Westport Historical Society May Soon Be History

Last month, the Westport Arts Center unveiled its new name.

It moved from Riverside Avenue to the Norwalk border — and rebranded itself as MoCA Westport. (As in “Museum of Contemporary Art.”)

It’s not the only longtime Westport institution to shed its well-known name.

Sometime soon, the Westport Historical Society will be known as the “Westport Museum for History and Culture.”

Extremely alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor spotted the change in an intriguing way. The official state website’s Film, TV & Digital Media page has a section devoted to “Producing in Connecticut.”

The listing for “Westport Historical Society & Museum” — interestingly, the “& Museum” appears nowhere on the WHS’ own website or logo — says simply, “Soon to be renamed Westport Museum for History & Culture.”

Someone at the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development knows something the rest of Westport does not.

I emailed WHS — er, WMHC — executive director Ramin Ganeshram for comment. When is it happening? I asked. What are the reasons?

She was at a conference in Philadelphia, but got right back to me.

“We will be issuing a formal press release prior to our September 28 benefit
when it will be announced, and would be happy to fully comment at that time,” she said. “May I ask how you came to know the same?”

I sent her the CT.gov link.

“Thanks!” she replied. “Happy to discuss in detail with formal announcement. ”

I guess that’s all we’ll know until then. Stay tuned for that historic moment.

Westport Historical Society, on Avery Place.

34 responses to “Westport Historical Society May Soon Be History

  1. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 BA, MA, JDE

    New tag line: “History? Faggedaboudit!!!!” Culture?: “Conspicuous Consumption.” Avery Place HQ to be torn down. Rest rooms need to be updated. South Beach contractor interested in bidding for the job.

  2. Could the outfit be more pretentious….who the hell do you think you are?
    What embarrassing nonsense!

  3. Well said Dan Katz. You captured my thoughts exactly. Utterly pretentious and replete with unearned self importance. Come Home WHS: it appears that you have forgotten who you are and where you come from.

  4. In this great ongoing quest for more significant meaning, maybe the whole town should change its name to “Westport & Saugatuck”- like the train conductors used to announce.

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70 BA, MA, JDE

    It’s not historical – It’s hysterical

  6. Wendy Crowther

    Perhaps, a la Prince the musician, the Town of Westport and all of its organizations should just continue their “rebranding” missions by no longer using their names at all. Instead they can use Town Hall’s new, melted W symbol. We can then call ourselves “The Town formerly known as Westport.”

  7. It is, and always should remain WESTPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY. Or as we used to refer to it when I was president, “The Hysterical Society”. Ah, for thé good old days!

  8. Dan, I see you are an honorary member of the WHS Advisory Committee along with some other intelligent locals. Did you get asked for your opinion? Seems terribly pretentious.

  9. Is this supposed to make residents feel better about WHS’s recent decision to put its archives behind a $40 an hour paywall?

    • Well this certainly helps explains why the WHS suddenly and without warning instituted their $40 an hour paywall. This at a time when most Historical Societies and Archives – like the National Archives — continue to steadfastly make their material available to researchers for free or for a nominal sum for admission and printing costs. Clearly such a vaunted “Cultural Museum” (whatever that is) is going to cost a lot of money to maintain.

      But this new branding attempt also helps explain why, when serious questions were raised last Spring during the Town budget deliberations about their problematic “no strings attached sweetheart funding deal”, the WHS fought so hard to keep it in. They succeeded in continuing to receive annual taxpayer funds with absolutely no reporting to the Town required. No audited financial statements asked for or submitted. The Town held the WHS to no standard of accountability whatsoever.

      But what was most amazing, when it was pointed out that this highly unusual sweetheart deal has been awarded annually to the WHS since at least 1985 not a single objection was voiced by any member of the BOF or the RTM.

      One can only hope that now with the news that the WHS is morphing into a “Cultural Museum” that these annual “no string attached” taxpayer gifts will FINALLY be ended.

  10. I am also curious to know why it is being changed to a museum? Is it because of the new membership with the American Alliance of Museums and New England Museum Association?

  11. I must say I was not expecting the reactions here when I passed on the information to Dan that I had stumbled upon while checking out film locations listed at the site of the CT Film Office.

    I am interested in hearing the rationale for the proposed name change. When my wife and I lived in NYC, we enjoyed going to both the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York.

    Last fall we saw excellent exhibits at both; one, “Black Citizenship in the Era of Jim Crow,” was at the New-York Historical Society. The scope of the displays at the NYHS was not limited to events in NYC—which might be something for the WHS to consider even if it is looking to expand the range of subject matter in future exhibits. In other words, “Historical Society” has continued to work for the NYHS.

  12. Chip Stephens SHS 73

    Time everyone here in the Land of OZ looked behind that curtain. What you may see is the mass exodus of long time WHS board members, volunteers, and many important financial supporters over the past couple years. This is a shame as the HISTORICAL society was Westport’s history on display and living archive. Now it’s another coffee /wifi stop with exhibits that have little to do with the rich history of Westport/Saugatuck/Greens Farms/ Machamux/Bankside.

  13. Can you name another historical society that charges 40 dollars an hour just to see if anything they have in their archives is something you’re interested in? The Fairfield History Museum charges a totally fair flat 5 dollars for entry to its facility – including its archives. Ridgefield HS can’t do enough for you – for free. They’ll even (cheerfully) dig up, scan and email historic images – in minutes. No charge. No angry tirades from self important staff. At present, the taxpayers are sending $7,500.00 to WHS every year. And at this point, no one even knows what it’s for. Either way, it’s totally reasonable and appropriate to ask what we’re getting in return.
    That’s not judgement. That’s life.

    • I’m not sure that making it (strangely) personal is appropriate. As it happens, I’m a 12th generation Westporter who has personally formed the majority of the Local Historic Districts in this town. And I have donated quite a bit of my time over the years to WHS as well. The simple fact is that non-profits which receive taxpayer funds (such as Earthplace) are required to explain what they do with those funds – and what taxpayers may expect in return. That did not happen. Is there some reason why WHS should be treated differently?

  14. Quite an Ad Hominem response. Entitled? Self-respect? If you’re speaking on behalf of WHS, this is not persuasive.

  15. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 BA, MA, JDE

    It’s not the cost, in Westport everything is expected to be expensive. It’s the “title inflation prevention. I hate to keep picking on the South Beach Latrine, but it makes more sense to call it the Human Waste Contemplation Facility than the “rebranding” of the WHS.

  16. Mary Schmerker

    I have considered responding. I finally decided to. I feel that what I am about to share may be a little “snarky” but here goes….
    When I was last in Westport I stopped in at the Historical Society with what I thought they might like as a donation. They were not interested. What I had just wasn’t “Westport enough” for them. I guess I am happy they turned me down. Guess I’ll check with someone else to see if they are interested. What did I have to offer? “The Connecticut Cook Book” published in 1943 as a wartime effort by the Woman’s Club of Westport. Not all the contributors were from Westport. For instance Claire Boothe Luce took the time to submit at least three recipes. 24 Artists donated illustrations. Parke Cummings wrote the forward. There are all kinds of cooking hints and of course it was wartime so there are lots of hints about substitutions. You know probably one or two of those artists probably did not live in Westport. So….. Now I’m off to count the number of generations of mine that lived in Fairfield County. Morley probably has me beat. The last relative died last year and we were transplanted , unfortunately, years ago.

  17. Suzanne Braley

    Would be interested to see a response from whatever its name is

  18. Bonnie Bradley

    Mary, I appreciate your comment and totally understand your feelings of dismay at the attitude you encountered at the Westport Historical Society.
    The people there have always been completely dismissive of my Bradley
    family too, of our participation in town affairs as well as our significant contributions for the town’s benefit. I will mention a couple of examples:

    My grandfather JPB was active for all of his life in Westport town gov’t and community affairs, and was the premier supporter of the Westport All Stars softball team which played in Chicago in the final game for the national championship. My father was active and successful at the highest levels of Connecticut politics. My mother Ina Bradley was president of the Westport Woman’s club more than once and is still revered by the Club members. She was an icon at the Playhouse. Over the years, my mother sometimes tried to interest the Historic Society in Bradley artifacts, etc. and was repeatedly met with the same denial and disinterest you encountered. “Connecticut Cook Book” is an outstanding account of life in the town in the day. My mother had a copy and I remember it well. It deserves availability as a historic record.

    The real name of “their” historic house was the Bradley-Wheeler House.
    My ancestors lived there and a Bradley built the octagon stone barn. One day, without notice or explanation, the Bradley name was eliminated.

    What a shame that your generosity was dismissed out of hand.
    I understand your feelings but for myself, I don’t care. It’s their loss, though unfortunately, a loss for the people of Westport too. Too bad.

    • Bonnie and Mary Lou, Thank you for sharing your unfortunate experiences at the hands of the WHS. Clearly, this organization lost its way a long time ago. The painful combination of its tone deafness and hubris is perfectly personified by its latest incarnation as a “Cultural Museum”. And Bonnie, please know that for those of us who know and love our Westport history – it is and will always remain the Bradley-Wheeler House.

      • Mary Cookman Schmerker

        Thank you John and Bonnie. I certainly know the Bradley contribution to Westport’s history and also knew that it was the Bradley – Wheeler house. One of Westport’s prettiest. I felt and still feel a little snarky for mentioning the way I was dismissed. Yes Bonnie, the Connecticut Cookbook is a treasure of both Westport and the times. I haven’t checked every recipie but half expect to see your mother’s name on one. Gertrude Heyn is a contributor as are many other names that you and I both recognize.
        The illustrations are precious. By the way, when I look at what might happen to the “Bridge Street Bridge” I often think to my self: Where is J. Kenneth Bradley when we need him? He was so helpful when the Thruway went through saving many properties.

      • Go John!
        Their experience surely exemplifies the attitude shown by the chosen name change.

        • Yes, Dan Katz, we are in complete agreement on the serious problems with the WHS. And Fred Cantor and those others who may, like you, be rightfully wondering what exactly precipitated this outpouring of complaints in response to the WHS’s still unannounced pending name change, I would point you to this published interview that the WHS Executive Director gave last July.


          Incredibly, in it the Executive Director actually threatened the town with privatizing town public records if the town were to cease to pay its annual $7,500 “no strings attached” taxpayer payments. And by “privatizing” she clearly means putting it behind their new $40 an hour paywall. Absent in her remarks were any thanks for the years of unrestricted funding from the town going back to at least 1985. Absent also was what one would normally expect in such an awkward situation – the gracious and prompt return of the towns property to the town. No, instead the current leadership of the WHS sought to play hardball and threaten the town with holding hostage the towns own records. Pay up or else! Welcome to the WHS’s new world order. BOF and RTM I sure hope that you are listening this budget season.

  19. Bonnie Bradley

    I woke up this morning with regret, that my comments may have seemed like bragging about my family, the last thing I wished to express. I was fired up by indignation at the manner in which Mary Schmerker was treated when her motives were simply a fine gesture toward enriching the significant history of Westport. When in passion’s grip, step back and take a breath. Lesson learned.

    The history of Westport is important. The people who lived there since its beginnings made the town the special place it is. I believe that the role of a historic site and collection should be to preserve and make available to the public the story of the people who came before us, their lives, their success, their failures – who are we and how did we get to where we are…

    My Bradley family is simply one branch on the great tree of Westport’s history. They did what many others did: they stepped forward, they pitched in, in ways large and small. I used their accomplishments to make that point.

    • You don’t need to apologize for how you feel, Bonnie. I read your comments and did not think that they were in any way inappropriate. In fact, I was glad to learn more about your family’s important contributions and appreciated that you took the time to share them with the 06880 community. With regard to the rejected cookbook that Mary Lou described and the dismissed family items you mentioned, it also concerns me that donated materials which may end up in the WHS archives would potentially only be accessible to those willing and able to pay 40 dollars an hour to see them. In a way, it almost seems as if our history has been taken hostage and is being held for ransom.

    • I don’t think anyone thought you were bragging, Bonnie. The Bradley name is important — and you reminded us why it is so important to remember the past!

    • I found your comment very interesting.
      Thanks for posting…

  20. Thank you Dan, Morley, John Suggs, Dan Katz, Bob Stalling and others who were supportive of my comments. I appreciate your kindness and understanding.

  21. I don’t read any comments here asking “why?”. You know, like “seek first to understand.”

    My impression is that there are usually two reasons why institutions change: 1) they need to financially; or, 2) there is new leadership with a new vision.

    As to #1 “needing to” – life is pretty hard on non-profits these days, particularly of the “traditional” variety. I can easily see the leadership being forced into trying something new. If you want an idea of the “market” for tradition, try selling a once-“priceless” (mahogany) heirloom 😉

    As to #2 – I recall that the new executive director is in office for eighteen months now. So it’s reasonable to assume that she has done some thinking and come up with a vision that supports the name change. It’s safe to say that this vision is for more users, not less 😉

    While I don’t know about the Arts Center, dropping “center” (as it is a center for artists), I can imagine that “society” is an ill fit for getting more visitors to embrace Westport’s History. I would love to hear about the nuts and bolts for the decision to be a “museum” and what it means for their positioning, strategy, operations, and viability if any. It would be cool to have museums in town. Are there any others?

    Personally, I would welcome more reasons to go to both. And I also understand how hard it is to navigate today’s economy and changing user tastes. I wish them the best possible future because I think they are two great town institutions. And I am sure their leaderships do too! – Chris Woods

  22. I hope that someone can explain to me how public records of the Town of Westport can be designated private by the Historical Society?

    • Mr. Dunnigan, the point isn’t how payments are classified. It’s that nobody ever made the decision that the Westport Historical Society should be subsidized by the taxpayers (plenty of other local non-profits are not). Further, the Society has not supplied financial information as is customary.

      As an aside, you’d think this organization would be grateful for the money – which adds up to about a quarter of a million dollars over the past few decades. But it’s hard to detect that in the reported comments
      by WHS officials.

      The annual payment to WHS – which is buried deep in the fees and services section of the town budget – was never about “storage fees”. In reality, the tax documents are duplicates and are on file in the Town Clerk’s Office. And the department heads whose “records” WHS was “storing” all these years were absolutely stunned to learn of the scheme when it was brought to their attention recently.

      I’ll leave it to you to work out what was really going on.