By Amy Catania
“The historical sense involves a perception,
not only of the pastness of the past,
but of its presence”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Soon we will open a new exhibition at the museum called “Pandemic Perspectives.” The exhibit will highlight different experiences in Saranac Lake during the TB curing years, and visitors will be invited to make connections to life during COVID-19.
Creating an exhibit is a team effort. Each person on our small staff brings a different set of skills from research, to writing, to design. Thanks to the expertise of our archivist and curator, Chessie Monks-Kelly, we draw upon our growing collection of artifacts, images, and documents. With help from trusty volunteers like Marty Rowley and Rob Russell and hardworking local businesses like Compass Printing and Stacked Graphics, it all comes together.
This new exhibit is a simple concept: twelve panels, each labeled with one word like “gratitude” or “fear,” a photo, a short caption, a quote, and a question. Quotes from literature explore real and imaginary pandemics from the past. From The Plague, by Albert Camus, to The Birds, by Daphne du Maurier, literature reminds us that our struggles and triumphs are part of a vast human experience that extends across cultures and generations. Each panel may take no more than a minute to read, but we expect they will conjure up a wealth of reactions and questions.
In May, we hired a new staff person, Mahala Nyberg, and she got right to work on the exhibit. Not knowing a cure chair from a stone pig, she brought fresh eyes to the project. One day, as she sorted through photos documenting the experience of COVID-19 in Saranac Lake, Mahala expressed astonishment at images of handmade signs posted in the windows of local businesses during the lockdown. She lived through the pandemic in her rural hometown, where there is no downtown. People drive to Walmart or Wegmans for what they need, and so, during the long spring of 2020, Mahala never saw a homemade sign in a local business wishing her and her neighbors well.
The simple signs on the doors of friendly local businesses like the Dance Sanctuary, Nori's, the Community Store, and Lakeview Deli speak to a powerful sense of place we sometimes take for granted.
Drawn by Saranac Lake’s strong sense of community, Ernest White II recently visited the village to record an episode for his popular travel show, “Fly Brother.” One rainy day in May, I joined a group of locals to walk around town with Ernest and his film crew.
Ernest’s tour of the Adirondacks will ultimately be condensed down to a thirty-minute episode, so we knew most of what we showed him won’t make the cut. Seeing town from the eyes of a world traveler, it’s easy to notice the rundown side of Saranac Lake. We stood in Berkeley Green, eating soggy s’mores in the rain. There, in the space where the beautiful Berkeley Hotel once stood, it was hard not to think about all that’s been lost. The village doesn’t always look like such a great tourist destination, especially on a cold and rainy day.
Still, Ernest seemed pleased with the spirit of the place. We talked about cure porches, hunting traditions, famous visitors, our museum expansion project, and the restoration of the Hotel Saranac. Mayor Rabideau helped him catch a fish.
At the end of my interview, Ernest asked me what I have liked the most about living in Saranac Lake. I thought about those signs in the downtown windows in the last year, and I told him the truth, although it was absolutely the wrong answer for a tourism sound bite. Standing there in Berkeley Green in the rain, I answered simply, “Being a mom. Saranac Lake has been a great place to raise a family.”
My answer I’m sure will hit the cutting room floor with a thud. But I am glad he asked me the question. It helped remind me of what is right here in front of my face, waiting to be seen with fresh eyes.
Stay up to date on all the news and happenings from Historic Saranac Lake at the Saranac Laboratory Museum!