(c) Connecticut Explored, Summer 2016
For me, small is BIG when it comes to museum experiences. Small museums and historical societies are where you encounter the authentic Connecticut, full of surprises and untainted by marketing spin. Small museums and historical societies are to culture what local farmers are to food. It’s all about local treasure, and Connecticut has plenty of it.
The Institute of Museums and Library Services in Washington, D.C., in its “Museum Universe Data Set,” lists almost 500 related organizations in Connecticut. As you might guess, most of them are small—and many hold surprising gems for visitors to explore.
So, where to begin? Happily, there are a couple of ways to get started. Steve Wood, who writes the respected Connecticut Museum Quest blog (ctmq.org), has visited and reviewed more than 200 museums around the state. The blog features many specialized and obscure attractions, such as the Museum of Greek Culture in Bristol, a dozen or more one-room school houses, the Lock 12 Historical Park Museum in Cheshire, and the Haddam Shad Museum—which is on my list to see.
I’ve reviewed small museums for the travel website Trip Advisor. You’ll find most of the museums in the state listed there. Or search Google Maps for any town, state, or region, using the search term “museums”—and most, though not all, sites pop up with a link that shows hours, location, and a map.
But perhaps the best way to drink in the Connecticut small-museum culture is to attend the State Office of Culture & Tourism’s annual Connecticut Open House Day. The 12th annual event is on Saturday June 11, 2016; visit ctvisit.com for more information. Last year I used information I gathered during the event to plan a subsequent tour of the Naugatuck Valley and in one day managed to take in five museums, including historical societies in Cheshire, Seymour, Prospect, and Derby, plus the Francis Osborn Kellogg Homestead garden and nature center (a property of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection). Cheshire Historical Society was off-the-charts great—the others all good. I made wonderful discoveries in each and got to interact with community “rememberers”—folks who love their towns and local history and know it by heart. These are my “peeps”—as they say—folks in it for the love of place, past, and community.
The year before we did a circuit up fabulous route 169 (Connecticut’s longest stretch of “scenic road”) in eastern Connecticut, starting with Eugene O’Neill’s Monte Cristo Cottage in New London; taking in the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville [See page 38.]—an extraordinary collection and experience—and ending our day at Putnam Elms in Brooklyn, the only historical site in Connecticut associated with Revolutionary War hero General Israel Putnam.
Another under-reported story about small museums is that many of them present changing exhibitions and offer public programming. Historical societies in Weston, Cromwell, Kent, and Windsor and the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield are among the dozens of local museums that do outstanding adult public programming with a focus on Connecticut art and history. Most of our local museums also provide field trip experiences and services for the schools in their towns—often without compensation.
Connecticut has 169 towns and as many community-based historical museums. Many are run by volunteers. No two are alike. They are, in my view, a civic miracle.
And here’s the deal. When we think about Connecticut history and art and where to go to see it, it’s worth noting that the diversity of cultural material that pops up in our local museums is staggering. Through years of sleuthing around the state, I have turned up hundreds of things I’ve never seen elsewhere.
So here are 10 treasures from Connecticut’s local history museums that I love—and explanations as to why I love them. I could come up with 10 more sets of 10 equally interesting objects. But I’ll leave it to you to discover them. That’s half the fun.
Listen to our podcast with Bill Hosley and Betsy Fox on Grating the Nutmeg.