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Museum on a Shoestring

The state Museum of Connecticut History is starved for cash and attention, its tribute to the Industrial Revolution on hold for 20 years

By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

November 01, 2007

Across the street from the state capitol, in a plain and dimly lit space in the Museum of Connecticut History, administrator Dean Nelson smooths out an 8 by 11 sheet of white paper on a stack of prefabricated walls poached from the University of Hartford.

The paper shows a classroom sketched by Nelson, 58, along with Collections Curator Dave Corrigan and Education Curator Patrick Smith. In the coming months, the trio plans to use the pre-fab walls to build the classroom, where thousands of Connecticut schoolchildren will explore the state's political and industrial history in a "much more detailed fashion" than is currently possible, says Nelson.

The improvised classroom is a fitting symbol of the state's neglect of its own museum, where Nelson has been trying for nearly 20 years to get the million dollars he needs to create a Connecticut Hall of Industry near the exhibit of Colt weaponry that makes up the heart of the museum.

Connecticut, after all, was only the spark that lit America's industrial revolution and fueled its rise to manufacturing dominance in the world.

But as a subsection of a subsection in a sprawling state bureaucracy, the Museum of Connecticut History is an easy institution for lawmakers and the governor's office to step over on their way to funding more interesting things, like the new $150 million Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration rising near the new Convention Center on Columbus Boulevard.

The state history museum, by contrast, falls under the auspices of the state library, which is itself squatting in a building primarily intended for the Connecticut Supreme Court.

In Nelson's dimly lit, 2,300-square-foot space is a collection of the museum's "first-string all-stars" of 19th-century industrial machine tools. They sit crammed together, waiting for the chance to shine in the Hall of Industry.

There's an 1850s-era Phoenix Iron Works lathe, made in Hartford, that was used to true wooden rollers for skidding houses and barns from one location to another. And an industrial-strength paper cutter, made in Mystic River, used by a New Haven paper company. Nelson says that few of these elaborate tools survive. "They're all going to scrap yards or even going overseas where in some cases they're reused."

As they continue to wait for their measly million dollars the state sunk $107 million into the Center of Science and Exploration Nelson and his curators hold up the Smithsonian's "Engines of Change" machine-tool exhibition as their gold standard. Ironically, "40 percent of what they have on exhibit is from Connecticut," says Nelson.

Still, Nelson remains remarkably upbeat about his quixotic endeavor.

"We take great pride in the fact that we're leaving to our successors a hell of a collection."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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