Before the planetarium, before the hands-on exhibits and dinosaurs and charter school, there was the ox yoke.
A relic from the region’s agrarian roots, it was the first item in the collection of the Rochester Municipal Museum. When the city opened the museum on Sept. 13, 1912, at Exposition Park, Rochester’s factories were buzzing with activity. The farm tool represented a simpler time.
The museum’s first order of business was to collect items of the local past. These would supplement written accounts from the years since Rochesterville was settled in 1812. Three groups had set the stage: the Rochester Academy of Science, formed in 1881, the Rochester Historical Society (1887) and the annual Rochester Industrial Exposition (1908).
In its early days, the museum was a place to view curiosities; exhibits were not interpreted or arranged thematically as they are today. Under Edward Putnam, the first director, the museum developed collections and exhibits on Putnam’s passions: American Indians, firearms, archeological artifacts and historical objects.
“We were established to collect Rochester’s relics,” says librarian and archivist Lea Kemp.
It wasn’t until Arthur Parker took over in 1924 after Putnam’s sudden death that artifacts were grouped by type. The museum grew under his leadership, and by 1930 it had 22 full-time staffers and a city appropriation of $70,000.
Then the bottom fell out. The effects of the Great Depression devastated operations: In 1932 city funding dropped to $17,000 and the staff fell to just a handful of workers. Research and exhibit work ceased.
By the end of the year, things had gotten worse. Parker was told that his position would no longer be funded, essentially closing the museum. Local citizens led by John Williams M.D. fought back. Parker was reinstated as the sole employee, and city coffers yielded funds to keep the museum going. The experience led to the formation of the Rochester Museum Association two years later.
Parker viewed the economic crisis as an opportunity. From 1933 to 1940, 50 new employees—artists, designers, scientists, taxidermists, printers, clerks and custodians—built dioramas, mounted specimens and kept records as part of the Works Progress Administration, Civil Works Administration and Temporary Emergency Relief Administration.
“The story had it he pushed hard for the WPA,” Kemp says. “It was with him that the Native American collection was increased.”
Native American artifacts and cultural treasures are RMSC’s signature collection, renowned around the world. It includes the 19th-century Native American collections of famed anthropologist and Rochesterian Lewis Henry Morgan.
Parker, himself part Seneca, arranged for some of the work to be done by 100 Seneca artists and craftspeople at the Tonawanda and Cattaraugus reservations. They made traditional items such as paintings, sculpture, costumes, baskets, silverware and tools, which remain with the museum.
Museum workers also began creating dioramas of Western New York nature and frontier life, which continued for many years. These classic exhibits, enhanced by interactive elements, are still enjoyed by schoolchildren today.
The museum’s focus shifted from research to public service projects, a focus one WPA official called “the most highly developed program in the country,” Kemp writes in a history of the museum.
Parker believed the museum should be the center of the community, a place where citizens gather to learn together. All the area’s hobby clubs—and there were many—used the museum as a base, setting up in two rooms reserved for public use.
“This was before the computer. Especially during the Depression, nobody had any money to do much else,” Kemp says. “I think community was one of Parker’s things. He called it the university for the common man.”
Parker had big ideas. In the future, he wrote in a trade magazine article, visitors would arrive by helicopter on the museum’s roof. The helipad still exists today, museum staff say, though few people know about it.
Parker’s dream museum opened in 1942 on East Avenue property donated by Edward Bausch. A sealed copper box containing museum records is in the cornerstone, and a time capsule of the first four decades of the 20th century is buried in a basement wall.
The museum started moving toward a science focus under Stephen Thomas, who became director in 1945. Thomas was the first director with formal museum training. He had traveled on expeditions to South America and worked at the American Museum of Natural History. And he had connections around the world.
Museum staff created an exhibit of Iroquois arts and crafts that traveled to Israel, France, Germany and Ireland. Community outreach blossomed; staff launched adult courses, school loan exhibits and programs at four centers in the city.
But budget matters constrained progress; it took many years to execute planned dioramas, period rooms, models and displays on three exhibition floors.
Storage space was inadequate. Many materials required a humidity- and light-controlled environment, not to mention more space for larger items and collections. The museum was amassing an enormous amount of increasingly fascinating material. The clothing collection, beloved by researchers and fans of fashion alike, has 70,000 items, from everyday wear to formal wear and wedding gowns. A large quilt collection contains two made by Susan B. Anthony.
There is a sleek black town car in the collection, and its ancestor, a carriage, both built by James Cunningham, Son & Co. Cunningham cars were high-end and custom-ordered; the 1936 car in the collection, once owned by Charlotte Whitney Allen, was among the last of some 300 the company made before the Depression closed things down.
The museum owns one of two cars produced for the battle between Rochester’s George Selden and Henry Ford over patent rights to the combustion engine used in automobiles. The outcome of the case solidified Detroit, rather than Rochester, as the Motor City.
RMSC’s holdings beautifully illustrate the growing sophistication of technology and Rochester’s central role in its development. There are Eastman Kodak Co. cameras, Bausch & Lomb Inc. eyeglasses and microscopes, barometers made by Taylor Instruments, the reclining shampoo chair invented by Martha Matilda Harper, early Haloid-Xerox copiers, and a 1970s olive-green analog videophone from Rochester Telephone.
Looking at inventions that were born in Rochester’s past is a great way for children to learn creative problem-solving, says museum president Kate Bennett.
“We think that past, present and future are all important. The collections we have help explain the history,” she says. “We want to help create the next generation of innovators and the next generation of entrepreneurs. They’re both important: an innovative idea, an invention and then the work, the stick-to-it-ness to bring it to market.”
Even quirky items have found a home at RMSC. The Rochester-made Collins ring roller reducer was said to roll the fat right out of a person’s body. A cigar once held by Ulysses S. Grant was acquired by Morgan, who founded Rochester’s historical society. There’s a recently restored snakeskin suit and boots worn by Rattlesnake Pete, who owned a saloon and curiosity shop on Front Street.
The belongings of people who were not famous have an equally important place at the museum because they tell the story of everyday life, says senior registrar Kathryn Murano. Alice Mathis was a migrant and domestic worker who could barely read or write. Her caregiver donated her belongings to the museum after Mathis’ death.
“We attempt to bring out as many of our collection items for exhibits as well as for traveling exhibitions,” Murano says.
The museum acquired land to expand to Park Avenue in 1950 and, led by Thomas, started moving toward a science focus. As the nation entered the Space Age, supporters were urging the museum to build a planetarium by the end of the decade. It opened in 1968, a gift of Clara and Edwin Strasenburgh. The same year the institution’s name changed to Rochester Museum & Science Center.
“We’ve trained people at the Strasenburgh Planetarium who now work at NASA, who help our country think through space exploration,” Bennett says.
Ian McLennan, former planetarium director, was named executive director in 1970, followed two years later by Richard Shultz. RMSC was looking for someone with a strong business background and the chops to run membership and financial campaigns. Shultz soon showed a talent not only for long-range vision but for rounding up the resources to fund renovations and additions.
The 1970s and early 1980s were a bricks-and-mortar period for the museum. RMSC built the 400-seat Eisenhart Auditorium on part of the campus of the former Columbia School for Girls, acquired in 1973. In 1980, the school building was renovated to house a preschool, along with classes for children and adults in the Gannett School of Science and Man. A new visitors center at Cumming Nature Center opened in 1982, and Elaine Wilson Hall opened in 1988.
With the 1990s and 2000s came an explosion of hands-on exhibits, such as Expedition Earth, Adventure Zone, Light Here Light Now and How Things Work. Children and teens explore science and technology, the environment, and natural and cultural history. At the planetarium, a growing number of multimedia shows, giant-screen films and, of course, star shows are drawing viewers all ages.
Through each of its programs, RMSC has held up a mirror to the ever-changing landscape of Western and Central New York. Its exhibitions probe deep into global issues with local touch points—from the Underground Railroad to the environment.
With the upcoming traveling exhibition, “Race: Are We So Different?” RMSC is doing what it does best: raising the profile of a relevant topic through events with schools, churches and other organizations. The museum gets the community talking. Expect more of the same, Bennett says.
“Rochester has a phenomenal track record, and we’ve had some bumps in the road, but when you look at how we’re doing, we should be celebrating from the rooftops,” she says. “We have all this potential and all this good energy, and people are putting their shoulders to the wheel and are figuring it out. We have a very bright future.”
9/21/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].