NEW LEBANON, N.Y. >> Can a small town become a museum?
Social historian Ruth J. Abram, the founding president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, has come to New Lebanon, N.Y., to find out.
Abram has launched a new kind of museum in Behold New Lebanon. The place is the town itself, and the experts, the guides, are the people who live there — farmers, gemologists, naturalists, jazz musicians, a sculptor, a trainer of horses, a family who serves home-cooked Indian food at a corner store and many more.
What began as a small group of pilot events late last summer will return in a steady series of weekends from July to October.
Visitors want to connect to the place, she said, and the rural guides enjoy teaching the skills that have made them successful.
She has found many visitors surprised at the diverse a group of people living in a small town, she said. Young people caring for a farm share their philosophy and ideas about living with the land. Artisans and artists share their craft. And new people are coming forward to join the effort.
"Many people do things privately, and they think of it as just something they do," Abrams said. "Now they're learning that it's fascinating — like making quince jam from your own trees."
She wants to give am authentic and visceral experience of life in the hills.
"If you have a forrager who identifies plants and assembles a meal — in a house, that just doesn't hack it," she said. "We send visitors into the forest. A horse trainer is not giving a slide show — she's showing you the horse. You see what the environment looks like around someone, in a home, a kitchen, a barn, and it's intimate; you see how it resonates."
These intimate spaces are usually, by nature, hard for a casual visitor to find.
"If you drive through New Lebanon, you might think nothing's happening," she said, "because there's no sign saying 'this way to the heritage cows.'"
To point the way more clearly to the heritage cows, Behold New Lebanon has established a visitors center on the first floor of a Victorian house on Route 20 and is developing a general store to carry local art and crafts and locally raised and produced foods.
"The town has turned itself inside-out to do this," Abrams said.
She has worked with a growing number of volunteers and local merchants, she said.
Michael Deegan and Sarah Conley, internationally known design consultants of opera, theater, the Big Apple Circus and television productions such as ABC's 'The View,' are designing the visitors center space — and lyric soprano and arts manager Eleanor Oldham and former Columbia Artists Management Inc. vice president John Luckacovic are working with the guides to polish their repsentations.
"Most museums don't necessarily think of their neighborhood as a focal point," she said.
They focus on the work of the museum. But she has wanted from the beginning to help the community, she said, and the community has responded.
"People are taking part with — I was about to use the word 'joy," she said. "They're dedicated to making this work."
The work is showing results. Behold New Lebanon recently received a $100,000 grant from The Educational Foundation of America for programming and operational support and has brought in Caitlin Coad, with support from the American Folklore Society, to profile the guides in stories and on film. Abrahms hopes the new York State Museum may eventualy house the archive.
She came to some of last summer's presentations to hear the guides in action..
"The postmaster, Melissa Eigenbrodt, is a hunter," she said, "and she took visitors into the woods without a gun — with umbrellas, in the rain."
She doubted anyone in the group had noticed getting wet.
"We were mesmerized by her description of how a hunter thinks and acts," she said, "being that quiet for an extended time. She said if, at the end of her stay in the forest, she had no deer — which she would use to feed her family for the year to come — she still had heard the leaves, and the animals crossing her path, and it would still be a glorious afternoon."