Historical society ups its storytelling

Wilton Historical Society co-director Allison Sanders presses a button on the interactive map in the new installation Connecticut’s History, Wilton’s Story. — Jeannette Ross photo
Junior-sized Navy and WACs uniforms are part of the  History is Here! Exhibition. — Jeannette Ross photo
The historical society’s new installation includes historic items in recessed niches in the foyer of the Betts House.  — Jeannette Ross photo
Raggedy Ann was the creation of Wilton artist Johnny Gruelle.
The historical society’s new installation includes historic items in recessed niches in the foyer of the Betts House.  — Jeannette Ross photo
A Dave Brubeck Quartet album cover helps tell Wilton’s story.
Kristine Lilly memorabilia is part of the History is Here! Exhibition. — Jeannette Ross photo

History is more than names and dates. It is stories. And Wilton’s stories are being told in an elegant new installation at the Wilton Historical Society called Connecticut’s History, Wilton’s Story. It will be unveiled to the public on Saturday, April 21, from 4 to 6 at the museum complex at 224 Danbury Road. Also opening at the same time is the newest exhibition, History Is Here! Recent Acquisitions 2012-2017.

The new installation is the culmination of more than two years of work on the part of museum staff, beginning with former executive director Leslie Nolan and continuing with co-directors Allison Sanders and Kim Mellon.

Frequent visitors to the Betts House will undoubtedly notice a change in the entryway’s appearance. Once made to look as if visitors are entering an 18th-Century home, the foyer has been cleaned out, the walls have been painted an historic gray with white trim, the floors have been shined — the large hearth is still intact — and the installation takes up the wall on the right-hand side.

The clean lines of the exhibition give way to the 15 artifacts and five architectural silhouettes on display and an interactive map with points of interest related to each. The items range from Colonial times to the 21st Century.

“The idea is Wilton has a lot to offer and here is where all the connections are made,” Sanders told The Bulletin during a sneak peek last week. “We got inspired by the locations in town and the stories that go with them,” she said. Each of the objects is connected to a location.

For example, one of the earlier items is a math textbook that relates to the Hurblutt Street Schoolhouse, which served Wilton students from 1834 to 1934. When a visitor presses the button indicating the schoolhouse on the map, the niche holding the textbook lights up.

A brochure explains the story behind each artifact in the exhibition, and its reverse side includes a copy of the map, which acts as a guide to points of interest for those wishing to explore further on their own.

Each item is interpreted by a specific theme: origins, local policy, global context, transportation, and legends.

The earliest reference is the original Wilton Meeting House from around 1726, which is indicated by a site marker on lower Wolfpit Road. The most recent is a jersey worn by soccer star Kristine Lilly, who lived in Wilton and played at Wilton High School before going on to Olympic and professional glory.

Items in between include a letter confirming the sale of a slave to Daniel Lambert in 1757, a shoe last representing the thriving shoe industry of the 19th Century, World War II ration vouchers, plans for a farm with 1,000 cows, a Raggedy Ann doll from the 1930s — the doll was the creation of Wilton artist Johnny Gruelle — and a record album by jazz legend Dave Brubeck. All are part of the society’s collection.

The installation is intended to show Connecticut history and American history “and how Wilton fell in the events of the day,” Sanders said. Some items are still relevant to current events. For example, there is a series of photos that shows the effect of the flood of 1955, when the Norwalk River washed out a bridge in Cannondale. With the Plan of Conservation and Development under review, history, Sanders said, “shows the river is a force to be considered.”

Sanders calls the installation “transformative” in that it elevates the museum. “It will share stories with the people who live here and are traveling through … showing the depth of what Wilton has to offer.”

The installation sprang from a state Good to Great grant, which was awarded in 2016. It amounted to $125,000 from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, which required a 25% match of $31,250 that was provided by a generous supporter.

The Good to Great grant, Sanders said, is intended to “take your institution with one project from good to great” and encourage people to explore not only Connecticut but their town. The installation was designed by the firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which has worked for national governments, leading institutions and major corporations around the world.

History is Here!

Opening at the same time as Connecticut’s History is Wilton’s Story is History is Here!, which highlights some of the society’s acquisitions over the past five years. They span a wide timeline and vast cultural significance. Some are historical objects, such as a Revolutionary War payment order that recalls the British march through Wilton in 1777. Others are more personal items, such as the Gregory Family Road Cart that brings to mind 19th-Century modes of transportation.

There is also an exhibit that demonstrates the struggle between preservation and demolition, with a striking photo of the Schlichting House that until recently stood on Ridgefield Road, and the dismantling of a historic barn from the former Young’s Nurseries property on Route 7 that will be preserved.

Information: wiltonhistorical.org.

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