Historical Society: Over 2 Years, Quiet Anger Grew

I did not want to publish another story about the Westport Museum for History & Culture (the former Westport Historical Society).

The long-appreciated Avery Place institution has taken a public pummeling, since Monday’s story about the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery in honor of a large contribution from a charitable trust. I ran subsequent stories when former volunteers spoke out. Readers added hundreds of comments. Current museum officials did not respond.

Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I thought Westporters had had their say, and Museum representatives did not want theirs. I did not want another story. It would seem to be “piling on.”

But then I got this email, from a Westporter who spoke with multiple WHS sources. It’s filled with other questions and concerns. It’s been vetted by people with long and deep knowledge of the WHS and WMFH&C.

Much of this information has been talked about quietly in town, for a couple of years. Now — in the aftermath of this week’s controversy — it too becomes part of the public discourse. The resident writes:

The average Westporter has to be confused and questioning the current explosion of outrage towards the Westport Historical Society.

How did the renaming issue cause over 200 “06880” followers to take time to express outrage? Did this outburst of frustration and anger arise out of nowhere?

No. Distress over the recent direction of the WHS has been going on for a while. There has been little public outcry, but much angst and a sense of hopelessness.

One of the early chapters of the outrage began when the new executive director dismissed — by email — a senior employee, after 20-plus years of service to the gift shop. She was told it was being phased out.

But within weeks the shop was reopened, staffed by a younger employee.

A wide collection of books on sale at the Westport Historical Society, in 2014. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Concurrently, most longtime “period rooms” were eliminated. At the same time, many donated pieces of Westport historical value (not necessarily monetary worth) were sold or trashed — summarily and quietly, without donor notification.

The next chapter was longer and more painful. Individual by individual, longtime board members, volunteers and large donors were quietly pushed out.

Many people who had given so much over so many years were shown the door. They were too proud, too humble and/or too civil to push back in a public forum.  They stayed in touch as one by one they went down — but they did not go public.

The advisory board experienced the same treatment.

As the next chapter evolved, certain groups that supported and enhanced the WHS were pushed aside. This included some artists who had exhibit commitments in writing and were already being promoted in the media. Despite their hurt, they too stayed quiet.

Residents became the next focus. Last year, people who were used to accessing archives and files of the WHS –and amazingly, town officials too — were suddenly told it was now necessary to schedule in advance. In addition, they would have to pay $40 an hour.

Then came the unilateral renaming of a Westport institution. Quickly, and with surprisingly little outcry, the Westport Historical Society was to become the Westport Museum for History & Culture. That opened the door to government funding, negating much of the need for local volunteerism and donations.  Both were pillars of the WHS, which gave the WHS purpose and strength.

The latest, but not the final, chapter came this week with the revelation of the renaming of a section named for a longtime Westport family that donated countless hours, as well as generous funds, for decades.

Now it is to be renamed for a new donation from a well-meaning foundation, which could not have imagined that the quiet revelation of the news would release the outrage built up over the past 2 years.

One can hope that this is the last chapter that returns the WHS to its constituency: its volunteers and its participants. WHS, are you listening?

74 responses to “Historical Society: Over 2 Years, Quiet Anger Grew

  1. Dan Woog wrote,
    “Concurrently, most longtime ‘period rooms’were eliminated. At the same time, many donated pieces of Westport historical value (not necessarily monetary worth) were sold or trashed“ If this is true, we need TWO resignations tomorrow! There are two items I gave to the WHS, and I’m coming up to Connecticut in February and I want both back! It’s outrageous that items were trashed. We need clarification and resignations!

    • Tom Duquette, SHS '75

      Wow Dan, this is significant information so no need to apologize for posting. I hesitate to politicize this issue but are we sure the new director isn’t a Trump family member of some sort? Their playbook as you have described has the Trump M.O. all over it. Eradicate the past administration’s policies and achievements and replace them with the anything that’s diametrically opposed to the very charter of that organization.

      • Except that the Executive Director, Ramin Ganeshram, is a registered Democrat in a Democrat run town in a Democrat run state.
        Other than that, you were close…

      • Elina Lublinsky

        With all due respect, sir – is this a real comment?

        I fail to see a connection to politics, despite my best effort.

  2. Thanks Dan for keeping this story alive

    I have read some but not all of the comments
    Can someone quickly explain how those in charge became in charge and if no resignations are submitted how can WHS be returned to those who want to persevere “its” history

  3. Again where is our selectpeoppe and the administration on this…

  4. It’s very obvious that the current Administration has a Political Agenda that in the end will destroy the original purpose of the Historical Society . We’ve seen Statues torn down, the trashing of the Founding Fathers, and the re-writing of American History. We now see it here in Town and these “Activists” have to go.

  5. Janette Kinnally

    This has been my issue with our leadership in this town. They are never addressing the big elephant in the room, until it gets to this point of outrage from the community. Well the community has a chance to speak up next weekend at the – State of the town public forum next Sunday 2-3:30pm at Town Hall. I hope many people show up for this meeting and all express their opinions and let Jim Marpe and BOE member Candice Savin know how the Westport community feels about this publicly.

    • This is excellent advice, Janette. I fully agree.

    • Exactly right, Janette.

      It’s as if, at times, we’re being governed against our will. Like the bloodless coup at the Westport Museum of Grievance and Social Justice, stuff just happens.

      For instance, earlier this week I attended a meeting of the ARB/HDC re: the appallingly inappropriate and wildly expensive new town-wide signage that is proposed by the administration for Westport. At one point in the meeting, the question was asked of the consultant that was presenting: “you mentioned earlier that you incorporated blue and orange into this sign program because those are Westport’s brand colors; could you tell us who came up these colors because this is the first I’ve heard of such a thing?”

      The consultant had no idea where the colors came from. And no one on the ARB/HDC did either. Ditto for the ridiculous, corporate-like melted “W” that was pasted all over the proposed signage. All the consultant could say was “the Town of Westport recently re-branded itself and we were told to use these things”.

      Oh.

      I was tempted to ask whether or not we had possibly received a large donation from someone in Weston. But then I’d be shoved out.

      • Exactly right with the signs and branding that completely look like a New Jersey mall. Orange blue and black.
        Hundreds of thousands in consultant and design fees. Who’s paying for that and who decided? The W logo is insulting and all of this completely dishonors and displaces Westport as everything it used to be.

    • Maybe Dan can make sure all comments next Sunday are printed and made public at the town meeting. The names Trump and Clinton should NOT be a part of this discourse unless one is talking about Clinton Ave.

    • Janette, the public forum on Sunday is at the Westport Library — NOT Town Hall!

      • William Strittmatter

        By all means, folks should go to the state of the town meeting to better understand what is going on with town government and the education system.

        But I am curious what anyone thinks will come of bringing up the WHS which is a non-profit organization unaffiliated with either the town or BOE. Cut off funding completely? Great, but apparently not a large part of revenue. Stop field trips from the schools? Does WHS charge for that?

        If folks want something done, it seems to me they need to become more involve at the WHS level.

        • Well, the museum receives funding from for town. And in recent years (2 years ago? No more than 3) it received an “innovation grant” from the Westport Public Schools. Not sure what field trips could now take place (for a fee) now that the period rooms are gone. But seems entirely worth discussing with our first selectman and BOE chair.

  6. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Tom, your conspiracy theory about the Trump family is possible but if selling out to the highest bidder is involved you can’t rule out the Clintons.

  7. People from the inside need not be on the inside now! One could have worked there for years and left!

  8. The Board needs to remove the Executive Director immediately.

  9. Couldn’t agree with Jack Backiel more.

    This paragraph is just frightening…
    “Concurrently, most longtime “period rooms” were eliminated. At the same time, many donated pieces of Westport historical value (not necessarily monetary worth) were sold or trashed — summarily and quietly, without donor notification.”

    If this is true, the stewards of the Museum or Society have no business being in charge!

  10. It seems the with the re-naming of the Westport Art Center (MOCA) and the Historical Society, the massive construction on the Post Road, as well as the other items mentioned (street signs, etc.) Westport is being changed from a small New England town into a Metro-style city. Or should I say “has been changed?” The character and personality that was so apparent when I moved here in 1983 is gone.

    Whose idea was this, anyway?

    • yup, it may be too late 😦

    • Bobbie, I don’t know who is behind two of the three things you mention, but Selectwoman Melissa Kane appeared to be the applicant for the new, so-called “clean and modern” sign program being reviewed at the ARB/HDC meeting this week. Although, oddly enough, even she did not know where the very commercial looking blue and orange colors had come from and seemed to distance herself from the cheesy melted “W” logo which has been the subject of so much criticism. I feel it is unfortunate that some things which will have a large and lasting impact on our community and which we will be expected to pay for are being hatched quietly behind the scenes -and (it would appear) implemented with little or no public input.

    • Bobbie, Based on all that I observed back in the day, the street signs idea came directly from Melissa Kane. She thought it up, championed it and secured the funding for it. This was her pet vanity project.

      Full Disclosure: I ran against her in the 2017 election, in part, based on my opposition over the issue of these very street signs. I felt then, as I feel now, that they are a waste of taxpayers money. We both lost that election to Jim Marpe. But her pet vanity project lived on.

  11. The cowardice of the current management and board of the the WHS in not responding at all to the overwhelming outcry from the public in Dan’s forums and in Facebook tells you all you need to know about them. They should resign immediately and be replaced by people who respect the community they serve.

  12. If nothing else, paying $40/hour to reference material is very telling of the direction… I have never heard of anything like that…. EVER!!

  13. Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

    Tom Duquette,
    Question for you,
    In your comments about the Westport Historical Society you used phrases,
    “Trump family member of sort” / “Trump M.O. all over it” / “Politicize”
    Are you referring to a Trump family that resides in Westport, or Connecticut.
    I don’t want to assume who you are referring to / thought you would give little more information.
    Thank You
    Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

    • Tom Duquette, SHS '75

      Good morning Gerald. I was referring to the 45th POTUS and his family, not the Westport family. I have long sense moved away from the town and wasn’t aware that there was a local family with that name. Sorry for any confusion.

  14. Regarding Museumgate… I found this article in the Westport News in which the executive director calls her finding the location of George Washington’s cook’s burial site in NYC as the greatest discovery in the history of the Westport Historical Society. https://www.westport-news.com/news/article/Centuries-old-mystery-solved-by-Westport-13851740.php What on earth does this have to do with Westport, much less being the most important discovery in WHS history? I think it is revealing… the homespun and lovable WHS has been hijacked for the purpose of building something entirely different; hence, the support of Westporters does not seem to matter. Or does it? I no longer live locally, but I hope those who are local will attend the State of the Town public forum next Sunday 2-3:30pm at Town Hall, and express your views. I suggest keeping national politics out of it – the Town is remarkably united on this issue, and there is strength from that! The Town leaders will take greater heed if this is a non-partisan issue. Great idea to print out copies of these letters and give to Town officials – someone needs to step up and do that – Dan’s job is to observe and report, not to lead campaigns or play the activist. Thank you Dan for giving Westport this invaluable forum for expressing views, whatever those views may be !!! This is democracy at its best! : – )

  15. Dear Dan, not only must you keep this story alive until you receive some answers from the Selectman and the Board of the Historical Society and the Director of the Historical Society if this outrage is to be reversed kept alive.
    (I and other town artist working with the past Director, Sue Gold,, were verbally promised an exhibition. For 2 years, we worked on preparations only to be told by this new Director that we could not have the exhibition unless we would change the plans as she directed.we subsequently held the exhibition at another town gallery.) THere’s hanky panky of some kind going on there, only by keeping this story alive will anything happen. WHAT BOARD MEMBER HIRED HER?
    The Board must remove the Director before anything will change. Her non response to the Sheffer’s is appalling. Her other directives have been just as appalling.

  16. I think everyone agrees that something stinks. The problem is there were alarms/red flags for some time now, hopefully its not too late but it could be too late. Someone will have to dig up the governing documents of the organization, meeting minutes, potentially engage lawyers, get sworn statements, etc. The question is who is going to do that?

  17. Surely the New York Times would like to know about this trouble in paradise.

    • Thankfully there is now an apology. At least that’s a first step.

      By the way, I wish commenters here would not bring up national political issues or even whatever other changes are happening in town because, from my perspective, that only muddies the waters and detracts from a meaningful examination of the situation at the WMHC.

      The focus should be on whether the management of the WMHC has been conducted in appropriate fashion in the recent past.

      If the description of the firing of the longtime gift shop manager as described above is accurate, that not only seems like the dismissal was handled very poorly, it might very well constitute age discrimination and thus open up the WMHC to legal action.

      The recent annual reports from the WMHC, which are online and I have posted the links to below, are worth reading to get somewhat of a better understanding of the changes going on:

      https://westporthistory.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/WHSAnnualReport2017-2018.pdf

      https://westporthistory.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016-Annual-Meeting-1-29-17.pdf

      https://westporthistory.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Annual-Report-Brochure-2016.pdf

      • I would not call that an apology. It more correctly optimizes “we are so sorry you have discovered you are in our way”

        • This is not an apology.The situation has been handled very poorlyAn open meeting for interested parties should have been held with the public being allowed to ask questions and contribute before changes were made.I did ask about the name change and was told “Historical Society is old-fashioned” Asking people to pay forty dollars an hour for research is equally unacceptable. Perhaps donations are appreciated would be appropriate for this service.Also unacceptable if true is tossing and or selling donations .The usual procedure is a public notice to give 60-90 days to reclaim Then an auction, sale or donate rather than dispose. A very sad state of affairs

      • is the strategic plan available for reading? how much was the donation?

    • Why is any tax payer money going to this organization? Clearly, they don’t want input from the public. Why would they (in good conscience) accept money the public pays in taxes?

      • Clearly, there’ has been no input from the public because the public is only now paying attention. Typical. So, truthfully, the public should be blamed.

  18. Ellen Lautenberg

    Thanks for pointing that out, Amy – interesting! I had wondered if the Director was even aware of the backlash on 06880 but apparently, at least the Board Chair was. There is certainly a public trust that has been betrayed – when you make such significant changes to an historic treasure, it must involve the public’s opinion in order to represent what people feel it should be.

  19. Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

    Tom Duquette,
    Thank you for your reply to my question,
    So, when you said the 45th POTUS and his family / are you referring to President Donald J. Trump and his family.
    Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

  20. Dan – this is starting to smell like a complete unwarranted witch hunt, acutely sloppy journalism, and definite “piling on”, based off half truths, and extreme inaccuracy. Have you even spoken with anyone at The Museum, reached out to their communications manager, or members of the current board, to get both sides of the debate? You are stoking a fire off hearsay, and fragments of information. This institution, under the current administration, has done an incredible job to collate, create awareness, and celebrate the town of Westport. The new chapter that is unfolding has brought a much needed refresh, new sense of purpose, relevance, and inclusion to the Museum – all without any any financial support from the Town of Westport. How about focussing a bit on all the good they have done, awards they have won, great publicity for our town from State & National Media…and stop trying to burn down an institution that stands for and celebrates our beautiful town?

    • You forgot to identify the “half truths” and “extreme inaccuracy”…

    • Warren, just to clarify, the Westport Historical Society presently receives funding from Westport taxpayers. For the current fiscal year, that amount was $7,500 in the form of something characterized as a “grant”. Furthermore, on 12.31.19, the taxpayers sent an additional check for nearly $6,000 to WHS in connection with its First Light event.

    • Warren, are you a regular reader of “06880?” I am only asking because Dan has continuously run pieces helping to publicize exhibits, events, etc connected to the WHS/WMHC. He even partnered with them on running a series on vintage items from the distant past. He has helped promote and publicize this group just as he has done so for other cultural groups in town.

      Re the current stories: they—and the readers’ comments—speak for themselves.

    • Warren G. makes a good point, someone should contact the communications manager, Mariet Griffiths (Husband’s name is Warren).

      • Nasty and unnecessary.

        • Kevin,
          If you believe what is written on their web page is “Nasty and unnecessary”, then perhaps you should take it up with their communications manager.

        • Given that 06880 has a full name policy, if Bob is speaking the truth, there is nothing wrong with him pointing this out. Everyone else is using their last name, per site policy, why not Warren?

          • My point is that to assume this person is married to the communications manager and thereby is not entitled to an opinion is juvenile and unnecessary.

            • Kevin,
              My comment does not make any claims, I just stated facts….the assumption is all yours. You should be ashamed for thinking such thoughts.
              And you will notice, the only place where it is written that someone isn’t entitled to an opinion, is in your comment.
              Give it a rest Kevin.

              • Whatever you think Bob. However, in future you would do well not to take and use an opinion out of context, as above in this thread. Thanks.

                • Nobody is saying that he is not entitled to an opinion, but that he should express his opinion without hiding his identity – as none of the rest of us are.

                  • I’m going to step in here and say that I agree that positing “Warren G” is married to the communications director because of a common first name and last initial does not make any suppositions about what he should or should not say or be able to say but I honestly appreciate the information because with a lack of someone saying it’s NOT true, it makes the opinion seem much more understandable if it is actually coming from a biased origin.

                    It is too bad the person did not take Dan’s request to reveal himself seriously.

                • Kevin,
                  You have a knack for believing you know exactly what people are thinking based on words they never said.
                  I commend you for that.

                  • No, Bob. Rather a knack for calling out people who take words out of context, as you have done with mine above. For the record, my comment “nasty and unnecessary “ was directed at your comment, not the WHS website. Read it through, carefully, and then you can apologize.
                    Thanks in advance.

                    • YOU – “My point is that to assume this person is married to the communications manager”
                      I never said they were married….”to assume this person is married to the communications manager” are your words and therefore it’s your assumption.
                      YOU – “and thereby is not entitled to an opinion is juvenile and unnecessary.”
                      I never said he is not entitled to an opinion….yet you believe I did based on nothing…..”not entitled to an opinion” are your words and therefore, it’s your assumption
                      Read your own words and assumptions carefully Kevin, and then GIVE IT A REST.
                      You’re Welcome

                  • This is worse than the Impeachment trial. Let’s just call it a day and shake hands.

    • Untrue they have gotten small subsidies from the Town in the budget and town help for First Light.The Executive Director even spoke last year at RTM to maintain a small subsidy

    • Re your comment, “The new chapter that is unfolding has brought a much needed refresh, new sense of purpose, relevance, and inclusion to the Museum…”:

      I don’t think anyone would dispute that there have been some excellent exhibits under the new administration but this comment makes it sound as if the former Executive Director and other staff over the years were stodgy and unimaginative leaders of the former WHS.

      I feel that is far from the truth and I say this having had the privilege of co-curating an exhibit in the summer of 2017, “The High School That Rocked!”

      First, the fact that the WHS embraced having an exhibit devoted to a period when Staples High School hosted student-organized concerts by some of the biggest names in rock history spoke volumes from my perspective. I’m not sure how many historical societies or museums (apart from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) would have been willing to stage such an exhibit.

      But, perhaps more importantly, the WHS embraced and then helped spearhead a plan that involved synergy and partner events with four other cultural organizations in town: the Westport Cinema Initiative, the Levitt Pavilion, the Westport Library, and the Westport Community Theater.

      There was cross-promotion by all of these organizations; there was even cross-promotion by another cultural group, the Westport Arts Center, which couldn’t fit a related event into its schedule but loved the concept nonetheless.

      These events generated lots of favorable publicity and huge crowds.

      So the former WHS was far from a moribund organization when I had the pleasure of working with them.

  21. All posters must use full, real name. I am allowing “Warren G”‘s comment to remain, but ask him to please identify himself fully. Thanks.

    • Isn’t it about time that Warren G. Was identified? The discussion on the blog has been stimulating and revealing and has not, in my opinion, constituted a witch hunt. Furthermore, today’s blog post further addresses the fact that while the Board Chair has moved on, others clearly haven’t and want to hold the current board accountable for their actions.

      Everyone else here has voiced an opinion with a name to back it up. What about Warren G?

  22. William Strittmatter

    Hmmm….

    Based on the links Fred Cantor posted above, aside from the insensitive and completely unnecessary way they handled the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery, it looks like most of what the WHS is doing that many commenters find problematic is pretty much laid out in the 2017-18 annual report for all the WHS members to see.

    Apparently the board signed off on all of it and it was discussed at the annual meeting for all those members that chose to attend to listen and comment on the proceedings. In some respects, like with any election where you don’t pay attention and take time to make yourself heard, it is WHS membership’s fault for what has happened – you get what you acquiesced (affirmatively or through disinterest) to.

    Nonetheless, folks have much more clarity on what has transpired now. So, WHS members that don’t like what has happened have three choices: 1) resign and stop supporting the WHS, 2) submit a slate of alternative like-minded board members at the next annual meeting the “reclaim” the WHS for your vision or 3) get over it and move on. If you are not a member, you can join and work with others on choice #2 or just go on your merry way.

    By the way, for those of you that want to raise the issue at the next “town meeting” or with “town government”, you should be aware that the WHS is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is completely unrelated to the Town of Westport so there is little, if anything, they can do about what is going on.

    It is all up to you, if you really care beyond just sitting at your keyboard.

  23. That wasn’t an apology as we in the communications field would understand it. This is a valid and timely discussion, and the heartfelt concerns by Westport residents invite thoughtful engagement from the WSH staff. There probably are two sides to the story, and the best way forward is conversation. Again, to townfolk, I advise staying on message and not introducing national politics (this can inadvertently draw online trolls from the digital ether and divert the conversation) or other unrelated local issues.

  24. Jeff M Van Gelder

    Donations trashed? Ooops, guess I shouldn’t have given them my issue of the Coleytown News (among other donations). Yes, Coleytown had a newspaper in the 19th century.

  25. I have been reading from afar on the Pacific Northwest coast about this sad saga. It is really hard to wrap one’s mind around what happened here!

    My sister and I recently began going through old boxes of childhood photos and memorabilia. Much of our childhood was spent in Westport, and we have some really great photographs, local newspaper clippings including an article that has the names of the junior orchestra members that year (proudly, the great Mr. John Ohanion recommended me), souvenirs from various long gone Westport establishments, old report cards with comments from iconic Westport teachers like Miss Huck, Mrs. Sheets and more.

    What really blows the mind are 3 things: how the Sheffer family has been treated; how the longtime gift shop worker and Advisory Board were treated, and last but not least, how the private donations of family memorabilia from Westport citizens either got trashed or sold without notifying the donors! I had thought about donating some of the newspaper clippings to the WHS but so glad that Dan has made all of us aware of what happened here. The insensitivity to the Westport community near and far to me is unfathomable.

    I’ll stick with sharing some things with Dan as I can.

    • Ps..
      A quick follow up question. As this museum has received public taxpayer funds, isnt it the right and duty of the taxpayers to know and have some oversight of the salaries of these employees who run it? At least for 2019? Or do they now claim they now receive no public funding therefore, have no obligation to reveal salary information? I sure would dig into 2019 if you can.

      • Normal practice is for local non-profits which receive taxpayer funds to supply their financials (and NOT just their 990) to the town during budget season. WHS did not supply its financial information to the Town of Westport despite the issue being raised at several pubic hearings before the budget was voted upon.

        • This story just gets worse. I hope the current residents can restore the good feelings and pride that the WHS has brought to everyone for decades. Just an aside, as a very young kindergartner at Bedford Elementary, my favorite house in Westport was the WSH. It has remained so. They have kept it as it was all of these years at least from the outside.

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