Renovation plans aim for re-invigoration

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The poet, novelist and civil rights activist Robert Penn Warren once said, “The past is always a rebuke to the present.” In the case of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn., the idea is to make the past alive in the present.

The poet, novelist and civil rights activist Robert Penn Warren once said, “The past is always a rebuke to the present.” In the case of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn., the idea is to make the past alive in the present.

Starting this summer, the Connecticut River Museum will begin a complete renovation of its facilities that will take visitors through the 400 years of history that occurred on the river and its banks.

“We want to show people that history is more than a paragraph in a dusty book,” says executive director Jerry Roberts. “When visitors walk into the first floor of the museum, the first thing they will see is a map of the river, showing the entire length through the four states [New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut].”

Roberts envisions an electronic map that would also display Canada and Long Island Sound, along with the locations of all the major colonial settlements along the river. Visitors could press a button and learn about each settlement and the historical events that happened in each place.

“That sets the stage we are playing on,” says Roberts. “It’s not just this sleepy little town of Essex; it encompasses a much wider scope.”

Roberts says the next screen would give visitors a sense of the players on the stage by introducing who lived by the river. A person would press a button and an American Indian would appear, saying, “This land is my land,” and give the history of what tribe he was from, where he settled and when. Then a Dutch man would come in saying, “This land is my land,” and discuss how the Dutch later settled in the area. Then there would be an Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, and so on, showing how this area of America became a melting pot of cultures.

“The idea is that it is all our country,” says Roberts. “It is a way for people to relate personally to history.”

Planned throughout the museum will be “Windows on History,” which will be flat screen monitors set near the windows of the building that will show what was happening from the current view of the window from different periods of time. For instance, if a person touched 1633 on the screen, it would show the first British ship that sailed up the river, because it was a main transit route for cargo to and from Long Island Sound. Many different ships, from schooners and later steam boats, went past the harbor on which the museum is located.

“This is a 420-mile river; everything passed here,” says Roberts. “We are right here where it all happened.”

Roberts says he wants to emphasize that the museum is not about Essex, Conn., but about the river and all that it connects. He explains that right on the museum property ships were built to trade with the West Indies to bring back sugarcane and spices. An estimated 4,000 ships were built in the vicinity of Essex.

Other aspects of history will include the age of steam and yachting with displays on the second floor, and a discovery trail along the way for children that will include fun activities and a “Passport to History” that can be stamped after the children finish visiting each section.

One aspect of the first floor that will remain the same is the mural of the Burning of the Fleet in 1814 that was painted by modern-day Russell Buckingham, who is originally from Essex.

On April 7 of that year, the British burnt 27 ships that had been built there. In order to create a more dramatic effect, Buckingham had several men who work at the Essex boatyards pose for the painting as British sailors.

“I realized how fond I was of Essex when I found out they have a parade every year celebrating a defeat,” says Roberts, laughing. “We’ve captured the moment when the British Royal Navy and Royal Marines landed on the very shores where this museum was located and told the colonists they weren’t going to hurt them, but steal their supplies — and their rum.”

Roberts hopes in the future to be able to perform a re-enactment of the event in addition to the annual Burning of the Fleet parade, which was celebrated May 10 this year.

Another project in the works is an interactive replica of the Turtle, the first submarine to be built in America by Yale graduate David Bushnell in 1776 used to attack the British flagship, the HMS Eagle. Though it failed in its mission, The Turtle revolutionized American war tactics. The museum has on display a replica that was built in 1976 through the work of Roberts, Fred Frese and Joseph Leary.

In November 2007, the museum launched a second replica built over a four-year period by students at Old Saybrook (Conn.) High School under the supervision of Frese. Unlike the first, this replica is submergible and on Nov. 10, 2007, Navy-trained diver Roy Manstan climbed inside the one-man contraption and successfully submerged the Turtle in the Connecticut River outside the museum. It is now scheduled to appear for exhibition at boat shows in Newport, R.I. and Hartford, with its final destination being the Leighton Lee Museum in Westbrook, Conn.

“What we would like is to create a Turtle that kids could crawl inside of and really get a sense of how it works,” says Roberts. “We also know that the remains of the original Turtle have never been found, but it was originally tested here in the river. It’s a historical mystery that we want to encourage these kids to get involved in.”

Roberts hopes to have all the renovations in place by next summer. Meanwhile, an ongoing exhibit on the third floor will be “Messing About in Boats,” a look at the history of yachting on the Connecticut River sponsored by North Sails Group, LLC that will run through October.

“For history to have any meaning, people need to understand it is alive, in the now,” says Roberts. “History is all around us. It’s just knowing where to look.”

www.ctrivermuseum.org