introduce a wireless environment throughout the building. And have people access the Internet while they are in the galleries and seeing things. It used to be you’d go to a museum and they would rent or give you a device. Now everybody carries their device. I would hope within a year that we’ve made advances with that.
Q: Other exhibit changes?
A: We’re doing oral histories now, 9/11 and other ones. We’re videotaping them, we’re producing them. I’d like to get more voices. I think one of the things our galleries lack is human voice, stories.
Q: What are the challenges of running a museum today?
A: Museums are having a tough time with funding. They are having to do very different things to bring people to their doors. . . . They are overwhelmed and overworked. Maybe I’m being too optimistic but I do see things improving. In the last several years, museums tend to be looking at their own collections and collaborating with other museums. Typically, museums have followed the upsurge in the economy. They are behind it just a little bit.
Q: How has the state economy impacted the museum?
A: The state Education Department has just formed this regional advisory committee on museums, where we’re going to be bringing leaders from museums from across the state to talk to the Regents and the commissioner. That’s a really powerful recognition of museums around the state. The basic challenges are resources and money. On the other hand, New York state has the greatest riches, I think, of any state, in collections at museums of science, history and art.
Q: What did you learn from creating the 9/11 exhibit?
A: What 9/11 taught us is that it’s really important to recognize the history and the discovery that is happening now. That you collect and document. Because you’re not going to be able to do it the same in 50 years. What happens around us should be collected. And that’s difficult to do because you can’t collect every thing and every voice.
Q: How many voices have been collected for various exhibits?
A: The museum has hundreds of thousands of interviews that we’ve done over the years. For 9/11, there are upwards of 150 people. These are very in-depth interviews, about an hour or two.
Q: Did you see “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” the 9/11 movie starring Tom Hanks?
A: I didn’t see it. There’s another one out that Oliver Stone made. I haven’t seen it. I’ve watched the Flight 93 film. I have a hard time watching them. I know a lot of these people, I know a lot of people who have had someone killed. I spent a lot of time at the site. I saw a lot of tough things.
Q: Where were you when 9/11 happened?
A: I was in Los Angeles waiting for a plane to fly to New York. I was stuck there for five days. They reopened LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] and I was on one of the first planes out. About 3,000 people gathered in a hot parking lot for hours waiting for LAX to open. Very scary. Then the New York airports closed again while we were flying. I landed in Philadelphia and finally made it to Albany a day later.
Q: Has working on the 9/11 exhibit changed the way you look at the world?
A: Yes, when you think of the fragility of things, and unexpected things you face. Certainly, in the sense of getting to know firefighters, the FBI and police. I have a very different understanding of their jobs.
Q: What do you like to do when you are not at work?
A: I have a daughter in college and one in high school. We seem to be running back and forth and visiting colleges. We like to travel. We’ve traveled to Germany and France and Italy. We always seem to be planning our next trip.