Natalie Clair Stetson

Excitement in the Water

By Kathryn Walsh | Photography by Alexis Emm 

Canals and New York state history aren’t exactly at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist these days. In Syracuse, at least, Natalie Clair Stetson is determined to change that.”

As the executive director of the Erie Canal Museum, she gets to help people see a piece of New York state history through new eyes. It’s one of the things she loves most about the job.

“Your entire perception of Syracuse changes some when you know that it was built along a body of water — that this city grew up and changed and became what it is today because Erie Boulevard was an extremely bustling body of water,” she said. “People realize that’s why this building is here; why Clinton Square looks that way; why either side of Erie Boulevard does different things.”

The work isn’t always that life-affirming; a lot of her tasks involve budgets, human resources and overseeing a small staff of full- and part-time employees.

“My job is to really empower my staff,” she explained, “and make sure that they have all the resources they need to do their job well.”

It’s a job she’s been working toward for years. After earning a master’s degree in museum studies at Syracuse University, Natalie started working at the museum as an intern. She eventually moved on to work at the Seward House Museum in Auburn.

But she always kept an eye on the Erie Canal Museum, even telling the director of the Seward House during her interview that her ultimate goal was to be the director of the Erie Canal Museum.

Born in Iowa and raised mostly in Florida, Natalie moved to Syracuse in 2009 to start graduate school. Her partner Jeremy moved from Florida to join her. They didn’t plan to stay, but before long, the plan changed.

“Within my first year of being here and his first six months of being here, we determined we didn’t want to leave,” she said.

They settled in quickly. Jeremy started working at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, which he now manages. They fell in love with the Westcott neighborhood, especially their Saturday morning breakfast trips to Alto Cinco. And they fell in love with Syracuse.

Natalie remembered a brief time she spent living in Portland, Ore., and the city’s excitement and energy.

“Something that’s special about Syracuse is that you can be a part of making that [excitement] happen,” she explained. “Here I am, a young person, running a cultural institution in the heart of downtown. This is someplace where you can really be a part of the city.”

Getting others in Syracuse excited about the city and its history is part of her mission. Of the approximately 20,000 visitors who come to the museum each year, half are from outside New York state. And of the locals who visit, most do so around the holidays to see the annual Gingerbread Gallery.

But Natalie’s optimistic that 2017 will be a big year for attendance, thanks to the Erie Canal’s bicentennial. The celebration is actually slated to span eight years, the length of time it took to build the entire canal, but this year marks the 200th anniversary of the canal’s groundbreaking.

State officials are planning events around New York. Here in Syracuse, Natalie and her staff are planning a series of programs designed to bring in locals, people who pass by the museum all the time but never think to go in.

“Our goal is to really engage that broader local audience,” she said. “How do we get people who haven’t been here since they were a kid? What can we offer to our community to say, ‘Hey, come look at the Erie Canal in a slightly different way’?”

Bicentennial events will be kicking off in late spring and are set to include artist-led workshops to encourage participants to create paintings, poems and other works of art, with the Erie Canal as inspiration. A lecture series, with a theme of “Reflections on Erie’s waters,” is also planned.

“We’ll talk about how communities were impacted by the construction of the canal and how today you can still see those impacts,” she said.

Natalie has been in the job of executive director for just less than a year, and has big plans for the future.

“I think the board hired me because of my energy and my vision,” she said. “I can see what the Erie Canal Museum’s going to be in 10 years. I see how busy and bustling and amazing this place will be in 10 years.”

Bringing new excitement to a often overlooked institution will take effort and drive. Luckily, Natalie’s not giving up.

“Big transformation — it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “We’ll get there. And the city is just like that. It doesn’t happen overnight. But we’re all moving in the right direction.” SWM

The Erie Canal Museum is located at 318 Erie Blvd. E., Syracuse. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit eriecanalmuseum.org.

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