Museums have been many things to many people. Traditionally, they have been collectors and interpreters of our shared heritage. However, their role has changed dramatically in recent decades as a new wave of purpose has swept over museums in America, giving them stature as community and regional assets. Perhaps the public thirst for identity has given rise to institutions that dare to be less institutional, mirroring who their peeps are and how they self-identify. Thus the story of the Hudson River Museum (HRM) in its Centennial year is one of a museum returning to its roots in the community, broadly writ, recognizing that what ends up on its walls can reflect its audience at the same time that it provides deep learning experiences. It’s all about community enrichment and conversation.
Many museums get their first burst of life from ordinary citizens, as did the HRM. Artists and community members created the museum in a room at City Hall and aspirationally called it the Yonkers Museum. Its mission was collecting contributions of art, history and science artifacts for display. As the collection grew, the City purchased the historic Glenview mansion as HRM’s first permanent home. Over many years, the museum’s growth could be measured in its collection of 25,000 objects and its presentation of groundbreaking contemporary art exhibitions. Along the way, the museum embraced the history and ecology of the Hudson River, giving the museum the lofty name that identifies it with the “Great River.” HRM became a major partner with the Yonkers School District, supporting a museum school and its well-known Junior Docent Program that creates opportunities for skill-based learning.
It is clear too, that museums of today are becoming multi-disciplined, embracing music, poetry and theater arts to amplify the visual representations – basically doing what artists are doing – crossing the lines. Music has become a major theme at the HRM, finding its way into the Planetarium and beaming music from center stage at the new amphitheater. Much integration is going on between arts, history and science departments – for example, the Planetarium staff is curating lunar exhibitions and the Glenview staff is presenting a script-in-hand performance of Ibsen’s The Doll House. It’s a vision that brings all of these many strands together. “We are living in a time when people want to be seen and heard,” says HRM Executive Director Masha Turchinsky. ”We are trying to fill that need in a nuanced way by looking at issues with fresh eyes. In so doing, I think we are teaching empathy.” And that’s a beautiful thing.
For more info on Hudson River Museum, visit hrm.org.
A version of this article first appeared in the July-August issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.