SARANAC LAKE — Historic Saranac Lake’s newest Saranac Laboratory Museum exhibit “Pandemic Perspectives” draws connections between a 19th century infectious disease and a 21st century one.
MAKING A MUSEUM
The Church Street museum is at the former site of The Saranac Laboratory, a lab established in 1894 by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau to study tuberculosis.
It was the first research facility of its kind in the U.S. to study the disease and became a world-famous center for its fresh air treatment.
“Saranac Lake became famous as a health resort,” Historic Saranac Lake’s Public Programs Coordinator Mahala Nyberg said. “People came here for other health benefits as well, but it was really known as a place where you could come to stay with the hopes of recovering from tuberculosis.”
The building was later refurbished and has since 2009 operated as Saranac Laboratory Museum, a museum featuring scientific research and patient care exhibits.
‘GREW FROM NEED’
The museum also hosts the occasional temporary exhibit, like this “Pandemic Perspectives” one, which invites visitors to explore the links between their own novel coronavirus experiences and Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis history.
Nyberg described tuberculosis as a pandemic that “raged the U.S. and worldwide from the mid-to-late-19th century into the early-20th century.”
“It really touched everyone,” Nyberg said. “Everyone knew someone who was touched by tuberculosis — much in the same way that we’ve experienced COVID in the past year-and-a-half, except that this was a pandemic of the same height that lasted for several decades.”
The public programs coordinator said the community had not been blind to the correlation.
“I don’t know that we, as a history museum, have ever felt more relevant than we do right now. Everybody coming into the museum wanted to talk about COVID, because they’d walk through and would see parts of their experience reflected in the exhibit; they were making those connections already,” Nyberg said.
“They were seeing the history of patients who had maybe experienced something, even if it was just something emotional, that was similar to their experience. I think this exhibit really grew out of the need to have a platform for that discussion.”
The exhibit is comprised of 12 panels placed throughout the museum, each exploring a particular reaction, ranging from positive feelings like, “resilience” and “gratitude,” to more difficult ones, like “loneliness” and “fear.”
“Pandemic Perspectives” incorporates quotes from literature highlighting experiences common to pandemics throughout history and was informed by an “Epidemic Fictions” course taught by Columbia University Professor Arden Hegele.
Historic images from Historic Saranac Lake’s collection and present-day images shared by Lisa Keegan, a nurse at nearby Adirondack Health, are also incorporated.
Keegan provided a photo of Sara Diaz, a fellow nurse at the local health center, and the pair attended the exhibit’s opening reception held Tuesday, July 13, for Historic Saranac Lake members.
“I am so grateful to this community for the warm welcoming, the support and the acknowledgment for my hard earned achievements,” Diaz said in a recent Historic Saranac Lake news release. “This is my home and I am so honored to give back by helping others regain their health, and with COVID it was no different.”
END DATE UNKNOWN
The exhibit is included in the museum’s general admission price, which is $8 for adults, $5 for students and free for those age 12 and under.
Asked how long “Pandemic Perspectives” will be viewable for, Nyberg said its end date was undetermined.
“We knew that this exhibit was needed right now. We really focused on getting it up and available to the public.”
It was expected to last through the summer and fall, but maybe into the winter.
“We’re also looking at ways that we can develop it even further,” Nyberg added, noting that it could become mobile or virtual in the future. “We believe that the content of this exhibit would be relevant to people in other parts of Saranac Lake and in areas outside of Saranac lake.”
Historic Saranac Lake will also host a series of public programs supported by grants from the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Humanities New York and the New York State Council on the Arts to complement the exhibit.
Programs will explore four topics as they relate to Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis history: The Roles of Women in the Medical History, Patients’ Stories: Saranac Lake’s History through the Lens of Narrative Medicine, Cure Porch Architecture and the Healing Power of Occupational Therapy.
Each of the talks will inform four temporary exhibits for the museums mobile exhibit space, the Cure Porch on Wheels. Historic Saranac Lake will take the exhibits off-site for history day visits in the summer and fall of 2021.
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