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OPINION: How Meriden lost a museum

It’s been almost a quarter century since I first saw the Rosa Ponselle collection.

In 1998, the Curtis Memorial Cultural Center, on the corner of East Main and Pleasant streets, was the home of the Rosa Ponselle Museum and the Meriden Hall of Fame. For 70 years it had been Meriden’s library, but by the end of the century it was in a serious state of disrepair.  

When I look at the story I wrote at the time I think my assignment must have been to cover the plans to rehabilitate the Curtis center, but the precarious condition of the Ponselle collection was so dire it took up about a third of the story.

When it rained, streams of water would run down the inside walls. Parts of the ceiling were pulling away. There were nearly 400 pieces of Ponselle memorabilia under threat and those taking care of the collection had hopes the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford could serve as a temporary home.

At the center I met Robert Cyr, a museum founder and a former president of the Rosa Ponselle Fund, who died in 2004. He had rescued after it had been soaked by rain a medallion Ponselle had received from the Italian government in 1969. There were also two miniature ivory portraits of Ponselle that had been removed from their glass cases after they’d been covered by falling plaster. Two Ponselle gowns were also soaked. “We’ve got to get these out of here,” said Cyr.

Ponselle is the most famous person to have come from Meriden. I suppose U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona might now fit that description, but until I hear him sing “Che gelida manina” I’m voting for Ponselle. Hers was a rags to riches story, from the streets of Meriden to the international opera stage. The collection includes a signed photograph from President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressing admiration.

For a while it looked like the hero of this story would be Lester Dequaine, who offered to house the Ponselle collection at his museum building on West Main Street. I’d suggest taking a look at Mary Ellen Godin’s recent story for the details (https://www.myrecordjournal.com/News/Meriden/Meriden-News/Opera-diva-s-collection-returns-to-Meriden-for-October-exhibit.html). The short version is that things soured. Unhappy with a basketball event held downtown, Dequaine shuttered his museums except by appointment and for a while it was unclear what was happening with the Ponselle collection. It eventually went to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Dequaine, who died in 2016, told me once he didn’t think “there should be a Rosa Ponselle museum in Meriden.” That may be true, but it has never seemed right that a single person got to make that decision. Some people cared, you’d think, but not enough of them. So, Meriden lost a museum.

Now at least part of it is coming back, for a short stay. The Meriden Historical Society has a new home and is offering a Ponselle exhibit, which includes items from the Peabody Institute.

I was trying to think of a good word for this. Absurd comes to mind. So does humiliating. Meriden had to ask for permission to temporarily show items that belong to the city.

I don’t know if I’ll go to the exhibit. It would be nice after all these years to see the items safe and sound, but for me they also serve as a reminder of the cost of indifference.

Reach Jeffery Kurz at jkurz@record-journal.com.



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