Adirondack Museum Executive Director David Kahn
David Kahn’s first year as the Adirondack Museum’s executive director went “very fast,” and the culture shock of moving from sunny San Diego to the snowy Adirondacks wasn’t as harsh as he expected.
“There were all these things that people were warning me about, that I’d be lost in the drifts, and I don’t think we saw any snow until the end of January,” Kahn said. “And then the next big warning was the blackflies were going to eat me alive. I never saw a blackfly ... So I guess I’ll get mine at some point, and things have gone pretty well.”
Kahn celebrated his one-year anniversary on Sept. 5, and without snow or blackflies to distract him, he was able to concentrate on moving the Adirondack Museum into a new era of interpreting history for the masses.
When Kahn was hired, the Adirondack Museum’s trustees indicated that they wanted to take a fresh look at their exhibits and programs and think about where they should be headed in the future. And so they’ve spent a lot of time working on a master plan, which is expected to be finished by the spring of 2013.
“That will give us a blueprint as to where we want to head with some of our exhibits,” Kahn said, adding that they always look for ways to make exhibits more interactive and engaging for contemporary audiences.
Museum staff spent some of the summer conducting audience research, including an online study and “intercept” interviews with residents and visitors in several Adirondack communities, including Blue Mountain Lake, Old Forge, Lake George, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
“It’s always interesting doing this sort of work because different demographic segments have different perspectives as to what they’re interested in,” Kahn said. “Older visitors are really interested in Great Camps, and younger people not so much. In some cases, they didn’t even know what they were. Younger adults were very interested in winter sports, and older folks not so much.”
During their interviews, staff found that the more immersive the environment the museum creates, the better.
“Actually getting them into a historical environment was what really seemed to make people’s juices flow,” Kahn said.
So the staff came up with a few preliminary ideas, such as creating a mining experience where the visitor walks into a simulated mine shaft or an activity that would involve breaking up a river log jam. Kahn said the museum relies on this kind of audience research.
“If you are going to put money and effort into doing something, you ought to make sure you get it right,” Kahn said.
Overall, it was a good summer for the Adirondack Museum, according to Kahn, even with all the sunny skies and warm weather that typically drives people outside, into the Adirondack woods and waters instead of inside a museum. Rainy days are better for visitation.
“Visitation was down a bit, and I guess we’re hearing that from some of the other museums in the park as well,” Kahn said. “Whether that has to do with the good weather or other factors, it’s hard to say, but it was a good year from our perspective in that we did some interesting experimentation.”
One of this year’s highlights was the museum’s new audio tour with 20 different voices from a variety of backgrounds. Museum staff moved the admission desk from the gift shop to the lobby of the Visitor Center. In its place, they placed the audio tour pickup/drop-off. The audio tour functions as an orientation to the Adirondack Museum.
“We have all these buildings — we have 22 buildings and 65,000 square feet of exhibit space — and one of the things we’ve learned over the years is that many first-time visitors are really surprised when they get here and they had no idea that this was going to be as big and comprehensive as it is,” Kahn said. “Traditionally we’ve not had an orientation experience, an introductory film or an introductory exhibit. Basically in the past we’ve given people a map and said, ‘Go to it.’ And so introducing the tour is an attempt to kind of bring the whole story together and focus the visit on some themes relating to change that’s taken place in the Adirondacks over time. We wanted visitors to hear from Adirondackers.”
Although the museum is open from Memorial Day to the end of October, staff is busy throughout the year working on exhibits and programs for the future, fundraising activities, taking care of the artifact collection, and studying other museums. Staff recently traveled to museums around North America, including cities such as Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.; Ottawa, Canada; Springfield, Ill.; Monterey, Calif.; and Atlanta, Ga.
“You’re always trying to keep the staff fresh, on top of things, so that the visitor experiences will reflect what’s going on in museums around the country,” Kahn said.
As for the 2013 season, the museum will be installing a new exhibit featuring paintings and photography that relates to different representations of the Adirondack wilderness. There is currently no title, as curators want to take their time naming the exhibit.
“What does wilderness mean exactly?” Kahn said. “That’s a term that the academics would debate endlessly, whether there is such a thing or there isn’t. So that’s why we’re going to be very careful about what the title is.”
Some of the programming for the future will focus on contentious land-use issues that currently face communities in the Adirondack Park.
“We’d like to move things more in the contemporary direction,” Kahn Said. “There are a lot of opinions out there as to how things should be going, so we think we should be part of that discussion,” Kahn said.