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In A World Of Past And Present

A New Exhibit At The Old State House Traces Daily Life In Hartford's History

September 1, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Kate Steinway says the first attempt to turn the 7,000-square-foot concrete box beneath the Old State House in Hartford into something new was predictable: history as a sociological, economic, political force, etc, etc.

But the second stab - called "History Is All Around Us" - is a brightly colored, knickknack filled, multimedia look at how history is part of everyday life.

"It's part of the attitude that we have about history that you should get it at a glance," said Steinway, of the Connecticut Historical Society Museum and the Old State House. None of its explanatory panels have more than 100 words.

"This isn't rocket science, and we tried to make it very much about people's needs," said Steinway, who conceived the idea for the exhibit.

The $3.5 million exhibit opens to the public Sept. 16 and is part of the attempt by the society to make the Old State House, which it manages, a more approachable downtown landmark.

The exhibit is in the building's Mortensen Gallery, a space built in 1992 and previously used for storage, office space and as a puppet theater. The gallery begins with a walk downstairs into a curving oval centerpiece, with curved walls, and curving walkways, all intended to be soft and welcoming.

The "Past Is Present" section at the heart of the exhibit goes from the low-tech, yet authentic, Wyllys family copy of the state charter to a digital treasure chest, with a Mitsubishi touch monitor inside that guides visitors through family treasures.

The section called "Where We Live Is History" focuses on Hartford and how it has changed over time.

It begins with a "walk through time," a stroll past five big rectangular wall pieces that have as their backgrounds materials to give a sense of time and place: Bark represents the Native American homeland, clapboard represents the Colonial settlement, wallpaper is for the 18th century river trades, bricks give a sense of the factory city, and wood panels signal the rise of Hartford's mid-20th century life as a regional hub.

Some of the exhibit's showpieces have long been in the museum's collection, like the old G. Fox sign. But a third of the 380 objects - a Seth Thomas clock, a matchbook, a Dictaphone-published booklet on how to be the perfect secretary - were bought on eBay, Steinway said.

There are two specific places where children can have fun - they can dress up like Civic Center sports stars or entertainers in one section, and they can "build" Hartford over time, block by block, on a floor map with hand-held buildings. "Or, you can just build some buildings, crash them around and be Godzilla," Steinway said. "It's built for that. It's supposed to be indestructible."

The exhibit concludes with "What We Do Is History" - with subsections called "We Invent," "We Have Fun," "We Create" and "We Contribute." The final "We" has a wall of portraits of current and former area residents who contributed to the city, and has spaces for digital images taken of visitors, too.

"It's all about how you can contribute," Steinway said. Except for the fact that it lacks a little box for donations. "Now, why didn't I think of that?"

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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