What the Old State House has Already Lost

Originally published in the Hartford Courant.

The Old State House is likely to survive the latest failure by the Connecticut Historical Society, but what has already been destroyed can never be recovered.

I worked at the museum as an historic interpreter when the building was run by the Old State House Association. The historical society took over in 2003, and said last week that it is unable to keep the museum financially afloat. The state may come to its rescue before it’s closed this summer.

Most people think of museums as collections of things. Quiet, somber places where plaques explain the untouchable collections and security guards watch from the doorways. But after a multi-million dollar restoration in 1996, the Old State House was going to be a “living museum.” The staff could not make the walls speak, but we could do the next best thing.

In historic interpretation, costumed characters portray a specific period in history. But at the Old State House, with centuries of stories, choosing just one era was impossible.

Instead, the site provided the focal point. Interpreters covered the lifespan of the place — from the English settlement of 1636 through 1920s politics. Each of us researched and portrayed a specific person, but also became well-versed in the full history of the building.

My character was Alice Cogswell, the first student at the American School for the Deaf in 1817. I’m not deaf, but I gave tours using speech and sign language, explaining to visitors, “Now that I’m back, I can speak and hear.” There was a certain suspension of disbelief, but that was part of the charm.

With characters narrating 300 years of tales, history became much more personal than most visitors had ever experienced. People played along, asking questions and learning more than they expected.

Stories told aloud can express historical events in ways impossible to capture through typical museum features. A headset cannot stand in the doorway to decision-making chambers, allowing boys through and holding back girls, to demonstrate women’s experience a century ago. A plaque cannot give children a chalkboard — essentially the only way to communicate with a deaf person in the 1820s.

Our methods of interpretation grew over time. At first, we worked from set routines. In addition to the basic facts, we could go into more depth on almost anything visitors were interested in.

As we learned more about our characters, we began to improvise conversations across time. My favorite was three or four women from different centuries comparing their experiences and rights. Each spoke from her character’s era and political perspective, showing very clearly how things had changed.

Building on such improvisations, we devised detailed re-enactments — most notably of the Amistad trial, but also telling the stories of Prudence Crandall, Nathan Hale, the Hartford Convention and others. These were our most theatrical pieces, with interpreters taking on new characters, memorizing scripts and performing for seated audiences. My play about Alice Cogswell’s life consistently brought people to tears, because they saw the heartbreaking isolation of a young deaf woman in an era when the deaf were considered less than human. These kinds of emotions are impossible to communicate in a brochure.

Completed projects represented just a small portion of the Old State House’s potential. A common problem in the museum sector, money never matched inspiration. Scores of great ideas were shelved, excellent scripts were never performed and promising new characters were never brought to life.

But the real tragedy was the loss of what we already had. Hundreds of hours of research went to waste because information was never properly written down. Dealing with day-to-day operations always eclipsed record-keeping, which was continually put off to some future date.

It’s tempting to think the information is easy to find again. But some of our material came from private collections, and some came from the unrecorded accounts of elderly visitors who shared their grandparents’ stories. Luck also played a major role. Each of us focused our research on our own character, but stumbled across unexpected details that were relevant to the others. I learned more about Alice Cogswell’s family history from my colleagues than I could have possibly discovered on my own. With a dozen people sifting through material from different perspectives, we managed to create detailed historical accounts that would otherwise take decades to compile.

The Connecticut Historical Society dealt the death blow in 2003. The staff of historic interpreters was laid off and replaced by security guards, plaques, and brochures.

Without the voices of storytellers and the history that spoke through them, the Old State House seems empty and quiet these days. The state may rescue the building, but it will require management more visionary than the Connecticut Historical Society to revive its spirit.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *