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What The Old State House Has Already Lost

March 11, 2007

The Old State House is likely to survive the latest failure by the Connecticut Historical Society, but what has already been destroyed can never be recovered.

I worked at the museum as a historic interpreter when the building was run by the Old State House Association. The historical society took over in 2003, and said last week that it is unable to keep the museum financially afloat. The state may come to its rescue before it's closed this summer.

Most people think of museums as collections of things, usually in glass cases or behind red satin ropes. Quiet, somber places where plaques explain the untouchable collections and security guards watch from the doorways. But after a multimillion-dollar restoration in 1996, the Old State House was going to be a "living museum." The staff could not make the walls speak, but we could do the next best thing.

In historic interpretation, costumed characters portray a specific period in history. But at the Old State House, with its centuries of stories, choosing just one era was impossible.

Instead, the site provided the focal point. Interpreters covered the lifespan of the place - from the English settlement of 1636 through the politics of the 1920s. Each of us researched and portrayed a specific person, but also became well-versed in the full history of the building.

My character was Alice Cogswell, the first student at the American School for the Deaf in 1817. I'm not deaf, but I gave tours using speech and sign language, explaining to visitors, "Now that I'm back, I can speak and hear." There was a certain suspension of disbelief, but that was part of the charm.

With characters narrating 300 years of tales, history became much more personal than most visitors had ever experienced. People played along, asking questions and learning more than they expected.

Stories told aloud can express historical events in ways impossible to capture through typical museum features. A headset cannot hold a mock trial or fire a cannon, or stand in the doorway to decision-making chambers, allowing boys through and holding back girls, to demonstrate women's experiences a century ago. A plaque cannot give children a chalkboard - essentially the only way to communicate with a deaf person in the 1820s.

Our methods of interpretation grew over time. At first, we worked from set routines. In addition to the basic facts, we could go into more depth on almost anything visitors were interested in.

As we learned more about our characters, we began to improvise conversations across time. My favorite was three or four women from different centuries comparing their experiences. Each spoke from her character's era and political perspective, showing very clearly how things had changed.

Building on such improvisations, we devised detailed re-enactments - most notably of the Amistad trial, but also telling the stories of Prudence Crandall, Nathan Hale, the Hartford Convention and others. These were our most theatrical pieces, with interpreters taking on new characters, memorizing scripts and performing shows for seated audiences. My play about Alice Cogswell's life consistently brought people to tears, because they saw the heartbreaking isolation of a young deaf woman in an era when the deaf were considered less than human. These kinds of emotions are impossible to communicate in a brochure.

As is common in the museum sector, the building was always understaffed, and if we counted all our hours of research and writing, interpreters were severely underpaid. Inevitably, there was high turnover. Scores of great ideas were shelved, excellent scripts were never performed and promising new characters were never brought to life.

But the real tragedy was the loss of what we already had. Hundreds of hours of research went to waste because information was never properly written down. Dealing with day-to-day operations always eclipsed record-keeping, which was continually put off to some future date.

It's tempting to think the information is easy to find again. But some of our material came from private collections, and some came from the unrecorded accounts of elderly visitors who shared their grandparents' stories. Luck also played a major role. Each of us focused our research on our own character, but inevitably stumbled across unexpected details that were relevant to the others'. I learned more about Alice Cogswell's family history from my colleagues than I could have possibly discovered on my own. With a dozen people sifting through material from different perspectives, we managed to create detailed historical accounts that would otherwise have taken decades to compile.

The Connecticut Historical Society dealt the death blow in 2003. The staff of historic interpreters was laid off and replaced by security guards, plaques, brochures and headsets.

Without the voices of storytellers and the history that spoke through them, the Old State House seems empty and quiet these days. The state may rescue the building, but it will require management more visionary than the Connecticut Historical Society to revive its spirit.

Myshele Goldberg worked at the Old State House between 1996 and 2000. She is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and also writes a column in the Scotsman newspaper. Her website is www.myshelegoldberg.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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