Wouldn't it be great to have a place where children and adults alike could learn about the sordid history of how American politics really works? If Bruce Roter has his way, visitors to New York's state capital will indeed have this opportunity, at the "Albany Museum of Political Corruption" -- which he hopes to locate just down the hill from the state's Capitol building. Adults entering Roter's political corruption museum will be charged a reasonable "bribe" as admission, with children under the age of 12 entering for half price (although "parents are encouraged to lie about the age of their children").
Roter points out that New York is certainly fertile grounds for such a museum, with 29 officeholders convicted of a crime, censured, or accused of wrongdoing in the past seven years alone -- to say nothing of its long and storied history of political corruption reaching back to the Tammany Hall era. While the Albany museum would only cover the state of New York, if it becomes a success, Roter could easily see the idea spreading to other state capitals or even to a national museum in Washington.
After reading the interview below, if you also agree that a Museum of Political Corruption sounds like a worthwhile idea, you can visit the museum's official website to offer your support and donations (they're also on Facebook). The museum project is not only seeking donors, but also people who can offer their expertise in business development, museum administration, and public relations. You can contact Bruce Roter if you'd like to help see the Albany Museum of Political Corruption become a reality.
Personally, I think this is an idea whose time has come. If I were ever passing through Albany, I know I'd make time for a visit, that's for sure.
[Full disclosure (a necessity for an article such as this): I received nothing in exchange for conducting this interview by way of compensation, bribe, kickback, Kickback™, or other special treatment. Just to be absolutely clear. Although I was tickled to see a quote from an earlier article of mine (which briefly mentioned the museum idea in a positive light) used on the museum's homepage, I will admit.]
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Bruce. To begin, how did you get the idea for a museum of political corruption and why do you think people would be interested in visiting one? What is the museum's main purpose?
The idea for a museum of political corruption evolved from a conversation I had in late July with a local politician. I posed the question on how we here in Albany could lighten up a little bit; what is it we could be irreverent about? Then it struck me: Albany, as the seat of New York state government, is known for political corruption. So rather than run away from it, I thought let's embrace it and use it as an "unnatural" resource! In fact, a portion of the profits from the museum could be used to help develop Albany's downtown and beautify the city whose name too often unfairly gets dragged through the mud. Albany is actually a very nice place to live (but let's keep that our secret).
I think the Albany Museum of Political Corruption will attract a wide variety of visitors both near and far for a lot of reasons, not the least of which would be sheer curiosity and the uniqueness of this museum. For those looking for a political "house of horrors," they'll find what they're looking for. For those interested in political satire (think The Onion on Red Bull), they'll find that too. And for those interested in seriously exploring the history of corruption in New York State politics, this will be their "go to" place as well.
So this museum will obviously serve a number of purposes. There will be the entertainment factor (it will be a tourist attraction, after all). But by exposing political corruption to public ridicule, this museum will stand as a cautionary symbol to elected officials not to engage in corruption.
The museum will be a place of education, worthy of school trips. I imagine the museum will offer lectures and conferences exploring issues of corruption. Lastly, and importantly, this museum will convey these two messages: that unlike many parts of the world, free speech enables us to call out our leaders on their corrupt actions; the second message is that most of our elected leaders work hard, play fair, and do right by their communities. For young visitors, I want them coming out of the museum wanting to be public leaders, learning from other's mistakes, and believing they can do it better.
What sorts of exhibits will the public be able to see in the museum? What will the museum experience be like for visitors?
I want to make sure that the exhibits in the museum are as entertaining and as informative as possible. Naturally there will be historical documents and artifacts. People like wax figures, so we can have a few of those. But I envision a trip to the museum running like this: having paid the entrance bribe to get in (and there will be a table "under" which you pay your money), you enter the "Lobbyists Lobby" where you can check you coat (you can find it on eBay the following week). I think the "Lobbyist's Lobby" will be quite ornate, suitable for weddings between lobbyists and politicians.
Then the actual tour will begin. Either you will have a museum guide (a "fallen" politician who has been sentenced to serve as a guide or who has volunteered to do so to find political redemption). If no guide is available, you can take a self-guided tour. There will be a trail of dollar bills on the floor with a sign saying "Follow the Money." The tour will go through several exhibits exploring the history of political corruption and its roots in power, money, and arrogance. The tour will also be interactive. There will be booths where visitors can write down or audio record their own definitions of corruption or the experiences they've had with corruption. These "voice of the people" recordings can be played in parts of the museum for all to hear.
Obviously, a major goal of funding will be the acquisition of relevant documents and artifacts, which would probably include newspaper articles that go way back in New York's history. The tour will end at the gift shop (like they do at all museums), where you will be physically compelled to buy something you neither want nor need.
How far back will the museum's mandate reach? Will there be Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall exhibits? When will your earliest exhibit date from?
The museum's mandate should go back to the beginnings of the State of New York. And yes, I think we can reserve a spot for Boss Tweed. As for "Tammany Hall," that will be the name of our museum's auditorium!
What is your definition of "corruption"? Or, to put it another way, who and what will qualify as an exhibit in the museum, and what will be considered too insignificant or too ill-defined to include? What will your standards of proof be? Is just insinuation of corruption enough, or will you require historical records, proof, or even a conviction of a crime?
Excellent question. My thoughts on what constitutes corruption are definitely evolving with this project. And I think those who visit the museum will be challenged to consider their own definitions of corruption as well. I believe that those who are legally convicted of corruption can be considered "candidates" for this museum (that's the only thing they should be considered "candidates" for). But as to what or who goes into this museum, I will leave that to the expertise of political historians and ethicists.
What modern events will qualify for inclusion in the museum? Would, for instance, Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner qualify? Any other recent New York names you would like to include?
It is tempting to make this museum a "ripped from the headlines!" site. And it is important that we make this museum relevant to today's events (let's face it, that's what most tourists will want to see). But we can't deny the importance of historical perspective in determining who gets in. I'm not saying that today's bum is going to be tomorrow's hero. But time has a way of sorting through these things.
As to who I would personally include in the museum, I have my favorites (as I'm sure we all do). But again, I leave that decision to others. Maybe a group of political writers should decide, similar to how they do it for the Baseball Hall of Fame (just imagine the disappointment of a politician who is not elected on the first ballot!).
As for Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, you raise an excellent question. To the extent that actual laws were broken, they ought to be considered. But do sexual liaisons constitute corruption? I would think most people would say "No." Now, if the mandate of the museum broadens (which I am considering), it's possible the title would have to change: The Albany Museum of Political Scandal, Corruption, And Misconduct (or, in short, "S.C.A.M."). After all, these politicians' actions were at the very least scandalous and did betray the trust of their constituents.
How will the museum be funded? Do you have a budgetary target? Can the general public contribute to the effort?
Specifically, my budgetary target goes like this: We need lots of money! And it needs to come from individuals and other private sources. To receive funding from government entities could pose a conflict of interest. After all, what do you say to the politician who just helped pay for the museum and now has been convicted of corruption? "Welcome home"? No, this must be the people's museum and needs to be driven by private donations, private grants, and ultimately self-sustained through admissions fees and the overpriced food sold at the museum cafe. Again, I can't stress enough that to get this off the drawing boards, the museum needs two kinds of resources: money and expertise. I can and will be a driving force, but I am not a businessman. So I need individuals with start-up business experience and experience in museum administration.
As for donations, small donations can be made via the website, www.albanymuseumofpoliticalcorruption.org. Those interested in making a substantial contribution, contact me, because I'd like to have coffee with you! And as a token of gratitude, I will offer anyone who contributes $10 or more an official Kickback™ when they visit the museum (I have designed a souvenir coin that will be sold at the gift shop that says: "Albany Museum of Political Corruption: One Kickback™").
The gift store will also feature lots of wonderful items, including the ever popular "How to Cook Your Books" Cookbook,; a throw blanket labeled "The Original Albany Cover Up," and figurines of men and women in business suites bearing the inscription "I bought this legislator in Albany, NY!" For kids there will be an assortment of Political Action Figures. Buy several to form your very own Political Action Committee (fake money sold separately). And again, for the man or woman who has everything, stop on by for a genuine Albany Museum of Political Corruption Kickback™.
If the museum opens and is a success, could you see the idea spreading to other state capitals? Or perhaps even a national museum of political corruption in Washington?
Yes, I'm glad you mentioned this! As much as we might like, Albany does not have a monopoly on corruption. So, there's plenty of room to franchise and have S.C.A.M.s in other states and even a National S.C.A.M. (could today's national politics be any more scandalous to the American people?).
The last thing I would like to mention is this: this museum will be completely non-partisan. We'll gladly reach across the aisle to accept corrupt politicians of any political stripe. In a blue state like New York, there might be more Democrats. In a red state like Texas, there might be more Republicans. Quite simply, it doesn't matter. Corruption is corruption. All are welcome.
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