A Q&A with Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky
By David Brensilver
The Arts Paper spoke recently with the New Haven Museum’s executive director, Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky, who began serving in that capacity on February 1, 2012. What follows is an edited transcript of an e-mail interview conducted in late May.
Q: What elements of the museum’s holdings most intrigued you upon first exploring the collection?
A: The New Haven Museum is in the midst of its 150th anniversary celebration. It was founded in November 1862 as the New Haven Colony Historical Society. … I’m fascinated by the stories objects tell, or could potentially tell, which is even more important because they have been taken out of context — no longer in their original settings, or fulfilling their original (design) function. … Historian Laura Macaluso mentions quite a few of our more interesting collection pieces in her new book, Historic Treasures of New Haven: 375 Years of Celebrating the Elm City.
Q: Are there photographs—or series of photographs —in the museum’s collection of 75,000 images that are particularly compelling in terms of the city’s history?
A: The collections range from daguerreotypes of New Haveners—many whose names we know—to modern prints on paper. The photographers were all local, some professional, with commercial studios on Chapel Street, while others were men of means for whom photography was a serious hobby. Some collections, such as the H. Rossiter Snyder Collection, contain images of surrounding towns such as East Haven and Branford, and old houses in shoreline communities such as Madison, Guilford, and Milford. The Baltrush, Bradley, and Bronson Collections are good documentation of the city at the turn of the 20th century. The street scenes are so compelling. The New Haven Redevelopment Agency Photo Archive is an extensive documentation of New Haven’s built environment, as it was during the 1950s through early 1970s. There is a record of every block, every structure, in the project areas, before, during, and after redevelopment. That collection exceeds some 10,000 prints and negatives.
Q: What aspects of the city’s history are captured in the images given to the museum by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency—and when was that gift received?
A: For good or bad, (the history) of a vanished New Haven, its buildings and people. But more so, of the city when it was whole, before the urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s removed large swaths of the built environment, and disrupted lives and livelihoods. But the photos also capture a certain optimism of that era … It is an important record of how the city was shaped and transformed by redevelopment. We are extremely lucky to house such an archive. The museum received the collection in the 1980s.
Q: How can residents explore these images?
A: The photo archives are open to researchers by appointment (contact firstname.lastname@example.org). The general visitor to our website can read a brief description of each photo collection and manuscript collection, as well as view several images. The exception is the Dana Collection, which consists of 150 scrapbooks of New Haven history compiled by Arnold G. Dana, came to us upon his death in 1947. The pages have been scanned and can be accessed in the Whitney Library … We’ve also made a number of Redevelopment Agency photos available online through cthistoryonline.org, which is a terrific resource.
Q: You’ve said that the museum’s Wooster Square exhibit and the neighborhood’s history reflect the history of the city itself. Would you talk about what the exhibit captures in terms of the rise and fall of the city’s industrial and manufacturing sectors, immigration to New Haven, urban renewal, and historic preservation?
A: With its architectural legacy, pervasive feeling of community, preservation spirit, and storied resiliency in the face of urban renewal … Wooster Square was an exciting choice for the museum’s third neighborhood show. The story of Wooster Square can be seen the history of the city itself, beginning with the expansion east beyond the original nine squares to the New Township area. The rise and fall of industrial New Haven can be seen in Wooster Square … Named for fallen Revolutionary War hero David Wooster, the neighborhood grew up “at the confluence of the city’s major rail and shipping facilities” (Rae, The City) … Around the public square titans of industry built large homes designed by the city’s premier architects, while factory workers settled in dwellings along side streets en route to the factories. Successive waves of immigration brought Irish, Scots, Lithuanians, Polish, Swedes, French Canadians, and Italians to Wooster Square, to work in factories and the construction trades. Its decline into New Haven’s third-largest slum area, following factory closings before World War II, made it ripe for redevelopment by the city’s urban planners during the 1950s and 1960s, who targeted the area for highway construction. Efforts to save the neighborhood, including its fabled square and significant architecture, rallied the city’s preservationists, with The New Haven Preservation Trust taking a leadership role. This activity led to its designation as the city’s first local historic district in 1970, and listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Q: The Whitney Library itself is a historical treasure. Would you explain to our readers who the library’s users are, how extraordinary a resource it is, and what documents are available in its collection?
A: The library started as a reading room, open only to members. When it was established as a library in the Grove Street building, our second owned home, it was still only open to members. We see about 800 visitors a year, and 1000 remote users (inquiries by phone, mail, and Internet). Today, two-thirds of remote users are from New Haven County, about three-quarters are from Connecticut. It wasn’t until 1969 during a fundraising campaign that it was named the Whitney Library in honor of Eli and Sarah Farnum Whitney. The son of the inventor was a charter member of the society and left the society its first bequest in 1898. The holdings exceed 30,000 volumes, 320 manuscript collections, as well as architectural drawings, maps, broadsides, newspapers, and other items. The Whitney Library and holdings are integral to the collections of the New Haven Museum and are an important source of material for exhibitions, publications, and programs. From the original town records of 1649, to modern institutional records into the 21th century, the library is the premier repository for research in the Greater New Haven area. In addition to the bibliographic catalog, the library offers two publications, Guide to Manuscripts and Archives in the Whitney Library (1988 and supplement) and the Seton Guide to Industrial Holdings in the Whitney Library (2001). The library’s significant holdings are used by some 2,000 researchers each year. In fy11, library users were from New Haven, Connecticut, and the northeast; approximately one-third were from elsewhere around the United States. They sought information on genealogy, architecture, business and legal history, and many other topics.
Q: What types of materials were included in the original 1862 gifts made to the library—and which among them holds particular interest for you?
A: (The following pertains to both the museum and the library.) Early gifts to the society included Noah Webster’s writing table (bookcase and books), Benedict Arnold’s account book, relics from the Battlefield of Gettysburg, election sermons, atlases, city directories, maps, scholarly papers, eulogies, John Warner Barber’s account of the Amistad trial … The world’s first telephone directory—a one-pager entitled List of Subscribers, dated February 21, 1878, New Haven Preservation Trust survey of 4,600 New Haven buildings executed between 1979 and 1984, broadsides, trade cards, (and) Eli Whitney’s letter to his father, asking for money. He was a student at Yale and was to have sold his horse en route from home to school and was unable to do so. Boarding the horse in town was too costly, so he was experiencing financial difficulty. Priceless.
Q: Talk if you would about the museum’s educational programs and how they introduce the region’s students to the city’s history and the museum itself. How many students would you estimate come through the museum’s doors each year?
A: Between school visits and in-school programs, we see just under 2,000 students. Our offerings include programs here at the museum, using the collections and primary source materials from the Whitney Library, that … look at more than 375 years of local history (to help students) understand why New Haven evolved as it did and looks the way it does today. … Our education director, Michelle Cheng, has been working with Sandra Clark, social studies supervisor for New Haven Public Schools, to bring teachers here for training and (to) introduce teachers … to our resources and help them meet Common Core standards. With Gretchen M. Gurr, high school teacher at Hillhouse High School, we’ve initiated History Day workshops for parents, teachers, and students, to encourage students to explore local history topics. Last year we made a commitment to offer more programs for families. For example, we piloted a walking tour for families of Wooster Square, for Preservation Month, partnering with the New Haven Preservation Trist and the Historic Wooster Square Association.
Q: How much of the museum’s collection has been digitized?
A: Across all the collections, we have digital images for perhaps 28,000 items. About a quarter of the photo archive has been scanned. As requests for images are received from the public, scholars, researchers, architects, city planners, etc., we’ll have objects professionally photographed or items scanned at high resolution. We do have a visual record of almost our entire painting collection and some of the decorative arts.
Q: What were the circumstances under which the museum was founded?
A: The museum was founded on November 14, 1862, as the New Haven Colony Historical Society, in the new City Hall, designed by architect Henry Austin. A group of 28 men assembled there at the invitation of then mayor Harmanus M. Welch. Superintendent of public schools Horace Day is generally credited with spearheading the efforts to found a historical society; the organizing meeting had been held a month earlier at the home of William A. Reynolds, a direct descendant of the Rev. John Davenport. In 1638, Davenport and the merchant Theophilus Eaton, a childhood friend, arrived on these shores from England with 500 followers. Reynolds’ house stood on the site of Davenport’s cellar. The historical society was founded “to be a useful public project” and was “open to all who may wish to unite with it.” This was during the midst of the Civil War. New Haven was undergoing change, there was uncertainty, and people wanted to ensure the preservation of the city’s long history. … The society was chartered on June 17, 1863. Three women were among the founding members. Interestingly, Mayor Welch was the president of New Haven Clock Co., and among other founding members were Congressman James English, who later became governor. English owned a lumber company and had ties to Wooster Square; his house on Chapel Street was designed by Henry Austin.
Q: What events has the museum held for its 150th anniversary?
A: We celebrated with a birthday party last November, a “friendraiser,” to signify the resurgence here at (the) museum. Since then we’ve had three lectures by noted experts, highlighting some aspect of the collection. … In July we will present potter Guy Wolf, at the Pardee-Morris House. We expect to cap off our year with a gala on November 16. We also launched a new lecture series, “Heroes & Villains,” which has been enormously popular, and inspired our Benedict Arnold doll, made by New Haven artist Chen Reichert, of Late Great Dolls.