With non-essential businesses shut down through the end of the month at least, the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany is using the time to renovate.
The high ceilings of the new Irish American Heritage Museum feel cavernous. Sharing a building with the Albany Pump Station, the new space has a domed theatre for performances and 12 winding scenes that tell the story of Irish labor in America, wars, famine, and the personal stories of individual immigrants.
Power tools echo through the half-finished space – which Executive Director Elizabeth Stack says is almost 8 times bigger than the museum’s old location on Broadway across from SUNY Central. But with the mandatory closure of non-essential businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic, Stack has had to lay off two workers and send home all volunteers — so she is trying to renovate the new space with a team of one.
The museum also missed out on its usual St. Patrick’s Day surge of foot traffic and donations.
“March is definitely our bumper month,” Stack said. “So of course COVID changes all of that because now we’re not getting the day-to-day money in admissions or that kind of stuff so- It was heartbreaking. We had such a wide variety of events for March. We had a lecture of the top 10 events in Irish history we had one about the penal laws we had two or three people coming from Ireland like different bands we had a woman who was coming to teach us Irish crafts – like kind of traditional crafts like basket weaving and stuff – she’s cancelled. It’s been shocking. Our rambling house was cancelled.”
Stack is trying to make the best of the situation. The museum installed a new security system with new doors and contracted out some larger pieces that carpenters can work on in isolation.
“This is happening remotely at the moment - we have someone building us a thatched cottage,” Stack said. “So it’ll be to scale; you can go into it. We think we’ll be removing these walls – which we haven’t done yet – and then there’ll be a thatched cottage which is just a one-room kind of hovel and then you’ll go through a door and you’ll arrive in a cold water flat in America in kind of 1830. And particularly for this region, people were here building the Erie Canal so this will just show you the homes that they left and the homes that they come to.”
Stack says she has been careful to rotate workers through the space to do their jobs separately.
“You know it’s kind of one at a time,” Stack said. “So, we’ve got one electrician coming in shortly to finish up what he was doing. Our guy is at his own house building the cottage in his shed so he has to come in and measure. And we do stay six feet apart. We’re sanitizing up the wazoo. You know I have to do mailings – we’re not licking envelopes we’re using tape. You know there’s all these little things. So we have a lot of sanitizer, we have gloves if we are touching things. I’m the only one in here most of the time and we’ll see – we’ll have it thoroughly sanitized before we open.”
Stack says some grants she would normally apply for for the museum have been repurposed due to the pandemic.
“Some money that you could normally apply for has now been redirected to communities that are directly involved or food banks,” Stack said. “Things that the arts and cultural sites don’t necessarily qualify for.”
Stack says, when finished, the exhibits will feel personal to New York state residents. Like the ocean harbor dock she created with piles of immigrant trunks on display.
“Some of these trunks are over 100 years old and we know the people who came so we’ve got the stories there,” Stack said.
Stories like Betty Devine’s – a member of the Irish American Heritage Museum. Her grandmother came to the United States in 1889 and moved to Eagle Bridge on the Rensselaer/Washington County border. She married John Devine in 1895 and they bought a farm in Cambridge, New York where they raised five children. Her trunk is now on display at the museum.
Stack says for safety reasons, everything she originally planned about standing up the museum has had to change. She says she wants the pandemic to end as soon as possible, but she is also worried the museum won’t be finished when it does.
“We’re hoping fingers crossed we’ll be open in May and - you know – we’ll never close again.”