While helping her museum survive the COVID-19 pandemic and serving as a board member of the Museum Association of New York, Starlyn D’Angelo is also thinking about what a museum can and should be. She started as executive director at the Hart Cluett Museum in Troy, New York in March 2021—one year into a global pandemic and in the midst of a national reckoning with racial injustice. We discussed how these experiences have shaped what it means to do museum work, particularly at a county history museum and historic house.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s typical of any museum director: overseeing the daily operations, coming up with plans for programming, marketing, fundraising, managing the staff, and managing the board. On top of that, I also feel responsible for helping to shape the next stage of the evolution of the museum. I think most museums are at this juncture in their development right now, not just us. The Rensselaer County Historical Society (the Hart Cluett Museum’s former name) was established in 1927 by community leaders, which is the typical story—affluent members of the community, all white people, who created this place to preserve their cultural heritage and their history. At one point you had to apply to be a member of the museum, so it was a pretty exclusive place. Like other museums, it started opening up to other people in the community over time. But when I look at the demographics of Rensselaer County and I look at our audience, it’s clear that we are not achieving our mission to recognize the range of faces and stories in Rensselaer County. It’s my job to help us navigate that process.
Before I arrived, efforts were already underway to document the Rally for Black Lives that happened in Troy in June 2020, as well as stories about the pandemic, which a lot of other museums are doing. Through that process, we experienced some epic failures in the way we communicate with people. I feel strongly that we need ambassadors in the community who are willing to work with us to reach out to others and help build trust. Building trust feels like my primary job right now. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to somebody who was organizing the Rally for Black Lives or one of our largest donors—they both need to feel good about the institution and have a level of trust that we are going to be able to achieve our mission to collect and preserve those stories.
We need to build new relationships and connect with people, and that’s really hard to do on a screen, via Zoom. We had one online meeting with a number of people in the community who were part of the Rally for Black Lives, including artists who painted on the boards covering storefronts. During that meeting, one white male artist dominated the conversation and wouldn’t make space for anyone else. I don’t think it would have been as easy for him to be if we were in person. A lot of people on the call didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in that platform. It was a learning experience for us and helped us realize that we need ambassadors in the community. We are still figuring this out, but we have a few people identified who are willing to work with us.
Troy in particular has a pretty amazing story that I was not aware of, even after working in local history museums for a long time. I didn’t realize that Troy was one of the wealthiest cities in the country, setting style taste in New York City especially during the Gilded Age. HBO turned Troy into a film set for the film “The Gilded Age” because we have the most intact downtown streetscape of the period anywhere in the East Coast. They turned Troy into a giant film set for an entire month. I’ve been here five months and one of those months we were in 1893 all of a sudden. I went out to my car and it was surrounded by horses and buggies. It was just wild. A lot of people are just not aware of Troy’s importance, and this film is an opportunity to share that story. We can really build a sense of pride in our community and with digital programs—we can reach an audience that we never could before.
We don’t get a lot of children in the museum—it’s not really a child-friendly space. We have one part-time educator who does off-site education programs in the schools. Through one virtual program, she was able to serve all 800 of the Troy City School District fourth graders at once. She was in person with 25 students, and everyone else was remote. Assuming that people have internet access (which isn’t a given in the county), virtual programs removed the transportation barrier which has been an issue in our large and rural county. We’ll continue investing in those programs in the foreseeable future.
Our Drinking History programs are really popular, where guests can make a history-themed cocktail and have a fun talk. We can continue to do those programs virtually in the winter when nobody wants to get on the roads. The Hart-Cluett House itself has limited capacity, just because of the nature of the space. When we do our holiday green show, which uses live evergreen boughs, there’s a very short time span for that event because the greens last only three days. So normally we get a lot of people through the building in a short period of time, but if we can use video, we can share that with a broader audience, including people who don’t live here.
Through the pandemic, I’ve become more aware of this need for authenticity, being mindful of our differences and trying to accommodate people’s needs so they are comfortable participating in the planning process. Moving forward I will be rethinking how we do this. Who do we bring in? How do we engage people in a discussion about what you do with a very high-style, affluent historic house that is architecturally significant and had been a very exclusive space? How do we make our community have a sense of ownership over that? How do we welcome them and make them feel comfortable in those spaces, while being respectful of the research that our curator has done over the years to create furnishing plans and room settings based on historic documentation?
We had an effort to collect some of the murals that were from the storefronts at the Rally for Black Lives, and found out later that those were quite controversial. Boarding up the stores itself was very controversial, and then artists took it upon themselves to do the artwork without permission, so now there’s a question as to who owns the artwork. As we do rapid response collecting in this area, we’ve had to confront some new questions about ownership and access to these collections. But the other challenge is that we are simply out of room for our collections. This was a problem before, but I would say that the pandemic and the shift in thinking culturally about what’s significant and whose stories we are telling is going to have a long-lasting impact on our collections. I’ve had conversations with our curator about deaccessioning items in our collection because we have to balance the significant items we have from affluent white cultural heritage, like an important furniture collection and some paintings, with making room for objects that represent other groups, including the growing Asian and Latinx community in Rensselaer County. I’m kind of a data geek, so in my first week, I looked at the demographics of the county and who is represented in the collection, and they don’t line up, so we have to make space. The pandemic just put a spotlight on an existing problem and helps urge us to act sooner rather than later to address these issues.
There are two areas that I have been thinking about a lot: how we staff museums and how we fund them.
I’ve been looking to the Studio Museum in Harlem as a model for museum staffing practices after I attended a Museum Association of New York conference presentation about equity and barriers to diversity in the field. Things like degree requirements and other standard protocols we had in the past – those are barriers. Moving forward I will always list the salary range on any job postings. I’m also considering removing any degree requirements, just rethinking the skillsets that we think we need in a museum. Offering paid internships whenever possible is another important commitment, and if it can’t be paid, it has to be truly a career building experience where I’m investing in that person. For me, I could never have afforded to take on an unpaid internship and that created a barrier. I was fortunate to have a mentor who secured funding to support me in a paid internship. In my role on the Museum Association of New York board, I’m going to talk loudly about the need to do this as a field, along with other equity issues related to how we hire. As museum professionals, we can be rigid and resistant to change—and if we don’t change, the field won’t persist. If we don’t make space for new people to do things in a way we don’t expect, the museum field will disappear.
I’m also concerned about the business model for museums. When the pandemic hit, I was working at the Palace Theatre, which relies entirely on earned income, has no endowment and has a few corporate sponsors but few individual donors. They completely lost all of their income immediately—within hours. On the other hand, the Hart Cluett relies 90 percent on individual donors. Either way, it’s a real weakness. The Hart Cluett has always depended on a small segment of the society to sustain its operations—this is true of a lot of museums. Sustainability will require us to be a lot more sophisticated in our business planning and to look at our earned income along with how to develop a broader base of support, so we’re not beholden to one individual donor or group. In light of the pandemic, how we do that has to be carefully considered. I’d like to find a retail business owner and contract with them to run our gift shop as a satellite of their store, because I don’t have the staff or capacity to run it, but in the middle of the pandemic it’s hard to get that off the ground. Even so, I think this moment is an opportunity for reflection for the museum field as a whole. It’s time to talk about how we are organized, how our leadership functions, and how we are sustaining our organizations moving forward.
Photos courtesy, Starlyn D'Angelo