A marvelous new permanent exhibit at the Old State House is just what the downtown Hartford landmark needed to rejuvenate it as a destination spot. The attraction puts the "story" back into history and the past into proper context.
There are no stodgy lectures or moldy mementos here. No fear of museum fatigue, either. The folks at the Connecticut Historical Society have made Hartford's history come alive through its people in an appealing display that has something for the young, the old and the in-between. The multimedia, interactive installation successfully connects the past with the present and lives up to its apt title, "History Is All Around Us."
No child who descends the staircase into the panoramic gallery nestled beneath street level in the historic building will leave with the notion that history is boring. The message of the gallery is that he or she is making history simply by participating in the ordinary course of daily life.
The $3.5 million exhibit, which opens to the public Saturday, features everything from handmade arrowheads to software, redware pottery to jet engines, Harriet Beecher Stowe to Bono. It showcases Connecticut-made products, with some wonderful examples from the historical society collection, that for some will shake loose long-forgotten memories of a simpler time. On press night, guest after guest could be heard remarking, "My grandmother had one of those toasters," or "Wow. Remember when coffee came in a one-pound can?"
There are contemporary portraits of families and contributors to Hartford's civic life alongside the historic faces that shaped its beginnings. There are unflinching photographs of old neighborhoods razed for "progress" that one wishes could be reversed. Visitors will take away instructive ideas about the mistakes of the past, as well as a sense of great pride in a state capital that was a seat of democratic government and industrial ingenuity, a magnet for great writers and a significant contributor to the nation's heritage.
Kids will love the many hands-on activities, from being able to "build" Hartford to dressing up like sports heroes or rock stars. They'll have a chance to write their own stories, too. A centerpiece of the exhibit, a 1912 Hartford fire engine lovingly restored and lowered into the gallery this past spring, was drawing enthusiastic attention on the night we visited.
The historical society has been a great steward of the Old State House, a national historic landmark that, unbelievably, was once nearly torn down for a business block and had been in financial trouble when the Connecticut Historical Society stepped in three years ago. Besides the new exhibit, it has added a charming education center where schoolchildren can relive moments in Hartford's history in vintage costumes and amid hand-painted scenery.
This is a gift that promises to keep on giving.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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