by Dr. Erik Stengler
This article is more about the future than the past. Although 2020 will be remembered for the succession of crises that changed our lives in many ways, for the members of the Little Falls Historical Society, a group of six students from SUNY Oneonta’s Cooperstown Graduate Program of Museum Studies and their professor, this year will be cherished as the beginning of a successful collaboration.
The seed out of which this collaboration emerged dates back to mid-August 2018 when I newly arrived with my family to America in order to take up a teaching position at the science-track of the aforementioned program. Since Cooperstown was at the peak of its high season, our search for a temporary accommodation brought us to Little Falls.
During those two weeks, I discovered the perfect living example of what was taking shape as one of the main ideas with which I try to imbue my students: that even though our museum studies is unique in that it has a specific track on science museums, it is impossible to disentangle science, history, and art into separate stories since they are all intertwined.
This of course applies everywhere, but Little Falls exemplifies this in a particularly clear and explicit way – from its very existence due to the geological features of this part of the Mohawk River, through so many developments rooted in science and technology – the cheese market, engineering, the canals, the locks, and the mill-powered industries and back to its geology as an attraction for tourism and leisure.
So, while I was still living in Little Falls, I brought my first cohort of science-track students on a field trip there. The experience was so well-received and enjoyed that in 2019 the field trip was expanded to include all students of the incoming cohort, in both the science and history tracks. As in 2018, we made sure we visited the Little Falls Historical Society Museum, and we were once again given the warmest welcome by the docents on duty that day.
While the students were exploring on their own, my mind wandered to one of the new courses I was going to introduce for the 2019-20 academic year: it was going to be a course in which this idea of multidisciplinarity would be revisited and taken to the next level, a capstone course in which the science-track students and possibly history-track students would put into practice much of what they learned in earlier courses.
Although I had not yet found how exactly this would be done, I was certain that Little Falls and its Historical Society would play an essential role. So, I left my business card at the museum with the message that if anyone was interested in taking up the idea of exploring a potential collaboration, I would be happy to get in touch.
A PARTNERSHIP MOVES FORWARD
Just a few days passed until the phone rang, with Jeff Gressler on the line, conveying not only the interest of the Society’s board of directors with this idea but also a very warm, friendly, and heartfelt passion and energy that set everything in motion. The collaboration began with a couple of mutual visits, meeting the students who would take the course and who themselves helped us brainstorm ideas. The course was named “A Science Cabinet of Curiosities” and every year its students will be given a time period for which to pick an object each from the collection at the Little Falls Historical Society Museum and work on communicating to the public its connection to Little Falls history. The actual format of this “cabinet of curiosities” will vary every year, for 2020 it was decided it would be as a book which is currently in the making.
Student topics chosen and completed in 2020 included: the 1833 Old Bank Museum building that houses the Little Falls Historical Society, the 1940 Gulf Curve train crash, the history of canals and canal construction through Little Falls, the discovery of rennet and its impact on cheese manufacturing, Little Falls / Herkimer diamonds, and the history of factories and labor unrest in Little Falls.
MORE TO COME
Just as every good story, this one ends where it began, because the science-track students who have just completed this course are the same students who came to that first field trip when I had just discovered the educational value of a visit to Little Falls. By now I have discovered much more, I have also discovered some of the wonderful people who inhabit this town, who bring to life the Little Falls Historical Society, and who make working together such a memorable experience for the students and me. The experience has certainly been enriching, productive, and even mutually beneficial – but most of all, it has been the expression of a heartfelt friendship that outshines the backdrop of calamities that we have endured in 2020.
Dr. Erik Stengler is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society