By Gwendolyn Craig
Two Adirondack Park museums are working to make the area more welcoming for people of color, with the help of state and federal grant funding.
In January 2020, the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, were recipients of more than $330,000 to partner on a research project and on diversity training for staff. Of that funding, $212,000 came from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Service and about $130,000 came from Empire State Development’s Market New York Program.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed some of the efforts planned under the grant funding, but earlier this year, representatives from both museums said they expect to make more progress in 2021.
The research project is expected to kick off this spring. David Kahn, executive director of the Adirondack Experience, said that will involve talking with focus groups from four metro centers around the Adirondacks. The goal is to understand what people of color know about the Adirondacks already and what the two museums can do to encourage more people to visit. Originally the groups were to meet in person, but due to the pandemic, they will meet online. The focus groups will be organized from Plattsburgh, the Capital Region, Utica and Syracuse.
Anecdotally, Kahn said, the museums know what some of the challenges and barriers are for people of color to visit. He has heard that some people don’t like to visit rural locations. Others associate the Adirondacks with state prisons. Some of the things the museum may explore, depending on the focus groups’ results, include whether or not more group bus tours would attract more people of color to visit.
Aside from the grant funding, Kahn said the museum is working with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative on its police reform work, too.
“There are issues bigger here that we need to deal with other than coming up with a snappy marketing campaign,” Kahn said.
Adirondack Experience and The Wild Center are also providing more training for their staff through work with Adirondack Diversity Solutions, a consulting firm run by Cindy Rodriguez and Donathan Brown.
Hillarie Logan-Dechene, deputy director of The Wild Center, said some of that, too, was delayed by the pandemic. But both groups are getting training back on track. The museum is looking at how to bolster its hiring practices in order to employ more people of color and “remove as much bias as we can and systemic racism from our operational practices,” Logan-Dechene said.
“This is a learning process,” she added, “and that’s why it’s so important for us to continue this new project, partnering with Adirondack Experience and new efforts with the consultants, helping us to look at where else we can improve.”
Also separately from the state and federal grant funding, The Wild Center is taking a look at some of its exhibits and bringing outside experts in to make corrections where necessary. Logan-Dechene said museums around the country are looking at where they may have mistakes based off of colonization and appropriation of stories.
“We have examples of that at The Wild Center, too,” Logan-Dechene said. “When you have trust with your partners and they can share with you honest feedback on things that we have done that were inappropriate or downright wrong, we can change it.”
For an example, Logan-Dechene said, the museum had a maple syrup exhibit with a story about the Native American beginnings of sugaring. Except, she said, the story was completely wrong and based off a white person’s version of what they thought happened. The center pulled the exhibit.
“It’s a very tiny example, and it’s a very tiny gesture, but you just have to start somewhere,” Logan-Dechene said. “It’s humbling. We have to keep learning, and we have to try.”
The work both organizations are doing is critical for the Adirondacks, Brown said. Brown is also a member of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. He considers both The Wild Center and the Adirondack Experience cultural hubs in the approximately 6-million-acre park.
“To me, it’s more of a perfect collaboration between organizations,” Brown said.
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