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Schenectady: Two Museum Gems


I started a blog a few weeks ago by noting that when traveling, I love to visit small museums with a local focus, because they are good places to find things that 'upset your expectations,' as my signature line says. A recent visit to two museums in Schenectady, New York reinforced that.

Schenectady is on the Mohawk River, just west of Albany; its location gives it a long history as a trading point on the river and then the Erie Canal, and an important military point during the Revolution. It's also the headquarters town of General Electric and still has a huge GE plant.


Those two poles of its story are reflected in two museums: The Museum of Innovation and Science, and the Schenectady County Historical Society Museum. Neither is huge, both can be fully visited in a day with lunch in between, but each has a unique focus.



I went first to MIS, located on a bluff above downtown. Its main exhibit space is organized in a circular path around the entrance core, so finding your way through is relatively easy—except for all the tempting exhibits to stop and look at along the way, starting with an indoor butterfly habitat.


There are plenty of hands-on activities throughout the museum, and plenty of kids and parents enjoying them, although on a school morning, only younger kids were around.DSC07422

Originally just called the Schenectady Museum, it also includes a planetarium capable of showing 8500 different stars, and showing the sky as it would look from any position on earth. There's also an archive for scholars, which includes an amazing variety of material, some of it from General Electric, including  110 radios, 60 televisions, 15,000 patents, 5000 books, and 1000 films.


Plenty of open spaces for building and connecting, with informational signs around. Building the Future is one of the museum's themes.


And then we come to the GE section, featuring among other things, GE's almost-made-it-to-market pioneer electric car from 1978, which Gumbo covered in a separate blog. There's also a lot of other GE material, including refrigerators, generating equipment and historical information on Edison.


And at the gift shop, all the usual science toys, and a find assortment of disease-causing viruses and microbes. 



Located in the "Stockade District," which is roughly the city's original area along the river, the County Historical Society is housed in a large old mansion with a modern library addition behind it. 


While it's not a big museum with crowds of visitors, it is popular. I signed up for a local historian's presentation on the history of a nearby amusement park that flourished from the turn of the last century into the 1930s, and was surprised to see a turnout of nearly 100 present, and in rapt attention. Many of the older people in the audience remembered attending as children.

One of Schenectady's earliest industries was brewing and the area was known for its hops; that's the focus of one of the museum's exhibits, explaining not only the history, but the process. While hop farming declined in the area with the opening of the Erie Canal bringing crops form the west, Schenectady became an important destination and continued brewing with western hops.


Furniture from long-gone Mohawk Valley mansion on display at the museum.



The dollhouse above and below is one of the earliest-known in the U.S. It was made in 1834 for the 6-year-granddaughter of New York's governor; her mother had recently died, and the dollhouse may have been intended to console her. Note the incredible details!
DSC07461DSC07462DSC07465What is it? Answer is at the end of the blog!

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Schenectady was an immigrant town, with workers drawn from many areas to work at GE and American Locomotive, among others. The museum has artifacts and displays exploring their history in the city, both bitter and sweet. Today, Schenectady has a large and recent Guyanese population, a new group making a place for itself.


A temporary (but long-lasting) exhibit at the museum examines nightlife and entertainment: How people spent their leisure time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So...if you happen to be headed for Schenectady, or even if you're just passing by, it's worth leaving the Thruway and visiting!

Oh, the cabinet above? It's to hold your knives—don't know why you'd need so many, but needs must...


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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