Hart Cluett Museum’s Executive Director Starlyn D’Angelo definitely likes a challenge! On March 30, 2021, she took on the head job at the Museum when it was unclear how the world would be moving forward. “I seem to work well when things are hard,” she said. Starlyn talked to ACE about how the Museum’s role has changed in the past year, and the unique opportunities and challenges they’ve faced.
How did the Hart Cluett Museum react to the pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, we initially had to lay off staff. But after a short time, they were back, and immediately began to document the events as they were happening. We asked people to document their experiences during the pandemic, about what life was like, what kind of challenges they had. That’s still up on our website now, for anyone who wants to share their story.
We also started documenting the Rally for Black Lives. It is unusual, in the museum world, to document current events. We’re trained not to focus too much on anything that’s happened in the past fifty years, mainly because we do not yet have perspective. Recently, though, there’s been a major shift toward thinking about documenting current events. We may not be interpreting them right now, but we certainly need to be collecting those stories before we lose them. This is a very exciting development for the Hart Cluett Museum
Also, our educator, Kathy Sheehan, was able to reach many more students during Covid by using remote learning. She did a program for 25 students in the room, and then another 700 students remotely. Ordinarily, transportation is expensive and becomes a barrier. The staff here has taken lemons and made them into lemonade.
What kinds of educational programming does Hart Cluett do?
Our core K-12 programs focus on the Underground Railroad and another on the Civil War. Generally, these classes are based in schools. Kathy Sheehan is a dynamo. She not only serves as our educator, and she is also the city historian and the county historian. Her adult education walking tours around Troy sell out all the time. They focus on all different topics, such as Life in the Gilded Age, Uncle Sam, Industry and more. She’s a fabulous engaging storyteller.
Our Drinking History programs are really popular, and they continued online during the pandemic. Pre-Covid, people would gather in a bar, and Kathy would give a short program. While learning a little bit about history, they’d have a historic cocktail.
We also have exhibits at the Museum. Our current exhibit, “The Way We Worked”, was developed with the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit program. Also, our curator mounts special exhibits each year. Next year’s exhibit will be on Protest and Reform. Amazingly, this topic was actually conceived of before the pandemic and the Rally for Black Lives.
What role did Hart Cluett have in preserving the Rally for Black Lives materials?
Our curators worked with the NYS Museum to collect some of the murals, and we also got a NY Humanities grant to fund the process of documenting the Rally for Black Lives. We’re in the process of doing this right now.
This is a different way of approaching historic documentation, so we’re learning our way, and making mistakes about how you have these conversations with parts of the community we haven’t engaged with previously. Our mission is to recognize every face and every story, which is very ambitious. So, we have to learn to make these conversations really comfortable and safe for every person that was involved.
How do you make sure that you hear from everyone?
The rally was about a problem we have in our communities that needs to be recognized. We want to hear from all of the people who organized the rally, not just the artists who painted the murals.
Some of the panels are now at the New York State Museum. They present a real challenge for preservation because of the type of materials involved. They have what conservators would call an “inherent vice”, in that they self-destruct and the materials will break down over time.
We’ve taken high quality images so that they can be saved for the future. We can’t store all of them. I don’t know that we’re going to store that many panels because of limited space and it’s very difficult to preserve them. But it’s equally important to preserve the oral account of what was done to organize the event, and perspectives on what the event was like.
It’s important that the documenting be comprehensive, so that it’s not just the artists, or the politicians, or the march organizers. One of the thing that I learned recently was that there was an effort to register people to vote, and the organizers specifically didn’t want that to happen at the rally, for several reasons. It’s important for us to present a comprehensive story, regardless of whether things are conflicting or contradictory. We may have completely different perspectives depending on who we’re talking to.
Can you tell us how filming of “The Gilded Age” helps make the case for historic preservation?
The filming of “The Gilded Age” took place right outside our doors. It spotlights just how special this place is. You just don’t have architecture like this everywhere – it’s special and unique to Troy. It helps us have a pride. It’s special and unique to Troy. It’s an obvious economic benefit, but the quality of life impact is also really important. We all want to be part of a community and feel like it’s a special place. The architecture in Troy gives us that.
When you tear down these buildings, you’re creating a needless environmental hazard. In many cases, you can’t reconstruct them. You can’t get the wood in these dimensions anymore, you can’t get the artisans to do the ironwork and woodwork. This creates another opportunity for us. If we train people to maintain these historic buildings, we’re creating jobs in the trades. There’s such a multitude of reasons to concentrate on historic preservation.