Located on Albany’s South Pearl Street, Historic Cherry Hill is a 1787 wood-frame structure that was home to five generations of the Van Rensselaer family. Its last resident, Emily Rankin, bequeathed her house and its thousands of artifacts and documents that spanned three centuries to “the people of New York State.” The house opened as a museum in 1964, a year after her death. For the past twelve years the site has undergone an extensive $2 million restoration to preserve the historical structure and is now undertaking a NEH CARES Act grant funded project to digitize and interpret more inclusive stories of underrepresented narratives and perspectives.
Historic Cherry Hill, photo courtesy of Discover Albany
Staff began seeing evidence of facilities deterioration in the 1990s and brought in a structural engineer to help with the assessment. The engineer discovered that while the house was likely designed to hold about 30 pounds per square foot in the attic space, it was now holding an excess of 100 pounds per square foot. The weight was coming from the 70,000 collection items stored on-site that were threatening the museum’s largest artifact, the house itself. To save the house, the engineer recommended relocating the collection to another structure.
Historic Cherry Hill under restoration. Photo courtesy of Historic Cherry Hill
“We’re a tiny museum, so the idea on how to accomplish this was a bit mind blowing,” said Deboarah Emmons-Andarawis, Historic Cherry Hill Director. “But the staff and board were on board and were able to raise the fund needed to build a collections center that opened in 2003.”
The Edward Frisbee Center for Collections and Research is a 3,500 square foot state of the art facility with environmental controls. Historic Cherry Hill received IMLS funds to improve the management of and access to collections by upgrading the museums’ collections database. With the move of museums’ historical objects, manuscripts, textiles, books, and photographs into this new space, both physical and digitally accessibility for staff and researchers became a possibility. “Once the Center was opened and the work of moving collections over to that new space began, it opened up new opportunities to make our collection accessible to students and researchers that wasn’t possible. Once most of the collections were moved out of the attic, it was at that point that we were able to consider undertaking how we fix this [the house]. It’s been a decade in the making.”
Inside the Edward Frisbee Center for Collections and Research. Photo courtesy of WAMC.
In 2012, Historic Cherry Hill received $575,00 from the National Endowment for the Humanities “We the People” Challenge Grant as part of an initiative to strengthen public access to the humanities that not only included funds towards the restoration of the house, but also to an endowment for the curatorial and research department. “Gaining intellectual and physical control of the collection was such a big endeavor,” said Emmons-Andarwis.
The museum received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts to:
work with an architect and structural engineer to plan for the interior repairs and restoration based on the findings of an existing conditions survey
restore thirty three windows,
address the environmental issues within the structure, and
reinstall 1,863 objects and furnishings within the historic structure–including paintings, prints, photographs, wall-mounted cremains, carpets, and furnishings.
Collections Relocation and Accessibility
With the relocation of the collection and improvements to the museums’ collections database also came a discovery of collections items long stored away.
“One of my big moments of discovery when I was curator was when we were immersed in moving the textiles from the historic house to the collection center. We were dealing with infestation issues when we saw this 18th century textile, made in India that was a wow moment for me,” said Emmons-Andarawis. “It was this magnificent morton dyed piece and it was just hidden away in a trunk for many years. It was pristine because it was packed away for so long.”
The creation of the collection center supported the museum’s efforts to serve a broadening audience of users and its transformation into a center for the study of American social, political, and economic history.
“Because we’re a small staff, [this relocation project] consumed most of our resources,” said Emmons-Andarwis. Access to the collections was through in-person visits and now, during the pandemic, by appointment only. The massive project of digitizing the collection only happened recently. “It was a project that was, ironically, possible because we are in a pandemic. There was this extra funding source available and we were able to take advantage of that.”
Staff on-site re-installing furniture. Photo courtesy of Historic Cherry Hill.
Opportunity in a Pandemic: Digitizing the Collection
In June 2020, the NEH announced $40 million in CARES Act Grants to support essential operations for cultural institutions across the country. Historic Cherry Hill was awarded $30,000 for the retention of two staff members to expand remote learning opportunities about African Americans at the historic site. The project, “Historical African American Experiences at Cherry Hill: Lessons for the Digital Age,” focuses on slavery and emancipation and 19th and 20th century African American siblings who were taken as orphans in the mid 1800s and occupied a “quasi-family” status as servants and wards of the Van Rensselaers.
“We were aware of some really wonderful collections that have and had been wanting to learn more about these stories for sometime but were looking for the opportunity for the right grant,” said Emmons-Andarwis. “When we originally conceived how we were going to tell these stories, it was not going to be digital. We were going to work on school programming and imaging on-site programs. When the NEH CARES opportunity came up, it seemed obvious that the right way of focusing on these stories during the pandemic and this historical period that we find ourselves in was exploring them digitally.”
Staff began photographing and digitizing historical objects and documents belonging to these siblings including toys, photographs, letters, and other ephemera all intended to expand on their neglected lives.
Training session with consulting digitization librarian Jennifer Fairall and interns working to digitize Historic Cherry Hill collections on Black life including scanning and transcribing letters, assigning metadata, and marking the connections between Cherry Hill and the broader world. Photo courtesy of Historic Cherry Hill
“It was a very fascinating relationship that we were aware of but it was an opportunity to explore more of the stories related to these siblings and there was a lot there,” said Emmons-Andarwis. A series of papers associated with one of the siblings emerged, William James “Jimmy” Knapp who resided at Cherry Hill over sixteen months over four years from 1880 to 1884. Knapp was a musician, a piano tuner, and worked in a music store. He also was a composer and some of his sheet music was published locally across today’s capital region including Troy and on State Street in Albany but most of his work was published in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. “We were able to piece together most of his life because he was the most documented of all of his siblings. We have his letters, which are a big part of this collection and about 150 pieces of his sheet music.” Emmons-Andarwis initially believed that staff would be digitizing 200 or so documents associated with Knapp and his siblings, but currently staff has digitized more than 600. “It’s exciting about where we can take this project next and going further to contextualise these stories. These are the stories that are not well documented elsewhere.”
Staff has uploaded hundreds of this digitized collection to NY Heritage for public access, created a 3D model of the house, and is currently developing teaching prompts. “A key part of this project is creating tools for teachers to use these digitized collections in their classroom.” In 2018, the museum evaluated its school programs. The museum partnered with Claudia Ocello of Museum Partners Consulting to conduct an evaluation of past and existing programs and launch an online survey of hundreds of kindergarten through Grade 12 teachers in the Capital Region and conducted focus groups with teachers from public and private schools. One of the main recommendations from the evaluation was the creation of inclusive, hands-on programming using primary source materials to make local connections to larger historic events, including the perspectives of African Americans and women. “Many of them articulated that they wanted local resources that they can use to talk about slavery and African American history. We’re thrilled to be able to answer that request.”
One short term goal that the museum has is to continue to build more digital and virtual programs. “We’re working on some school programs in addition to the NEH funded resources. We have worked to convert one of our outreach programs called the Cherry Hill Case to a virtual program,” said Emmons-Andarwis. In the Cherry Hill Case, students work in groups to investigate the lives of household members using educational props. The virtual program will use new research to better represent the makeup of the household and perspectives of its members using recently digitized collections.
Re-Interpretation and Vision for History Cherry Hills’ Future
Before the pandemic forced the Historic Cherry Hill to close its physical doors to the public, restoration work had already interrupted on-site tours. “I think that having to stop giving our core tour forced us to explore other things and other stories,” said Emmons-Andarwis.
Historic Cherry Hill was awarded $46,979 in federal funds from IMLS’s Inspire! Grants for Small Museums for museum staff to work with a consulting interpretive planner, designer, and evaluator to develop a new interpretation plan. “Our main goal is to present a story that is more inclusive of underrepresented narratives and perspectives,” said Emmons-Andarwis. Early on, the museum recognized the importance of immigration in Albany as a key theme of the house’s history as it related to Catherine Rankin’s story, but not all perspectives were presented in that theme. “It was all told from Catherine’s perspective and how she experienced the change in her community. We strive to create an emotional connection and critical distance, but what we are really keen on is making sure that our interpretation is told from many different angles.” The new plan will incorporate insights from a newly formed Community Advisory board, audience research, and a panel of interpretive specialists and scholars.
Emmons-Andarwis and Education Coordinator Shawna Reilly are both project participants in the Museum Association of New York’s IMLS Building Capacity Project who are utilizing the resources and training to develop more content and share more perspectives into the main narrative of Historic Cherry Hill. “That’s what we’re finally after all this research and digitization,” said Emmons-Andarwis. “To be able to really build out those perspectives that wasn’t possible before.”
Learn more about Historic Cherry Hill: https://www.historiccherryhill.org/
Explore their digitized collection on NY Heritage: https://nyheritage.org/contributors/historic-cherry-hill