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Opinion: Are museums the next target of culture wars?

By Lorraine Connelly

Last month, multiple Connecticut museums reportedly received a bomb threat from an unidentified email account forcing two museums — The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme and Mystic Seaport Museum — to close its doors for the day. Additionally, the New Britain Museum of Art canceled its annual donors’ gala out of an abundance of caution. 

While a representative of the Connecticut State Police Media Relations Unit said local patrol officers deemed the threats “non-credible,” they were being referred to the FBI for follow up investigation.

This news story had a personal impact for me. My husband and I visited the Wee Faerie Village at the Florence Griswold Museum with our granddaughters, ages 3 and 5, two weeks earlier. Since 2009, this fall event has entertained thousands of children with their miniature-size whimsical installations. Our granddaughters were quite enchanted by their visit.

In addition, I serve part-time as director of operations for the Nehemiah Royce House (1672) and the Franklin Johnson Mansion and American Silver Museum (1866), both under the aegis of the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust. Last spring, the Trust received a grant from the Connecticut Council of Social Studies to partner with teachers at Pond Hill Elementary School to develop a local museum history curriculum for three distinct historical periods: Colonial, Revolutionary and the Civil War. Young historians from the third and fourth grades and their teachers made on-site visits to our museums. This summer, the Trust received a second grant from the Connecticut Humanities to participate in the CT Summer at The Museum Kids are Free program. Given the positive impact that museum programs have on young people, I would hate to think that such public spaces devoted to preserving history’s treasures and instructing future generations are now being threatened by sinister external forces. 

Some may perceive museums as the bastions of the elite, emphasizing a Eurocentric vision while marginalizing and suppressing other narratives. In his article entitled, “Museums as Cultural Battlegrounds” (Inside High Ed, June 2022) University of Texas Professor Steven Mintz addresses the challenges facing America’s more than 17,500 museums. 

Museums not also face issues of cultural relevancy, but they are also managing significant financial challenges, as the cost of maintaining museums climbs amid stagnating revenue sources. There is also the audience challenge. How do museums attract a more diverse audience in order to better represent the communities they serve? However, the most serious challenge, says Mintz, is “a lack of clarity about what museums are supposed to do: to preserve, enlighten, educate, uplift, engage, stimulate, provoke or simply elevate people above the mundane?” Museums, he argues, offer an ideal lens for studying history.

For Wallingford’s 350th +2 Jubilee Celebration, the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust chose to examine the town's history through a new lens with a project called “Enslaved Wallingford: The Missing Chapter of Our American Narrative.” The undertaking examined the Colonial history of a significant population of free and enslaved Black Americans in Meriden and Wallingford.

Under the guidance of a slavery scholar, a team of citizen/researchers combed through vital statistics records (birth, marriage, death) from 1670 to 1840, including church records, Federal census records, and the pension records of Revolutionary War veterans. More than 500 names of enslaved individuals who once called Wallingford home were discovered. A permanent exhibit of interpretative panels from the project remains on display at the Nehemiah Royce House. The Trust dedicated its first Witness Stone in honor of Black Revolutionary War veteran Dick Freedom in 2022, and this summer, initiated a self-guided Enslavement Walking Tour of Wallingford. Says Trust President Jerry Farrell Jr., “Digging into this forgotten narrative was unifying for Wallingford. History — the good, the bad, even with its blemishes and warts — is our shared past. The more we use our past to understand ourselves, the better we know who we are and what we want to become.” 

While we can’t be sure what motivated recent bomb threats to Connecticut museums, Jason R. Mancini, executive director, Connecticut Humanities, notes that “museums, as public humanities spaces, provide the public opportunities to learn about ourselves, examine our relationships with others, and deepen our understanding of the world around us.” Adding, “At their core, every museum whether historical society, cultural center, aquarium/zoo/arboretum, nature/science center, art museum, etc., invites understanding, reflection, analysis, inquiry, and contemplation about the human experience. Despite all the background noise, museums remain trusted spaces for the public (especially for families and educators) as well as economic drivers in our communities.”

What better way to learn more about ourselves and deepen our understanding of the world around us than by visiting these trusted spaces and supporting our local museums?

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and director of operations for The Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust. www.wallingfordcthistory.org.


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