Bringing history to the here and now

There is that saying, what’s old is new again, and it certainly is true for the Wilton Historical Society.
At the beginning of this decade, the society was barely a blip on the radar of most residents. Except for its annual programs that brought schoolchildren to the museum complex, the holiday train show, and the Scholarly Series program, presented jointly with Wilton Library, there was very little going on.
It was a far cry from what is happening now. Membership is up, there is a steady stream of programming, and the society has attracted attention from officials and consumers near and far.
The latest program is a new exhibition that opens Friday, March 24, called Dr. Seuss, Political Cartoons & the Battle Over Isolationism vs. Intervention. It has been curated by Matthew Warshauer, history professor at Central Connecticut State University and a popular speaker at the Scholarly Series. He will lead a free gallery walk-and-talk when the exhibition opens at 12:30.
Next month, the society will participate in a regional observation of the 240th anniversary of the British “Raid on Danbury” during the Revolutionary War. After sacking Danbury, the Redcoats made their way down Ridgefield Road on the way to the Sound, causing all kinds of mayhem here. The society will present a talk and Colonial-style lunch on Friday, April 28.
In between it will continue with its regular programming that includes Saturday programs for children, a fourth-Friday-of-the-month program and the conclusion of the Scholarly Series.
Other historical society doings throughout the year include a book club that focuses on historical titles, summer camp, artisan and antiques shows, and the Great Trains exhibition. The society grounds are also the site of the Wilton Farmers’ Market.
At a recent meeting of the society’s membership committee, one of the members said, “Three years ago, there was no cohesion in branding.”
Leslie Nolan was brought on as executive director and set to raise the society’s visibility and its vision.
While the first show she curated was 75 Objects 75 Years, a celebration of the society’s 75th anniversary that featured exhibits from its own vast collection, she soon brought on contemporary artisans to broaden the scope of programs and exhibitions. The Betts Store was revived. The train show was expanded — the “trainmen” meet monthly. An assistant was eventually brought on, and most recently a museum educator to work with children.
Most noticeably, membership started to tick up. It stood at about 180 when Nolan took over and now stands at about 350, nearly double.
A cohesive branding campaign was designed that spans the sign on Danbury Road to the website, which was also redesigned by Brown Bear Creative. Traffic on the website grew nearly 120% over the last year, with 61% of visitors being new users, and 40% returning users. Only 25% of the Web hits come from Wilton and Norwalk, with the site drawing in visitors from all over.
The society has three pillars, Nolan explained: preservation, collections, and programs and education.
As for preservation, the society is responsible for the upkeep of 18 buildings, some of which are rented out as commercial space. Right now, two buildings are seeking tenants.
The society also received a grant to complete a dormant project of surveying historic homes in Wilton.
With a collection spanning more than 16,000 objects, the society is working to build a fund for conservation.
Good to Great
Perhaps one of the most exciting things to happen at the society is the receipt of a Good to Great grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The society was invited to apply for the grant, Nolan said, which asked, “What would we do with $70,000 to $80,000?” Citing there is no real introduction to Wilton at the museum complex, she wrote a one-page proposal.
“It was a dream,” she said. It was a dream that was answered. The society received a $125,000 state grant that required a 25% matching contribution, which has already been raised, bringing the total funds available for the project to $156,250.
The society has retained the services of Ralph Appelbaum Associates in New York City to design an interactive timeline that will allow visitors to see historic and cultural connections within Wilton and the state. It will transform the foyer of the Betts House and one of the kitchens.
“This is a great example of a future project that’s going to make a big difference,” said former First Selectman Bill Brennan, a member of the membership committee. “It will make the society a great place to be a member of.”
A kickoff meeting with the designers was held in December, and while it is planned as a two-year project, Nolan said it could be done in as little as a year.
“The historical society recognizes it is in a very competitive environment,” Brennan said. “People are all busy. We are competing for time in that environment and succeeding.”
What the society still needs is volunteers. “It’s a great way to participate in town,” Brennan said.