Monday, May 18, 2020

Preservation Team - Mike

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Mike Diana started at SCHS as a volunteer and intern, worked as a program assistant, and now serves as the Education & Programs Manager.

Mike Diana sharing Schenectady's history with our community

How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
While preservation isn't the focus of my job, our relatively small team is always prepared to take on different roles. Much of what I've done with historic preservation relates to the very physical work of cleaning historic structures and rehousing artifacts large and small. With nowhere else for them to go, artifacts were often stashed in sub-optimal locations for years on end. Fortunately, our society now has adequate storage space for everything in our collection but moving it all to our collections space has been a project years in the making. 

What led you to a career in preservation?
My experience as a volunteer and intern at the SCHS was my introduction to preservation. I started with simple collections work and learned the basics of Past Perfect software. I also assisted with a very large project of cleaning out a historic house the SCHS owned on Schermerhorn Road. It had been accumulating junk for years and essentially had to be stripped down to its bare bones. It was dusty, heavy work in dark, dank hallways. Carpets were cut up and tossed out second floor windows into an open dumpster below. It was certainly a novel experience for me.

Do you have any concerns about historic preservation?
The hardest thing about historic preservation is the inevitable truth that not all old objects or buildings can be preserved. Prior to any preservation work comes the initial decisions of whether or not something is worth being saved in the first place or, just as important, can your organization really take responsibility for it. Fortunately, that's rarely my decision to make but I would probably err on the side of taking on too much.

Photographing artifacts for our exhibits and catalog

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
One of my favorite historic structures is the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, NY. The town was built around a cement mining operation and the hills above the Roundout Creek are criss-crossed by old lime kilns and hidden cave entrances. The Widow Jane Mine is just a small part of this historic industrial landscape but it's open and safe for the public. It's an impressive cavern supported by rows of massive limestone pillars left behind by the mine engineers. Much of it has flooded with groundwater making a for a surreal echo chamber of light and sound. Apparently they have concerts there, but I prefer to go just to enjoy the atmosphere of this slumbering place.

What has been your favorite preservation project to work on?
In April of 2018 we had a class of Historic Preservation students from Cornell come to the Mabee Farm to help us with various projects. My team was responsible for cleaning the Inn. The building itself was essentially shuttered by the family in the early 20th century and left as a rough storage place and while the first floor had been restored, the second floor had been untouched. We removed a lot of remarkable artifacts from up there that had been buried in layers of dust. One that stood out was an old oilcloth, probably two centuries old, with it's blue geometric pattern still visible.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
Only so many old buildings can be designated historic landmarks and saved simply for that reason. In any town or city, there simply isn't the resources or the communal will to support more than a few such projects. But I still think preserving historic architecture is vital to a community's identity. To that end, I would encourage members of the community to go out of their way to patronize business housed in older buildings. There are more than enough mini-malls and prefab chain enterprises wherever you may find yourself. If we don't consciously give new purposes to old buildings, they'll soon be vacant, decrepit and destroyed in that order.

Rediscovering a rare 1700s door: a dirty job, but important preservation work!

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