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Cultivating Past Could Help Youth Grow Roots


February 03, 2008

I was kicking around the oft-mentioned phenomenon of young people leaving the state. Some must do it for jobs. I'm sure many feel the need to go to Boston to party, or can't find inexpensive digs, or need to tour with a ska band.

But I wonder if more people in their 20s would stay if they were more attuned to the history, the place, the stories of Connecticut. If you know who was here, and what they did, if you can see where they worked and lived, doesn't that hook you? Once you know about, say, Mark Twain, the Leather Man and the New Haven Railroad, doesn't that pique your interest?

"Connecticut is a microcosm of America. It is a great narrative to be connected to," said Ann Y. Smith, former executive director of the Florence Griswold and Mattatuck museums in Old Lyme and Waterbury, respectively.

It is at museums such as the two Ms. Smith directed that we learn Connecticut's stories. Florence Griswold ran a boarding house in Old Lyme for the greatest Impressionist painters in America. I am fonder of the state for knowing things like that.

Connecticut has never been particularly good about promoting its history. In 2003, four state-owned museums including the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury and the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby had to close for lack of funding. They have reopened under the state Commission on Culture and Tourism, thankfully, but the experience was telling.

Museums, historical sites and other heritage institutions across the state, like those across the country, are facing unprecedented challenges. The brave new online world has changed all the rules. Attendance in front of a computer is skyrocketing; attendance at museums is heading in the other direction.

Locally, it was pretty clear there was a problem early last year when no one could figure out what to do with the Old State House in Hartford, perhaps the single most important building in the state's history. (It's still up in the air; the Connecticut Historical Society has been running it on a series of temporary management contracts.)

As it happens, museum people around the country have been thinking about how to make museums relevant to the Web information age. In June 2006, the Connecticut Humanities Council convened a study group, headed by Ann Smith, to look at the new world of museums.

Smith's group, which included museum professionals and others, studied and cogitated and concluded that museums need to rethink how they work, embrace new technologies, and learn what their audiences want and how to serve them.

"The problem at a lot of these places is that they are so busy keeping the door open that they can't step back and think about a new vision," said Bruce Fraser, executive director of the humanities council.

The endgame here is an $8 million Heritage Revitalization Initiative from the humanities council that will fund new services for museums and the public. If the General Assembly and other funders support it, as they should, museums will be able to apply for grants to assess the needs of their audiences, adopt new technologies and marketing tools and construct business plans to achieve financial stability. There are also plans to significantly increase the online availability of Connecticut history.

A number of museums have been rethinking on their own in the past few years, often to good effect. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford comprises two lovely historic homes. The problem with historic homes is that, having visited them once, many people don't feel the need to go again, even if Mrs. Stowe lived there.

But such houses can be wonderful backdrops for a variety of programs. Stowe Center executive director Katherine Kane has produced programs based on Mrs. Stowe's life and works, focusing on such things as slavery, civil rights and feminism.

The Stowe Center also entered into a licensing agreement with a fabric mill in which the mill would use designs taken from the house for quilt fabric. "It's been successful," said spokeswoman Mary Ellen White.

Mystic Seaport, traditionally the state's most popular heritage site, peaked in attendance in 1976 with more than 600,000 visitors. During the past 10 years, attendance has dropped from 415,672 to 275,833. But this fiscal year, attendance is up 9 percent and is projected to reach 300,000, said spokesman Michael O'Farrell. One reason for the surge is an increase in programs that get visitors out on the water. The Seaport offers everything from steamboat rides and water taxis to sailing lessons and boat rentals.

The lesson is to capitalize on your particular resources, especially if they help you support yourself. Other heritage sites are doing a variety of things, from hosting out-of-state exhibits and holding public meetings, to aiding residents with increasingly popular family genealogical research, to holding period dining and entertainment evenings.

As important as tourism is, the essential component to the revival of heritage sites is schoolchildren. Some school districts are cutting back on field trips. That's really unfortunate. Kids begin to learn Connecticut's stories on these trips, and educators at the historic institutions are continually finding new ways to teach. At minimum, every schoolchild in Greater Hartford should visit the Old State House, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Old Wethersfield, the Twain and Stowe houses, the Noah Webster House, the Hill-Stead Museum and soon Coltsville.

Fire the imagination about the place and its heritage, and I think young people will be more inclined to stay here.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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