The Persistence of Memory

An elegant young woman stares down at the director of the New Haven Colony
Historical Society as he works in his office, a constant reminder that the
eyes of history are upon him. The director must decide what he owes the
portrait. Is he a guest in her room, or she a guest in his?

The Historical Society has long been a refuge from contemporary New Haven.
Inside, cows still graze on the New Haven Green. Yet even the Society has
not escaped the forces that have changed the city. Strolling through the
galleries, I couldn’t help but notice that I was alone, and I began to wonder
if the Society itself was poised to fade away like so much of New Haven’s
past.

For answers about the Society’s past and its prospects for the future,
I turned to former Executive Director Richard Hegel and current Executive
Director Peter Lamothe. Hegel was the Society’s Executive Director in the
late 1960s, "the Golden Age, back when everything was perfect."
Now 74, he is still on the Board of Directors, and a quintessential old-timer,
always genteel. Lamothe, at 31, is the bright new hope. He came to New Haven
to run the society in April of 2000 with extensive experience in the museum
field, first at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello,
then at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. He speaks like a
professional. "Historical societies and museums are moving away from
being a traditionally product-oriented organization and more into the service
and experience industry." In other words, the Society is not just a
resource for people to come and use; it should reach out and offer them
new experiences.

Like most rooms in the Historical Society, the director’s office has a
fireplace. Inside it is Benedict Arnold’s wrought-iron chimneypiece, from
1771. Staunch Arnold fans, sifting through the society’s archives, might
also find the sign from his New Haven drugstore and his waste book, along
with a silver tankard owned by Jonathan Edwards, a piece of Daniel Webster’s
deathbed, and endless other stuff that straddles the fine line between historical
gems and oddball exotica.

Such relics inspired the Society’s founding. To the founders, history was
a family affair, passed along in heirlooms and stories. However, by the
1860s, some of New Haven’s citizens sensed that times were changing and
this was no longer sufficient. What to do with these memories, this stuff?
In 1862, they founded the Society. The emphasis on family history attracted
not only antiquarians, but people like Mary Ellen Hotchkiss, the elegant
young woman on Lamothe’s wall, who fused the Historical Society with high
society. This association helped to sustain the Society for years, but after
World War II, the old families began to move to the suburbs, and the Society
lost one of its mainstays of support. "It was always broke," remembers
Hegel. "Every time it would rain, Ogden [President William Ogden Ross]
and I would go up to the steel grid beneath the roof and push buckets around
on the I-beams to catch the water so it wouldn’t leak through the ceiling."

Fundraising was a personal affair. For one exhibition, Hegel and the president
approached a donor for $10,000. The president said, "You’re familiar
with what we can do, and we can do it well." The donor responded, "My
attorney will mail you a check for $10,000." Once a show goes up, believes
Hegel, the quality must speak for itself. "If you have a well-presented
exhibit, it will attract."

The 18th century tableware exhibit irks Lamothe more than almost anything.
Aside from the tableware itself, there is nothing attractive about it. The
room is dim and claustrophobic, the tableware crammed into small cases,
some of them so poorly located that a normal-sized viewer standing upright
will find himself staring not at colonial-era china, but at cheap, painted
plywood display walls. Lamothe sees this "culture of mediocrity"
as endemic to the Society he inherited. "I’m trying to smash that culture."

Gesturing with his arm, he tells me that the entire display will soon be
cleared away. "We’re going to use this space to house a new special
exhibition gallery. Our first show will be a photography exhibition on redevelopment
and the Oak Street neighborhood." The redevelopment exhibit is part
of Lamothe’s effort to move the Society away from its focus on 18th and
19th century history. One of his first exhibits was on contemporary New
Haven architects, which attracted 600 people. The society also collaborated
with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on "The 1901 Project,"
which represented turn-of-the-century life through everyday items, like
the steamer trunk that brought a family’s possessions across from Europe.
The crowds were so large that people had to be turned away.

The difference between Hegel and Lamothe isn’t exactly that they disagree.
It’s that they agree while saying completely different things. To Lamothe,
the Society is outdated and in need of reform. In Hegel’s view, the society
remains, and will remain, a place that interested people will seek out.
Lamothe feels there are too many people who don’t yet know they’re interested.

Mary Ellen Hotchkiss watches Lamothe every day as he struggles to modernize
the Society. However, she may not be watching for much longer. When I asked
Lamothe about the portrait, he shrugged. "I’m going to clear some of
this stuff out of here. I want to put up some contemporary photography."

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