BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE - In the old days, museums put artifacts on display and explained their significance on accompanying plaques.
Nowadays, museum directors are reinventing that formula by creating interactive, and sometimes immersive, environments that engage visitors beyond the age-old, "look but don't touch" aesthetic.
The Adirondack Museum's own immersive project got a $1.4 million boost when Gov. Andrew Cuomo unleashed the latest round of Regional Economic Development Council grants earlier this month. The museum had asked for $2.9 million, but apparently it got what it needed to start moving forward.
David Kahn, executive director of the Adirondack Museum, stands in the “Railroads” room in the museum’s Roads and Rails building. This space will be transformed into the “Call of the Wilderness” room when the building changes to the Adirondack Experience.
(Photo Shaun Kittle)
The grant will go toward transforming the 33,000-square-foot Roads and Rails building into the Adirondack Experience, which is part of a larger project to update the museum's entire 32-acre central campus.
"Right now, when people arrive at the campus, we hand them a map," said David Kahn, executive director of the museum. "We invite people to take it at their own pace, but in the future we're going to direct visitors to this new exhibit first."
The museum will keep its artifacts, but they will be reorganized in a way that tells a story instead of categorizing them together in rooms.
"There might be carriages and sleighs in all sorts of exhibits," Kahn said. "You might see them in the sporting section, or the section on working outdoors. They won't go away; they'll just be presented in a different way."
If successful, the shift in direction will educate people on the story behind the Adirondacks and set the stage for the exhibits found in the museum's 21 other buildings.
"We're basically going to take a new approach in how we tell the Adirondack story," Kahn said. "We're not going to quite segregate things the way they have been in the past. The rich collections will be combined in new ways that present new, interpretive perspectives on the Adirondack story."
Visitors will begin their journey by entering the "Call of the Wilderness" room, which serves as a timeline for modes of transportation used by visitors to the region.
From there, museum-goers will enter a recreation of a pre-contact-period Native American camp.
The plans haven't been finalized, but the exhibit might feature more than posed models of native people. If the full vision is realized, a gigantic replica tortoise, complete with its own pond to wade in, will speak to visitors and tell a tortoise-based creation story.
Six more rooms will follow. One, the "Sporting Spirit," might feature a virtual ski jump. Other rooms will include "Wilderness Stories" and "Roughing it - Living in the Adirondacks."
The main attraction, though, will be in the "Our Adirondack Park" room - a large floor map that people can interact with by walking on it.
"As visitors walk around the map, it will trigger hot spots that come to life and show films and information about land use, forest fires, transportation routes and other topics that illustrate the intersection between human activity and nature in the Adirondacks," Kahn said.
Kahn said there will also be visualizations that show the affect climate change might have on the Park.
"There are all these data sets out there that researchers have generated, but it really hasn't been a priority for them to release those to the public in visualizations that would let lay people understand what's coming."
The grant money will also go toward updating windows and handicap accessibility in the Roads and Rails building, which was constructed in 1969. Other grants and donations will be necessary to complete the project.
Kahn began working for the Adirondack Museum about two years ago. When he was hired, the museum's board said they were looking to "reimagine" the museum. Since that time, Kahn and museum staff have been consulting with environmental historians, Native Americans, GPS experts, historical societies and teachers to piece the vision of the Adirondack Experience together.
The main exhibit designer for the project is Gallagher and Associates, the same company responsible for the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. and the World War II museum in New Orleans. The Richard Lewis Media Group, which recently did the media for the new American wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is also working on the project.
Kahn said he hopes the Adirondack Experience's grand opening will be ready in 2017 to celebrate the museum's 60th anniversary. Once complete, he said it should increase the museum's current 55,000-visitors-per-year guest count and serve as an economic boon for Blue Mountain Lake.
When the museum opens next, on Memorial Day weekend in 2014, visitors can expect some new things, but they won't be related to the Adirondack Experience.
Two other recently obtained grants - $20,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts, $10,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts - plus a private $4,000 donation have enabled the museum to commission a composer to do a sound installation in the Log Hotel, the oldest building on the campus.
"He is creating sound installations for all the different rooms to give people a sense of all the different folks who stayed in the hotel at different times, and what it was like to stay in the Adirondacks," Kahn said. "It's going to be very different for us. It's a permanent art installation in a historic building."
Upon entering the Log Hotel, visitors will hear noises like animal sounds and people talking, pumped through 20 speakers strategically placed throughout the structure. Visitors will also be able to go on the second floor to see the hotel's bedrooms for the first time.
The museum will also unveil a new camping exhibit in 2014.
"Our preliminary take on this is that the whole experience of camping out in the wilderness for fun originated here in the Adironacks in the 19th century, so we'll be telling that story and also looking at camping today," Kahn said.
Kahn said the museum will also begin making use of the 270 acres of forest surrounding the museum's central campus. The first stage of that will be guided history tours to Minnow Pond. Eventually there will be signage along the way to teach people about the history of logging in the area, and a boathouse on the shore will house examples of historic Adirondack watercraft that visitors can take out on the water.
"What we're trying to accomplish is a new way for adults and children to come in and experience the history of the Adirondacks," Kahn said. "It's especially important that we continue to get young people involved in that conversation."
Contact Shaun Kittle at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.