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Friday, April 29, 2011

Man About Town: Fairfield Museum a Town Treasure

Man About Town: Fairfield Museum a Town Treasure
(column for April 29 Fairfield Citizen news)
By Mike Lauterborn

With a new mission of focusing my Man About Town adventures on some of Fairfield’s institutional anchors, it struck me that Fairfield Museum and History Center was an ideal candidate to profile.

The organization started life in 1903 as the Fairfield Historical Society, begun by Reverend Frank S. Child, the minister at First Congregational Church and a history buff. The first meeting was held at his home, which is now referred to as the Sherman Parsonage, on Old Post Road.

For the first half of the century, the group housed historical materials at Fairfield Memorial Library. Artifacts at that time were mainly manuscripts and letters donated by early noted families.

In 1955, a dedicated building was constructed at 636 Old Post Road, across from Old Town Hall and the Town Green. Honoring Oliver Gould Jennings, the two-level structure held offices, a library and exhibit space that allowed the Society to increase its collection to include textiles, furniture, agricultural items, paintings and more.

By the turn of the century, the Society realized it was outgrowing its space and decided to build a new facility at 370 Beach Road, essentially 300 yards south of the old property, behind the Sun Tavern.

The new 13,000-square-foot building opened in Sept. 2007 and today maintains an educational classroom, offices, lobby, timber-framed meeting hall, three gallery spaces, a library and a gift shop.

“This is a unique place to not only see and learn about the town but the people that lived here,” said Walter Matis, a Program and Volunteer Coordinator. “It also allows us to gain perspective on where we’ve been as a town and where we’re headed, which is important when certain town issues arise, and just to appreciate the town.”

From a programming perspective, there’s boundless opportunity, from vacation week camps, summer camps, author talks, a book club, walking tours and, of course, exhibits, which are continually rotating. May brings the “IMAGES” exhibit, which features the photographic work of Bill Eppridge, as well as juried entries from amateur and professional photographers.

Besides museum-led activities, the space is often rented to outside groups including charities, private clubs and wedding parties.

Matis said the facility is much more than a traditional museum. “We’re not just celebrating the past, but exploring issues across the board that are controversial or hot topics,” said Matis.

A patron, Aksenia Mace, of Fairfield, said, “The museum is a wonderful contribution to the town, especially for children. It gives them a sense of roots and makes them feel like they belong to a place with a past, but with a perspective on the present and future, too.”

Visiting from Montreal, Boris Terziev, said, “There’s an interesting landscape of homes in the area and it’s fun to learn about the history behind them and some of the indigenous peoples. This is a very New England experience for anyone not from the area.”

Browsers often make a gift shop stop to purchase a memento, though the shop offers much more. The shop’s new manager, Bobbie Sue Russell, who is in the process of reworking the space to be more open and accessible, said, “You can find a wide array of Fairfield souvenirs, but also works by local artisans, one-of-a-kind jewelry, home d├ęcor, wedding gifts and children’s books.”

But it’s the educational focus that has helped the museum gain prominence. “A lot of our activities are inspired by and reinforce themes of our exhibits, exploring deeper connections. For instance, a recent maritime exhibit inspired map making, orienteering and sharing into how sailors lived.”

As young students arrived for an afternoon program, I checked my compass and pushed off to explore other Fairfield mainstays.

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