In the Suburbs / "Yes, Fairfield, there is an amazing museum here"
Published 1:01 am, Friday, June 25, 2010
"This is your town. That's why we're here. We want to help you understand Fairfield's history and the role we played in the history of the United States."
Those words shared by Walt Matis, our coordinator of programs and volunteers at Fairfield Museum and History Center -- yes, Fairfield, we have a wonderful treasure right in our own backyard -- sum up the essence of my new workplace that I'm learning so much about on a daily basis.
And it's experts like Matis, Mike Jehle, our energetic and highly creative executive director; Adrienne Saint-Pierre, our curator; Christine Jewell, our director of education and programs and Rod Mackenzie, who handles genealogy in the museum's incredible library, along with so many others on the staff who bring the history of Fairfield to life.
Ironically, for so many in Fairfield and surrounding communities, our museum still remains an undiscovered gem. So I wanted to set the record straight. And I tried to do as much of that as I could this past Sunday when the museum unveiled its latest exhibit, "It's a Hit! A Hometown View of Our National Pastime," an amazing Connecticut baseball history exhibit.
I probably talked with 15 visitors from right here in Fairfield, Bridgeport and elsewhere in lower Fairfield County, who had no idea until the publicity on our exhibit came out, that there even was a museum in Fairfield. Before this weekend, I've probably explained our existence to another 25 people -- friends, acquaintances and business colleagues.
Let me set the record straight. The Fairfield Museum and History Center was established in 2007 by the Fairfield Historical Society. The 13,000-square-foot museum presents engaging exhibition galleries, a special collection library and reading room, a family education center, an 80-seat theater overlooking Fairfield's Town Green and a delightful museum shop, which carries some of the most unusual and exquisite gifts one could ask for in this kind of cultural environment. Our museum gift shop manager and buyer, Lee Walther, has even brought in an array of baseball-related items to coincide with our baseball exhibit.
The museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving and interpreting the history of Fairfield, Connecticut and surrounding regions for present and future generations. As our executive director has commented, "The museum is a meeting place and a resource that crosses many cultures."
Our family has lived in Fairfield for 28 years this month and I have to admit myself that I had no idea the museum was here until my good friend Bob, from The Bank of Fairfield, invited me to its grand opening reception and I finally walked through the door. I couldn't believe how beautiful the museum was and would have much preferred to explore our anchor Fairfield history exhibit to schmoozing all evening.
Sadly, I only learned this week from my conversation with Adrienne that I'd missed an incredible Judaica exhibit in 2008 and a Hungarian exhibit last year. She spoke of the work that went into each exhibit and her enthusiasm was contagious. "The Judaica exhibit was very intimate," Adrienne told me. "I worked a wonderful woman on gathering the pieces and was truly touched as I listened to conversations from visitors who reflected on the history of the Jewish communities in Bridgeport and then Fairfield."
The research and creativity that she used to bring "It's a Hit!" to life is evident in every inch of that exhibit. The museum received a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council and sponsorships from GE, The Bank of Fairfield, The Bridgeport Bluefish, WSHU radio and Fairfield University. Adrienne reached out to relatives of baseball players, The Library of Congress, and collectors to build the exhibit. And she probably received more than enough materials and she recognizes that there was just so much space.
Last Sunday during our Father's Day opening celebration, I people intently exploring our South Gallery, filled with baseball memorabilia, including a radio that broadcasts through motion detection and viewing an incredible mural that I believe came from the Library of Congress, among other items, was very exciting to me. I can't even say how Adrienne must have felt, but her appearance seemed to reflect pure pleasure and satisfaction.
The Dugout in our north gallery is another of Adrienne's creative triumphs -- she set up a group of many of Connecticut players, including African Americans, women and little leaguers including a picture and vignettes of their careers.
People like Walt, who grew up in Fairfield and volunteered at the former historical society on Old Post Road while he was growing up and became a museum employee in 2004, is a brilliant historian and one of the most interesting and colorful people I've ever met. I could listen to Walt for hours and have to admit that this piece can hardly do him justice. But when visitors come to the museum, they should not leave without meeting Walt.
In addition to doing re-enactments for many years, Walt works with schools and other groups coming to the museum. He is a Fairfield history encyclopedia.
This week while I was working on this piece, Walt explained about the various buildings that the museum manages, including the barn and cottage on the grounds, which Walt said was built in the 1880s out of Gothic carpentry. The museum manages those buildings, along with the Ogden House and the Sun Tavern, a small, white building to the right on the back side of our building and on the Green.
He said that taverns are generally known through the names of their owners and the Sun Tavern was actually Penfield's Tavern. If I understood Walt correctly, because not everyone read in those days, the tavern was recognizable from its insignia -- a rising sun. "It's actually a very small tavern as those establishments grow, and like so many historical places, some historians tried to claim that George Washington slept there," Walt told me. We're still not sure.
Christine, thanks to grants and donations has created amazing and creative education programs for students, adults and seniors, as well as active school vacation camps for grades 1-8. She's currently preparing for summer camp.
Her schedule is hectic and harried, and when she's not training new volunteers for the museum, as she did just yesterday, she's running a wonderful girls club or programs for schools. Her plate is full and she still maintains a steady pace and gets the work done beautifully.
The first of our baseball programs with local author Don Harrison (Connecticut Baseball -- The Best of the Nutmeg State) was exciting, interesting and lively. And the events over the next three months, including the museum's huge fall festival on Sept. 12, will keep Christine on overdrive.
The museum provides educational programs to schools in and around Fairfield County, and helps to enrich the cultural and social life of the area.
It has quickly become an integral part of Fairfield, serving thousands of visitors every year. And Caroline, our visitor's services manager is the friendly and knowledgeable face all visitors see when they enter the building.
Rod Mackenzie handles the incredible genealogy library, which is a buried treasure all its own. Mackenzie started at the historical society some 30 years ago and still operates at a high-adrenaline level. Have a quirky question like the new Fairfield Tavern asked a couple of weeks ago about whether taverns of old placed lanterns outside at night to alert travelers that food was still being served? Rod has the answer.
The last time we talked, he was working on building interest in the east cemetery on the edge of the museum grounds for walking tours. And he coordinated the tours of the cemetery at Greenfield Hill during the recent Dogwood Festival.
This museum is your museum, Fairfield. I have learned so much in a short time and encourage everyone to experience this special place located on Beach Road just after town hall and barely three houses down. Check us out on the website (www.fairfieldhs.org).
Steven Gaynes can be reached at email@example.com and at his office in the Fairfield Museum, 370 Beach Road, Fairfield.