The Albany Institute of History & Art celebrated 225 years of exhibition this year. That makes it not only New York’s oldest museum, but also one of the longest-operating museums in the country. With three floors of exhibition space, classrooms, a children’s gallery, a world-class archival library, a museum shop and the Crisan Café, the Albany Institute is an appealing destination for tourists and locals alike.
“The Albany Institute is a little unusual in that it’s a museum of both art and history,” says Museum director Tammis Groft. “You usually have one or the other focus. We’ve always collected the art – decorative arts and material cultural/historical artifacts – along with the supporting documentation, such as letters, business records, photographs, manuscript collections and all of that. What we do with an art collection is tell stories about the objects and the people who lived in the upper Hudson Valley.
“The library holds about a million documents. I describe the library collection as being one of our best-kept secrets. If you’re a researcher or scholar or an individual looking for things related to your family, we have great materials, much of which has been catalogued and can be accessed online. But there are still wonderful things to be discovered. The library is open to the public on Thursday afternoons; however, anybody doing research can contact the Albany Institute to get access to the library and the collections at other times. We make it available to the public on special request.”
Combining art with history puts everything into context, she maintains. The current show “Rock & Roll Icons” is a collection of photographs taken by Patrick Harbron. On display until February 12, it features images of artists such as Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Police, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Elvis Costello and numerous others: more than 70 photographs taken between 1975 and 2000. The exhibit documents the range of influential musicians and bands of the 20th century and includes anecdotes and memories from the photographer. “Patrick wrote all the labels, so the commentary relates to his personal experiences with the singers, musicians and bands,” Groft says.
“Over the years, the Institute has done a number of ‘popular culture’ exhibitions based on musical icons: the Beatles, captured by Harry Benson, for example, and we once borrowed dresses related to the Supremes from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. That was a lot of fun. The Patrick Harbron exhibition fits into that trend. But also, a priority of the Institute is to present one-person exhibits of artists who live and work in the Hudson Valley. Harbron lives in Columbia County.”
The new show, which opened on January 28 and occupies 5,000 square feet of space on the second floor, is a photography exhibit pulled from the museum’s permanent collection. “Capturing Moments” includes a broad range of images representing 170 years of photography, from early daguerreotypes taken in the 1840s to the works of contemporary artists living in the Hudson Valley. “It’s one of our most popular collections, with large panoramic views, historic photos, turn-of-the-century Albany Camera Club works of the city and the suburbs, and the events in people’s lives in our region.”
Ongoing exhibits at the Institute include “Spotlight: Alexander Hamilton,” the Ancient Egypt Galleries with real mummies, “Traders and Culture” featuring Colonial Albany, “19th-Century American Sculpture” and select groupings of Hudson River School paintings.
As organizations dedicated to archiving human culture and creative endeavors, museums educate and entertain while advancing the sciences and arts in many ways. NPR’s Bob Mondello of All Things Considered fame compared the combined annual attendance for every major-league baseball, basketball, football and hockey game to the number of people visiting a museum in a year: It was about 140 million sports fans against 850 million people spending their tourist dollars (billions) at museums across the country. He quoted Ford Bell, head of the American Association of Museums, as saying “A museum is the memory of mankind.” The Albany Institute is a veritable treasure trove. Check it out.
The Albany Institute of History & Art is located at 125 Washington Avenue in Albany. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. and Sunday from 12 noon to 5 p.m. The price of admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for children aged 6 to 12; kids under age 6 and members get in free. For more information, call (518) 463-4478 or visit www.albanyinstitute.org.