Telling Her Story: New Exhibit Celebrates Capital Region Women
The Albany Institute of History and Art is set to reopen at limited capacity Saturday. While visitors must wear masks and are encouraged to buy tickets ahead of time online, the museum boasts a lineup of new features and old favorites. Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, WAMC’s Jesse King toured a new exhibit telling the story of Capital Region women throughout history.
Note: As a result of the temporary shutdown caused by COVID-19, this exhibition has been given an extended stay through August 23.
At first glance, the new additions tucked away in the museum’s east gallery can seem quite ordinary: a knitting bag, a typewriter, a floral dress hanging on the wall… But the items at Telling Her Story: New Acquisitions say much more once you get to know them. In selecting the exhibit’s 26 stories, Curator Diane Shewchuk sought to depict a wide range of experiences.
“As I went through, I also wanted to be conscious of the fact to represent everything from the 1700s to the present day…I also was very conscious to represent the elite women of Albany, and also the people that worked in the collar factories in the area," she notes.
The aforementioned knitting bag by the exhibit’s entrance belonged to a woman Albany residents may still remember. Betty Corning, the wife of longtime Mayor Erastus Corning II, was Albany’s “First Lady” from 1942 to 1983. Shewchuk says Erastus left to serve in World War II in 1944 – and alongside the knitting bag, letters from Erastus to his “Dear Betsy Lam” give a glimpse into how Betty held down the fort.
"Even though they're written by a man, it tells me so much about what her homefront life was like, because he's responding to whatever she said to him or what she sent to him in a letter," Shewchuk explains. “He says ‘Thank you for sending the Nabiscos, thank you for sending the Listerine – here’s some legal advice, here’s some financial advice.’ So she’s maintaining the household and two children while he’s abroad.”
A yellow dress at the other end of the exhibit was actually worn by Albany author Athena Lord at one of the Institute’s champagne balls in 1964. The dress shines next to Lord’s Smith Corona typewriter and copies of her Albany-centered childrens’ series, Z.A.P. and Zoe, but Shewchuk is just as interested in learning more about the dressmaker. She says African-American seamstress Anabel Heath Puels made a number of special occasion dresses.
“And Anabel taught knitting, embroidery, and sewing lessons at the Booker T. Washington Center in Arbor Hill. She was, in the 1940s, teaching young African-American women how to sew – and in the 1900 census, her aunt, her mother, and her grandmother were all listed as dressmakers," says Shewchuk. "So she followed that sort of line of dressmaking skills in her family and learned how to sew.”
One of the more famous stories at the exhibit is that of Clara Harris Rathbone, born in Albany in 1834. The daughter of Albany judge and U.S. Senator Ira Harris, Clara mingled with Washington’s elite in the 1860s – including First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Clara and her stepbrother, Henry Rathbone, were actually in President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre when John Wilkes Booth shot and killed him in 1865. Shewchuk says Clara witnessed everything, and suspects her photographs, scrapbooks, and travel diaries contain some of the final artifacts of the Lincoln administration.
“So this is a note from a doctor, at 6 a.m., ‘Lincoln is very low.’ And Lincoln dies at 7:22 [a.m.]," she explains. "So there are two cards from Lincoln’s doctors with little notes on them that she kept in a scrapbook.”
Clara’s story is tragic itself. After marrying Rathbone in 1867, the couple had three children – but shortly after moving to Germany in 1882, Rathbone fatally shot Clara before attempting suicide himself. Shewchuk says no one knows why Rathbone killed his wife – some speculate his mental state deteriorated after Lincoln’s assassination, having witnessed and failed to stop the deed himself – but Clara’s diary spills no secrets.
“It’s a diary of just like, ‘Oh we went Christmas shopping together today, I bought amber beads for so-and-so, we went to the zoological gardens, I saw a play…Nothing is unique in that year of reading that diary, and then it just stops," Shewchuk explains. "So something happened after December 19 [of 1883] until she died.”
Other items in the exhibit include dresses by Schenectady design company Ursula of Switzerland, artwork by Susan Hoffer, and baby products from Extreme Molding at the Watervliet Arsenal.
“And what was made here, during the War of 1812 – they were making munitions and cannons, and as late as recently, military weapons. One of the things made there now are baby pacifiers, and things for infants," Shewchuk notes. "And I love that contradiction, that sort of contrast. You go by the Watervliet Arsenal, and one of the factories there is making this.”
All in all, Shewchuk is eager to use these new items to look even further into the exhibit’s stories. She says the artifacts not only shed light on the women they belonged to, but the region’s history as a whole.
“People should document, because every woman’s life is important. Not just the Betty Cornings of the world, or the Athena Lords, but everybody’s life is important," says Shewchuk. "And you can always find an angle to put it in an exhibition.”