A press release from the Stonington Historical Society.
The Stonington Historical Society recently received two grants to help develop new exhibits for the Old Lighthouse, one of Connecticut’s best-loved icons and the first lighthouse museum in the nation. Though a museum since 1925, little was known about the building or its keepers until recently, when a great deal was uncovered for a new book published by the Historical Society: Stonington’s Old Lighthouse and Its Keeper by James Boylan and Betsy Wade.
The Historical Society has been awarded $9,983 from Connecticut Humanities and $3,978 from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help plan the exhibits. “The Historical Society is honored and fortunate to win these competitive awards,” according to the Society’s Director, Mary Beth Baker.
The new research developed by Boylan and Wade will form the basis of exhibit ideas, which are being formulated with the help of Mystic Seaport staff.
According to Baker, the Old Lighthouse is like a 2,240-square-foot “cabinet of curiosities,” an intimate space filled with fascinating but disparate items, many of them invaluable heirlooms handed down over generations by Stonington families. Most of the collection has been in place for fifty years, some items in the collection previous to 1925, when the Stonington Historical Society acquired the building from the U.S Government.
As examples of what visitors find at the Lighthouse: There is the medieval sword of John Mason used in the Pequot Wars, a miniature ivory pagoda from China, a 19th-century medicine cane (drugs intact), a large wooden lard-squeezer, a pair of taxidermied chevrotain (Indonesian mouse deer) poached from a South Sea island by a local sailor, and a scrap of Napoleon’s bed curtain brought home from St Helena by a whaler. The exhibit cases are themselves antiques. The museum has never, in its 88 years, attempted to interpret anything about the Lighthouse building, its history, or its occupants.
Baker observes that visitors often miss the treasures in the museum in their quest to find the stairway to the top of the Lighthouse tower to get the glorious view there. “Some people sail right past the 19th-century hair jewelry belonging to Capt. Nat Palmer’s sister or the machete made from shark teeth brought back from Indonesia, with a mere glance at the so-called stern board from the whaleship Susan & Mary, which in 1975 caused a sensation in the world of folk art when it was exhibited at the Whitney Museum.” Yet there is an old-fashioned quality to the exhibits that the Historical Society feels it is important to keep.
The first step in the process, according to Baker, is to test the preliminary exhibit ideas by getting public input. A questionnaire has been developed with the help of Karen Wizevich of the Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Wizevich worked with high school intern, Dillon Toole, who gave the questionnaire to visitors over the summer, talking to scores of people from across the country as well as locals. The museum is open every day except Wednesdays, 10 to 5 pm, through the month of October.
The questionnaire has recently been launched online in order to get input from more community members as well as those who live far away. To take the questionnaire, go to the Historical Society’s website at http://www.stoningtonhistory.org and click on Let’s Talk about the Lighthouse. Strict anonymity is maintained for all who answer the survey.
Baker commented that without the support of Connecticut Humanities and the National Trust, this kind of preliminary research would have been impossible. Connecticut Humanities is a non-profit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and is essential to hundreds of cultural programs in Connecticut each year, from local library discussion groups to major museum exhibitions. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private non-profit headquartered in Washington, DC, with 750,000 members nationwide, devoted to the preservation of historic places through a variety of programs and projects.
The Stonington Historical Society has been working for the past four years to develop plans for the restoration of the Old Lighthouse, thanks to grants from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the Community Foundation, and other groups and individuals who are committed both to historic preservation and to public accessibility. With planning for the structure now underway, it is time to turn attention to content and to the museum experience, according to Baker.
“We are not expecting more visitors,” she adds, “but we would like to keep our visitors engaged longer.”
Also, she notes that many hundreds of people visit the museum grounds every year who never come inside the museum. The Historical Society would like to reverse this trend. By tapping the resources of Mystic Seaport for design planning, the Historical Society expects to bring a level of professionalism to this gem of a museum that it has never had in its 88 years.
“This grant support,” Baker comments, “is very encouraging. But it is also ‘matching.’ That means that without the continued support of friends, neighbors, and members, we will not be able to move forward. Thankfully, so far people have been very generous.”
Once all the plans are complete, the Historical Society will still need to raise over $1.5 million to complete the project.
For more information on visiting the Lighthouse and making a donation, visit the Historical Society’s website (www.stoningtonhistory.org) or call 860-535-8445.
The Stonington Historical Society, Inc., founded in 1895, seeks to preserve, interpret, and celebrate the history of Stonington. In addition to presenting programs and exhibits, the Society maintains three sites open to the public: the Old Lighthouse Museum; the Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer House, a National Historic Landmark and the home of the discoverer of Antarctica; and the Richard W. Woolworth Library, a research archive of local history. From more information on these sites and the Society’s programs, exhibits, and collections, visit the Society’s web site, http:/www/stoningtonhistory.org, or call the Society at 860-535-8445.