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Shannon Surdyk, the Wild Center’s “shuga master,” explains how the device she holds in her hands measures the sugar content of maple sap — it measures light refracted through sugar crystals. The museum’s community maple program, overseen by Surdyk, is one of the things Wild Center executive director Stephanie Ratcliffe said she’s most proud of. The museum is a finalist for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Nation Medal this year. (Business Photo – Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — The Wild Center is one of 30 finalists for this year’s National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the highest national honor a museum can receive.

“It’s such an honor if you think of all the museums in the country, big and small,” Wild Center executive director Stephanie Ratcliffe said. “Being recognized by IMLS in this way is kind of an affirmation.”

She said the nomination is “Validation of the tireless work of everyone at the Wild Center.” She said they are usually “head down, work” but to look up and see the company they hang out with in the museum community is encouraging.

Ratcliffe said she knows of many museums that have been finalists in recent years.

“To even be in this orbit of museums that I admire…it really feels good,” she says.

Shannon Surdyk, the Wild Center’s “shuga master,” fills a maple sap boiler with more wood. The museum’s community maple program, overseen by Surdyk, is one of the things Wild Center executive director Stephanie Ratcliffe said she’s most proud of. The museum is a finalist for the nation’s highest museum honor this year. (Business Photo – Aaron Cerbone)

The reward

The medal, awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has been awarded to 176 institutions since 1996, honoring institutions that demonstrate “Extraordinary and innovative approaches to community service.”

The Wild Center is one of two finalists in New York this year, the other being the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

Ratcliffe described the Wild Center as a small to medium sized museum.

National medal winners will be announced the first week of June, and a national ceremony and celebration will take place in July.

There are 15 museums and 15 libraries on the IMLS finalist list. The prize is usually awarded to an equal number of institutions in each category. The number of award-winning museums and libraries varies from year to year.

Become a finalist

Ratcliffe said the past few years have come with hard work adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, but also with bursts of creativity – adding digital programs and outdoor events like Wild Lights.

The Wild Center is an outdoor location that they made a safe space for families looking for recreation when there weren’t many options.

Last summer, the museum nearly reached pre-pandemic visitor numbers, she said.

The Wild Center is closed this month, and when it reopens in May, Ratcliffe said he plans to operate it as normal, before COVID.

“The innovation demonstrated during the pandemic of going digital in our youth climate program and day-to-day programming, and successfully redesigning our on-site experience for safe operations was proof that we maintained our mission despite unprecedented conditions”, Karen Thomas, chair of the Wild Center board of directors, said in a statement.

“Being selected as a finalist inspires us to continue our work to connect people to the natural world around them – which is more important than ever,” Ratcliffe wrote.

The Wild Center’s goal is to get people to love and care for their environment, she said.

“The North Country’s pristine environment is a defining feature of many of our communities, and I’m proud of the Wild Center’s efforts to honor our district’s rich environmental history and equip visitors with the knowledge they need to protect our environment for generations to come.”, U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, said in a statement.

Ratcliffe said the Wild Center’s work to educate people about climate change is unique, important, and at the forefront of how museums around the world are dealing with an existential threat to the planet.

“IMLS examines the national landscape. This kind of award tells me that they see the work we do as innovative and at the forefront of our field,” she says.

She said a new climate exhibit will open at the Wild Center in July, highlighting local people working on solutions to a global problem.

The message, Ratcliffe said, is that there are solutions that can work, they just need to be scaled up.

She said the goal of a museum should be to stay relevant in people’s daily lives.

Ratcliffe also said IMLS considers a museum’s work with its community when choosing finalists. She said the Wild Center strives to be a “community anchor”.

The Wild Center receives 100,000 visitors a year, but Ratcliffe said it’s the small projects that serve the community she’s most proud of. Projects like the Community Maple Program, which collects the raw maple sap from 45 families who start Tupper Lake trees and reduces it to syrup.

The program provides families with the tools they need, centralizes boiling in one location, and returns 70% of the resulting syrup to families in exchange for a cup to sell, and the opportunity to show visitors how the maple syrup.

The wild center “Master Shuga” Shannon Surdyk said maple syrup is a good window into the impacts of climate change. She said as winters get shorter and less reliable, the effect of carbon emissions can be seen as day.

The syrup is supposed to darken as the season progresses and the weather warms, becoming sweeter at the same time. But this year, the syrup bottles of each boil Surdyk keeps in the sugar shack have gotten lighter as the season progresses. She said it was because the season started very warm in the winter and then turned cold again in the spring.

It’s things like this that, according to Ratcliffe, make the Wild Center a special place to work and visit.

“We are already winners! she exclaimed as she walked away from the sugar shack.


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