The old NYS Museum in the wonderfully iconic State Education Building was a garden of earthly delights. Tens of thousands of NYS school children visited the museum during its 60 some odd years, until it closed when the “new” Museum in the Cultural Center in the Empire State Plaza opened in the 1970s.
But for the children of Albany, especially the baby boomer kids of the ’50s and ’60s, the Museum was special. It was a source of infinite wonder; it was our own very, very cool playground. The Museum was on bus lines; it was located within walking distance of two ethnically diverse neighborhoods, Arbor Hill and the South End,; both teeming with children. And it was free. When kids in Albany sighed, “I’m bored”, many an Albany mother replied, “Go to the Museum”. That was the big deal about the old Museum.. it was kid friendly.
The Museum was on the 5th floor; to get there you passed though the grandeur of the State Ed Building. The exterior of the building is magnificent and imposing with its massive 36 Corinthian column colonnade. But it’s even more gorgeous inside. The scale is part of it; but it’s also a stunning example early 20th century Beaux-Arts architecture. The central rotunda with a barrel vault ceiling and stupendous chandelier are awe-inspiring. It never failed to take my breath away. Even the rowdiest kids calmed down, lowered their voices and stopped fidgeting, sensing they were in the presence of something special.
When you reached the Museum floor, the first thing you saw was a replica of the Gilboa prehistoric forest, filled with ancient fossilized tree stumps and wonder of wonders, a waterfall. I don’t know about other kids, but for me, it was so peaceful, it was the equivalent of a Zen garden.
But then the fun began. The old Museum was really a museum of natural history. Just up the street was the Albany Institute of History and Art. It had an excellent collection of old Dutch paintings, china, furniture and artifacts, and 2 Egyptian mummies! But other than the mummies, the Institute held little attraction for most of us kids. So when I think about the old Museum, it’s impossible not to think of the movie, Night at The Museum.
Where you went next depended on your mood.. did you want to go visit the Iroquois Indian diorama exhibits? I remember the first time I saw them; I swear it was if the pages of a National Geographic had come alive. There were Native American artifacts… huge pots and best of all, arrow points and arrowheads. Arrowheads were part of our Akbany childhood. Between digging in back yards and playing in the residential, commercial and public constructions sites that dotted the city for 2 decades, kids were always finding, them. They were a staple of school “show and tell”. But the Museum placed them in context.. you understood that cool thing you found dated back thousands of years. And then you looked back at the Iroquois exhibits and began to have a better understanding of the people who used them.
You could visit the huge Cohoes mastodon; one of three on display. or maybe a stroll through the taxidermy animal collection (which I found sort of creepy.) The paleontology collection was amazing.. rows upon row of cabinets of miilion year old fossils, There were botany and biology exhibits; beautiful illustrations of the birds, flora and flowers we saw in our yards and park, and those funky mushrooms we saw growing in the woods.
The fossilized sea life and shells were pretty nifty. I still love a curvaceous wentletrap or a nautilus.
sedimentary rocks; fascinated by the layers and strata in limestone and shale. But there were so many choices.. the sparkling Herkimer Diamond, the “man made diamond”, iridescent quartz of all hues, meteorites, minerals and rocks that shimmered like gold or looked like coral.
The was a tall (maybe 4′) pillar of rock salt that showed the tongue depressions of decades of New York school children who had licked it. And we licked it too, just like our parents and aunts and uncles had done before, (I always called it Lot’s Wife.)
There was a bunch of rocks that glowed in the dark in a small room. Recently someone said that the State Museum was the perfect “group date” for young teen kids in Albany. You could go into the little dark nook and steal a first kiss. The Museum had it all.
A friend’s father was the building superintendent of the State Ed Building; I’m still jealous.
If you are on Facebook, you might want to join the Facebook Group, “Albany …the way it was”, to share your memories of Albany, NY with others. Here’s the link.