History's most compelling stories are often perplexing and do not easily resolve themselves in black and white, good and evil. I know. I co-curated a museum exhibit on Hartford's 19th-century gun manufacturer Samuel Colt 10 years ago, called "Colt's Empire." My colleague Karen Blanchfield and I walked an ideological gantlet to get it done.
We did not toe the line of the firearms fraternity, for whom Sam Colt is a demigod, or heed art historians' harsh and insistent distinctions between "good" and "bad" art. (Their examples of the latter: Sam and Elizabeth Colt's copies of famous sculptures, gaudy -but nice - Victorian pottery and sleekly designed firearms.)
Now comes a new exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, "Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention." Once again, Sam Colt has come under the fire of ideologues, but this time because he was not always a kind boss, according to a 21st-century model.
A decade ago, our whole project was almost killed when liberal academic humanists in Washington cut off support because, in the view of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant reviewer, an exhibition that involved (but was in no way primarily about) firearms was irresponsible public programming in "minority Hartford" (look that up in the dictionary under "M").
The 1996 exhibit "Colt's Empire" survived only because of visionary intervention by the Connecticut Humanities Council, the Hartford Foundation and Fleet Bank. It deserves an award for its long-term economic impact. It helped create the climate that made plausible Homes for America's $120 million "Colt Gateway" development of commercial and residential renovation at the Coltsville complex. It inspired U.S. Rep. John Larson and the National Park Service to consider Coltsville as a National Historic Park. It lit a flame for Colt scholarship within the Wadsworth Atheneum that now appears inextinguishable.
But the exhibit almost bit the dust for attempting to be as expansive and multidimensional as the Colt story requires. Karen and I both knew at the time that what we were doing was only the tip of the Colt iceberg. The Colt story is the quintessential Hartford story and the best teaching tool we have for understanding that time.
That's why it's important and why anyone who cares about Hartford's future should care about the initiative at the Colt complex. The initiative will grow even stronger if labor union leaders like Steve Thornton, who objects to Colt's portrayal as a Hartford hero, instead lend their support and help grapple with how to present what is surely the greatest story Hartford has to tell.
Sam Colt was no hero by any definition (though his wife, Elizabeth, probably was). But he wrestled with the momentous challenges of his day in a way most of us can hardly imagine. Colt may not have been a hero, but he was a person of astonishing imagination at one of the most transformative junctures (the advent of industrialization) in world history. Change is not always kind, but it is inevitable, and places that want to sustain life and opportunity have no choice but to get out in front if they can.
Ironically, Mr. Thornton missed a key point in his Commentary piece last week (see "Don't Glorify Colt" at www.courant.com/colt) that is all about labor. Colt may have been an autocrat, but his armory provided a first port of entry for more immigrant laborers than any business in Connecticut history up to that time.
Germans, Irish, English, Poles, Russians and Italians swarmed to Hartford for a better life. He indulged his workforce by underwriting ethnic amenities like the (highly Germanic) Colt's Armory Band, which had a German concert master and Germanic music. We are all richer for the diversity that Colt, more than most, celebrated and was (by some of the old guard of his time) reviled for.
My hope is for Coltsville to join the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses, our two alluring State Houses (the old and new), the Wadsworth Atheneum and the less glamorous but equally evocative Butler-McCook and Isham-Terry houses as bait that will make Hartford the nationally competitive destination it's always had the potential to be. Such historic draws would complement a vibrant performing-arts, nightclub and restaurant scene. By improving the pedestrian-scale atmosphere of Main Street, a buzz will become a roar, with or without a "Rising Star" slogan and other such unnecessary sales talk.
Doing Colt right requires telling the whole story, not just of guns and manufacturing, but of the social and cultural life that Elizabeth and Sam brought to Hartford and the fascinating and inspiring labor history at the core of their story.
One of my fantasies (all it requires is money) is to transform one of Colt's many still-standing workers' houses into an experience that tells the story of the people who inhabited Coltsville and made Colt's dream happen.
Colt may have been ambivalent about going to war with the South (to describe him as "pro-slavery" is both offensive and wrong). But he was also one of the first industrialists in America to hire a Jew as a department head and to provide employment opportunities (it has yet to be determined if the opportunities were "equal") where Catholics and Protestants, whites and even a few blacks worked side by side building one of the greatest economic leviathans America has ever known.
Sam Colt was the poster boy for American ingenuity, a quality Connecticut laborers need now more than ever.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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