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Susan B. Anthony Museum readies for expansion

It’s not unusual for Deborah Hughes to see people moved to tears while touring the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester.

“We don’t always know why they are crying, what prompted that emotion, but it’s something we see pretty consistently,” said Hughes, president and CEO of the museum, which includes the home Anthony was raised in on Madison Street.

The home was also the headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association when Anthony was its president.

Anthony — one of the most prolific leaders of the women’s suffrage movement — died at the age of 86 in the Madison Street home in 1906, 14 years before women were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

After 40 years in private hands, the Anthony house was purchased in 1945 for $8,500 with funds raised by leaders of the Rochester Federation of Women’s Clubs to create the museum.

In 1966, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark and remains one of the very few listed that are focused on women’s history, according to Hughes.

Today, the museum has an extensive collection of artifacts, documents and ephemera related to Anthony’s life and work, in addition to the historic properties that housed the Anthony families.

In addition to the collection and exhibits, the museum also holds events, including a popular Monday Lecture Series, as well as an annual birthday celebration in honor of Anthony.

According to its mission, the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House interprets the great reformer’s vision and story, preserves and shares her National Historic Landmark home and headquarters, collects and exhibits artifacts related to her life and work and offers tours and interpretive programs to inspire and challenge individuals to make a positive difference.

Visitors are eager to hear Anthony’s story and her popularity remains just as strong today, Hughes noted.

The site is a cultural destination, drawing visitors interested in arts, culture and humanities, as well as those specifically interested in women’s history and historic properties.

The museum has an annual operating budget of $830,000 and employs 13 staffers. There are also some 50 trained docents that lead the museum tours.

Visitors come from across the country and around the globe each year, and the museum has a local cultural tourism impact of over $2 million.

The site provides a plethora of knowledge about Anthony, including information visitors may not know, Hughes said. For example, many people are surprised to learn that Anthony did not come from a wealthy family, and although she was a Quaker and often dressed in black, she was fashion conscious and chose beautiful fabrics.

The entire neighborhood is also a draw for visitors, Hughes said, noting the area is in a national preservation district and is one of the most intact 19th century neighborhoods in the country.

It is not unusual for visitors to the museum to spend a good hour or so walking around the neighborhood, which boasts impressive 19th century architecture.

“Even though we are in the heart of the city you get the feeling you are in a very unique place,” Hughes said. “There’s a lot to catch people’s imagination.”

The museum is also a half block from the park that features a statue of Anthony and Frederick Douglass having tea.

Visitors often take the same walk Anthony took from her street down to Main Street where she cast her ballot in the 1872 U.S. Presidential election. Anthony would later be arrested in the front parlor of the home for voting illegally in the election.

And while most visitors come to the location because of women’s issues, they leave knowing more about Anthony and all her causes, Hughes said.

“A lot of people don’t know she was an advocate for human rights across the spectrum,” she said, noting that Anthony also frequently spoke out against slavery.

Anthony was also a supporter of sex education, fair labor practices, better public education, equal pay for equal work and elimination of all forms of discrimination. Many of the issues Anthony supported are relevant today and scholars continue to study her work.

Because of the extensive collection, the museum has been looking to expand and is now readying to take the next step, Hughes said, noting property was recently purchased near the museum for a visitor’s center.

The organization is now in a planning phase for the proposed 20,000-square-foot building, which will be followed by a capital campaign, she added. The museum has already gotten a head start with raising money for the project, thanks to a large donation from the estate of one of its supporters, Hughes noted.

The visitor’s center will include some 7,000-square-feet of space for interpretive exhibits that will allow the museum to further tell Anthony’s story with added context, she said. The new space, which will also have bathrooms and parking, can better accommodate large groups of visitors, notably those who travel on tour buses.

There are only 35 people allowed in the house at a time currently, and the visitor’s center would provide another space for visitors to tour. It would also give the museum the ability to accommodate more people, possibly up to 80,000 people annually, up from the 13,000 visitors the museum is able to currently accommodate each year, Hughes explained.

The extra space allows the museum to expand its programming, as well, Hughes said, noting that it will look to form partnerships with other agencies, such as the Rochester Public Library and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.

The visitor’s center will also provide much needed storage space for some of the collection, Hughes said, adding that some printed materials, including newspapers, have yet to be catalogued.

The new addition will give visitors to the museum even more ways to learn about Anthony’s life and her causes, providing an experience like no other, Hughes said.

“This isn’t just a boring walk through a museum,” she said. “People who come here are able to experience this icon in a very human way.”

[email protected] / (585) 653-4021

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