Tag Archives: Ramin Ganeshram

Tile Mural: History, Revisited And Re-Explained

When the Westport Library asked the Westport History for Museum & Culture for advice on the “River of Names” mural, the Museum cited a number of what they called “historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.”

Dorothy Curran disagrees.

She wrote and helped publish an art historical catalogue that accompanied the tile mural, and upon which the Museum based much of its criticism. Offering a fascinating (though of course incomplete) tour of local history, Dorothy writes:

In October 2021, the Westport Library, seeking not to return the “River of Names” historical bas-relief ceramic donor tile mural to the Library interior, asked Ramin Ganeshram, executive director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture, for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion opinion on the mural’s content.

Ramin, along with WMHC colleague Cheryl Bliss, focused not on the mural itself, but on “River of Names: An Historical Tile Mural at the Westport Public Library” — my accompanying art historical catalogue. As a then RTM-appointed Library trustee, I donated my time writing it and raising another $25,000 to pay for photography, graphic design, printing, binding and shipping of 5,000 copies.

The aim was for a portable “art docent tour” of the mural, and a long-term book sale revenue stream for the Library. (If you need last-minute holiday gifts, the beautifully printed and bound volumes still sell, for $5 or less, at the Westport Book Shop. All proceeds benefit the Westport Library.)

Here are my reactions to the DEI report:

Tile #1, 1637 Puritans & Pequots end Swamp War; Puritans plan settlement

The Westport Museum of History & Culture says that

The Pequot War of 1636-1638 began as a colonial Puritan response to the alleged murders of English colonists by Pequots. Rival tribes joined the Puritan initiative, but were horrified by English tactics. Puritans attacked and burned the Pequot village in Mystic, massacring most of the tribe’s women, children and elderly. Surviving Pequots sought to migrate west, but the English followed. The final battle — the Fairfield Swamp Fight in 1637, near what today is I-95 Exit 19 — was devastating. But thanks to intervention by Thomas Stanton, who spoke Algonquian, a massacre was avoided. For a very brief overview of a very complex series of events, here is a link with footnotes and bibliography for deeper study: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pequot_War

Why was this event included in the River of Names? Because following the Pequots across Connecticut was how Roger Ludlowe discovered Fairfield’s lovely salt meadows and decided to move his settlers from Windsor’s flood-prone Connecticut River banks to Fairfield. Westport later formed from parts of Fairfield and Norwalk. Neither the caption nor the catalogue’s summary provide the full story, but together they certainly inspire curiosity.

Tile #2, 1648 Pequannock Tribe agrees to sell “Machamux” to the five “Bankside” farmers

Yes, the concept of “selling” land to the English colonists was alien to migratory Native American tribes, but colonial records do document acceptance of the English purchase offer and remuneration. As for the Native Americans’ skin color, it is darker than the English, but not as deep as exhibit model photographs provided by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. When I first saw this tile, I remarked to artist Marion Grebow; “They look like ghosts.” She smiled, knowingly. Very aware of how local Native Americans were ravaged by European diseases and warfare, she was making an artistic statement.

Tile #7, 1705 John Cable builds tidal mill, produces corn flour for emerging West Indies trade and Tile # 10, 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf; Tile #13,  1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank

Under British colonial rule, trade by its American colonies was restricted to England, and exports, to raw materials like lumber, in exchange for English finished goods. But thanks to lax enforcement, many locals became maritime commerce entrepreneurs (aka black-market bootleggers), trading products like corn meal for Caribbean molasses and rum. After 1763, increased enforcement helped precipitate the American Revolution. Yes, there were slaves in Puritan Connecticut, including enslaved Pequot survivors, but what now is Westport never was a hub for the larger transatlantic “triangular trade,” involving larger ships, sailing to Africa.

Tile #11, 1756, 1775, 1780, 1789 George Washington’s diaries record four trips through town, including an overnight stay at Marvin’s Tavern

You complain that in 1789, when Washington stayed overnight at Marvin’s Tavern: “The wall features other details of historical inaccuracy such as… Washington’s visit to Marvin Tavern in 1789… As a point of fact, Washington only rode white horses, however he would have been travelling by carriage during this presidential tour. Further, in 1789 he was President and made a point of wearing civilian clothing—not his Continental Army uniform as portrayed on the tile.”

In my catalogue discussion of Tile #11, I wrote: “By November, 1789, in reality, Washington was the first President of the 13 United States, a national icon, weary of war and no longer in military attire. Literal reality, however, is not Grebow’s primary concern. Instead, by returning Trumbull’s image of Washington, the Yorktown victor, the archetypal American Revolutionary War hero, to Marvin’s Inn in 1789, Grebow expresses completion of a cycle. Among the people who welcomed him back in 1789 were some who first greeted him in 1775, before the war began, some who suffered loss of life and property in 1777 when the war arrived here, and some who witnessed his 1780 meeting here with the French to end the war. While few if any were present at Yorktown when the fulfillment of this vision was realized, his victory there validated the personal and political dreams and values he epitomized and they shared. Grebow’s Washington, by extending a greeting with the same hand he refused to a British general, offers both a politically powerful and profoundly human statement. Grebow’s Washington, like the one we all revere, transcends the limits of space and time.”

P.S. Washington notes in his diary that he was less than pleased with his stay at Marvin’s Inn, which makes his gesture even more gracious.

Tile #17, 1810 Catherine Burr Sherwood, farm wife & mother of ten, including triplet sea captains

Commemorating the birth of the Sherwood triplets during a heavy snowstorm, this tile illuminates the vital, often overlooked impact of women in local colonial history, including building and maintaining families with very little medical assistance. In fact, at about the same time that Catherine Burr Sherwood gave birth to her eighth, ninth and tenth children (the triplets), her sister-in-law died in childbirth, so the family then had 11 to raise. The later maritime careers of the 3 triplets are a topic for separate study.

Tile #19, 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church and Saugatuck Fire Co. established

Well into the 19th century, Puritan governance practices persisted in Connecticut. For example, new towns first needed a new seat of government: a Congregational church, with selectmen presiding. Only after the Saugatuck Church’s 1832 completion could Westport petition the state for a town charter. Likewise, forming the Saugatuck Fire Co. ended emergency dependence on Norwalk and Fairfield. The scope, limits and flaws of the 1818 Connecticut Constitution are topics for separate study.

Tile #18, 1814 Saugatuck Manufacturing Co. makes cotton yarn at Richmondville Ave. site and Tile #20, 1835 R.H. Haight’s tannery, later Kemper Tannery, makes leather hat bands 

British rule forbade American colonial manufacturing, forcing Americans to buy British finished goods, at Britain’s prices. After American manufacturing began, the British War of 1812 coastal shipping blockade caused such severe economic hardship that Connecticut briefly considered secession from the new union. Happily, the war ended.

That era’s Connecticut manufacturers (and families, for supplemental income) relied on labor by children, immigrants, apprentices and indentured servants for success. Most children, like their parents, attained only an elementary education, but received training in other skills needed for farm and household management.

Neither tile can begin to probe the era’s labor practices, but each can inspire curiosity to learn more.

Tile #24, 1852 First Bank

You are correct that: “Descriptions of the building of the Westport Bank by Horace Staples and later refurbishment of the property at large (National Hall) on tile #24 (Curran) fails to indicate that the National Hall portion of the building referred to the 2nd floor where a theater was located. Minstrel shows, caricaturizing African Americans, were a popular attraction at this theater.”

That’s asking a lot of an already crowded 6″x4″ tile.

Tile #25, 1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’s Emerging diversity of religious worship

Though this tile depicts a “diversity of religions,” groups assessing the River of Names say that it presents a very Christian-centric view of Westport’s history. There are no tiles for other religions.

In mid-19th century Westport, where the 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church was the seat of government, one way to observe emerging diversity was construction of churches by other denominations: Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic. Yes, other religious congregations existed then, but were not in construction mode. A 6″x8″tile can only prompt curiosity to learn more.

Tile #35, 1899 First autos on Post Road

Your complaint: “The tile #35 (Curran) referring to the first automobiles in the town misses the opportunity to talk about the Toquet Motor Company here in Westport which produce a motor car earlier than Ford.”

As my catalogue states, #35 depicts an eyewitness account by local historian Edward Coley Birge, astonished at being passed on the Post Road by a “self-propelled open buggy,” likely a Stanley Steamer. Discussing Toquet Motor Company was not a fit for this tile. That does not make it historically inaccurate, Euro-centric or exclusive.

Tile #49, 1947 Lucille Lortel founds the White Barn Theatre

Yes, Lucille (not “Louise”) Lortel protected, nurtured and paid talented actors, writers, composers and designers. Agreed that not much can be said on a 6″x8″ tile about the “the opportunity she gave to the Black performers in the era of segregation.” Likewise, not much could be said here about her equally important role in continuing to employ “unemployable” McCarthy-era black-listed writers and actors. But naming her and the White Barn on a tile is a start.

Tile #68, 1980 Westport Historical Society, established 1889, acquires its home, Wheeler House, built 1795

Your complaint: “The information about Westport Museum (Westport Historical Society) on tiles #68 (Curran) is inaccurate. The original building on this site was a 2nd period colonial style, like the building currently across the street. The ocular windows in the current structure are not unique as stated—two other Italianate houses on Main Street feature them.”

In fact, the 12″x12″ River of Names tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does refer to the original structure (still inside the Bradley-Wheeler house) as probably a saltbox. Agreed that ocular windows per se are not a unique feature of Italianate architecture.

P.S. What does this discussion of architectural detail have to do with diversity, equity and inclusion?

Tile #79, 1996 Bradley-Wheeler Museum restored

You complain that: “The tile referring to the Bradley Wheeler barn refers to the statues on our property as sculptures—they are, in fact, miniature golf statues, made for use on a private miniature golf course. They are not sculptures.”

Tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does call them sculptures, mostly because they are free-standing folk art created by famous, fun-loving Westport artists, whose major commissions included work at Disney World. The Einsel valentines to each other were remarkable.

Re: your comment that “The description refers to the towns “diverse cultural heritage” although there is virtually no representation of non-Europeans on the picture tiles of the River of Names Wall.”

The mural’s 84 picture tiles, ranging in size from 6″x4″ to 12″x12,” and covering over 350 years, offer only a glimpse of our history. My catalogue merely enriches that glimpse. In no way does that mean that this peek at our history is, in your language, “whitewashed.”

Diverse cultural heritage means many things. New England’s Puritan colonists were British subjects. Many River of Names tiles depict no people at all; instead, they show architecture and boats extending British tradition. Collectively, that makes our depiction of New England colonial history not so much “Euro-centric” as Anglo-centric. Over time, our town, state and country have grown and evolved. Today, looking back at the long, imperfect arc of our dynamic cumulative history, warts and all, I think most Westporters simply would call it “American.”

Westport Museum’s “River Of Names” Letter

Yesterday’s story on the Westport Library’s “River of Names” mural was one of the longest I’ve ever posted on “06880.”

If I had included the Westport Museum for History & Culture’s 1,600-word, October 2021 letter to Library director Bill Harmer, it would have been even longer.

Here is what Museum director Ranim Ganeshram and chairperson, history educator and archivist Cheryl Bliss wrote then, as the Library was discussing next steps for the mural.

They note in detail “historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and
perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.”

They recommended re-installation of the mural with replacement of tiles that “demonstrate history accurately.”

If the panels were not replaced, the report said that “extensive wall labels and text panels should accompany it to point out and counteract the errors and misconceptions it represents. The wall could be an object lesson about how the viewpoints of the era in which it was created was an informing factor in this Eurocentric view. Correction of the history on the digital site should follow the same format.”

Here is that October 2021 letter to Harmer:

=======================================================

Myself, Cheryl Bliss (chairperson, history educator and archivist), and various researchers here at Westport Museum have reviewed the Westport Library’s River of Names Tile Wall per your concerns in anticipation of its potential re-installation. It is our opinion that the wall is rife with historical inaccuracy and a myopic view of history that will be hurtful and unwelcoming to modern viewers. The details of our assessment follow.

It must first be said that projects like the Westport Library’s River of Names which endeavor to use “non-traditional” methods—in this case an art installation—to teach local history enter the realm of Public History defined by the National Council on Public History as “history beyond the walls of a traditional classroom.”

Those practicing Public History–Public Historians–span fields and disciplines and may include teachers, librarians, museum professionals, artists and many others. However, regardless of the professional discipline from which public historians may originate, they are called upon to apply rigorous methods to ensure the history presented is accurate: “In terms of intellectual approach, the theory and methodology of public history remain firmly in the discipline of history, and all good public history rests on sound scholarship.”

In the opinion of Westport Museum, The River of Names Tile Wall, does not meet the standard of sound scholarship. The Wall features historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.

Beginning with tile numbered 1 in River of Names: A History of Westport, CT 1637-1998 in bas-relief ceramic tile donor mural catalog by Dorothy Curran: 1637–Puritans and Pequots End The Swamp War.

This is an entirely misleading tile and description. There was not simply an end to the Pequot War but rather a complete massacre of native people by European colonists. The implication within the description is that “peace-loving Pequannock” were supporters of the Puritan colonists who had driven and massacred members of fellow tribes. There is no historical River of Names Historical Accuracy proof of this. Rather tribal oral history and European written history indicates that the tribespeople of the various tribes of what would become Westport (Paugusset-Sasqua-Aspetuck-Pequannok) supported the Pequot in the fight. When the Europeans prevailed, native men were slaughtered, and the women and children enslaved. The rosy view of this event is both inaccurate and extremely insensitive to the remaining tribal people in the area. The flimsy explanation that native men are depicted as white because they are “ghosts” is a paltry excuse for lack of care in the depiction of non-white individuals.

Tile #2 (Curran) entitled: 1648: Pequannock Tribe agrees to sell “Machamux” to the five “Bank-side” farmers” This persistent myth that local tribes “sold” their property to Europeans has been widely discounted by scholars of native history, colonial history, and legal history. Research into land transactions between natives and Europeans indicate that native individuals–who did not operate within Western legal constructs–were not always aware of the nature of the “contracts” to which they agreed. This simplistic representation belies a long, legally documented history of betrayal and violence of and toward native people in the area for the purpose of taking their land. Again, the indigenous people are depicted as white.

With respect to the tile #7 (Curran) 1705—Tidal mill for emerging West Indies trade; 1775—Coley Store; Tile #13 (Curran) 1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank; Tile # 10 (Curran) 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf. The West Indies trade specifically refers to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in which local farmers and millers produced goods to sell to West Indian slave plantations. These plantations provided the greatest source of income for men like Coley and Jesup—who were among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people in the town. This is not indicated anywhere on the wall or the write up. Last, the Coley store was not a residence as depicted in the tile and in the tile’s description,

Tile #17 (Curran) 1810 tile referring to the Captains Sherwood (triplets) also omits that the triplets conducted regular business with the American Southern Slave plantations after the end of slavery in the British West Indies. The reference to the 1814 Saugatuck Manufacturing Company focusing on cotton twine and cotton goods fails to consider that cotton from Southern Slave
plantations, came into Westport on trading vessels. Without this product of slavery mills such as this one would not have prospered.

The description of Tile #19 (Curran) 1832 founding of Saugatuck Congregational Church refers to the1818 Connecticut Constitution—but does not make it clear that this document was created in part to disenfranchise non-white voters specifically and legally by including a race requirement. This was a specific response to the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved men emancipated during Connecticut’s Gradual Abolition (1784-1848).

Tiles #18 & #20 ( about the Kemper Tannery and Saugatuck Manufacturing Company do not indicate that immigrants and child laborers were employed at this site while “1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’sEmerging diversity of religious worship” only refers to Christian religious institutions. The write up about Louise Lortel omits what is perhaps considered her greatest legacy—the opportunity she gave to the Black performers in the era of segregation. The description refers to the towns “diverse cultural heritage” although there is virtually no representation of non-Europeans on the picture tiles of the River of Names Wall.

Descriptions of the building of the Westport Bank by Horace Staples and later refurbishment of the property at large (National Hall) on tile #24 (Curran) fails to indicate that the National Hall portion of the building referred to the 2nd floor where a theater was located. Minstrel shows, caricaturizing African Americans, were a popular attraction at this theater. The wall features other details of historical inaccuracy such as the tile depicting Washington’s visit to Marvin Tavern in 1789 on tile #11 (Curran). As a point of fact, Washington only rode white horses, however he would have been travelling by carriage during this presidential tour. Further, in 1789 he was President and made a point of wearing civilian clothing—not his Continental Army uniform as portrayed on the tile.

The tile #35 (Curran) referring to the first automobiles in the town misses the opportunity to talk about the Toquet Motor Company here in Westport which produce a motor car earlier than Ford.

The information about Westport Museum (Westport Historical Society) on tiles #68 (Curran) is inaccurate. The original building on this site was a 2nd period colonial style, like the building currently across the street. The ocular windows in the current structure are not unique as stated—two other Italianate houses on Main Street feature them. The tile referring to the Bradley Wheeler barn refers to the statues on our property as sculptures—they are, in fact, miniature golf statues, made for use on a private miniature golf course. They are not sculptures.

In conclusion, the River of Names represent a singular view of history, that is an exemplar of the time in which it was produced: A time in which a Eurocentric lens of the past, devoid of the complexity of the eras it purports to depict was acceptable. The omission of provable facts that could offer context to the actual history was the norm for the time the River was installed but it is inappropriate given the call upon public historians to present a holistic and accurate view of history.

We have no doubt that those who worked on this project when it was installed did the best they could, given the level of their research skills and the information that was available to them. Further, the way the tiles are presented was, no doubt, acceptable at the time they were made.

Certainly no one is at fault for being a product of their own era and viewing the world through that lens. However, as is often the case as time marches on, new information and new viewpoints come to light. When historical data makes it clear that a misrepresentation of fact has occurred it is the obligation of any institution engaging in public history to correct those errors.

Most of all, and perhaps most importantly, the singular view of history represented on these tiles present a one-note image of the town that has never been true. The wall effectively erases indigenous people, African Americans, Jews, and others who were part of the story—from the beginning—even when that story was not pretty. It is hurtful and diminishing to our diverse citizenry—both within Westport and visitors from outside of the town—to see a proudly whitewashed display of this kind without explanation.

Within our field of public history there is constant discussion about how to deal with monuments, statues, history books, panels and other items that have since proven to be false in their information or offensive in their presentation. It is our opinion that should the River of Names be re-installed, the tiles that represent history should be replaced entirely with ones that demonstrate history accurately. Should the panels not be replaced, extensive wall labels and text panels should accompany it to point out and counteract the errors and misconceptions it represents. The wall could be an object lesson about how the viewpoints of the era in which it was created was an informing factor in this Eurocentric view. Correction of the history on the digital site should follow the same format.

Last, we suggest that you might want to contact Dr. Matthew Warshauer in the History Department of Central Connecticut State University. He has done extensive work around revealing hidden and erased histories, particularly as it relates to non-European populations in Connecticut. I believe he may be best placed to give advice on this matter. Should you choose to contact Dr. Warshauer please feel free to share this assessment with him.

Sincerely,
Ramin Ganeshram               Cheryl Bliss
Executive Director                Chairperso

Remarkable Guy: The Sequel

When the Westport Museum for History & Culture jettisoned the nod-to-local-history name of its Remarkable Gift Shop — it’s now the much-more-meh The Shop at Wheeler House — it thankfully did not also toss out the Remarkable Guy.

That’s the wooden, Edward Gorey-inspired dancing figure that greeted folks browsing for books, posters and other Westport-themed gifts at what used to be called the Historical Society, on Avery Place.

Remarkable Guy at Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The Remarkable Guy had been exhibited at the WHS thanks to the Kramer family. Sid and Esther Kramer owned the Remarkable Book Shop, a long-lived, much-loved funky bookstore on the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza, a few feet from Wheeler House. (Westporters know it now as the long-vacant Talbots building.)

WMHC officials tracked down Sid and Esther’s son Mark. Executive director Ramin Ganeshram emailed him that the Remarkable Theater — the new organization that hopes to bring a theater to Westport, staffed by people with disabilities — had asked for the “wooden die cut image.”

She suggested Kramer take it from the museum, and give or lend it to the theater for their events. (It is of course still in the early planning stages).

She noted that because the Remarkable Guy had never been “formally gifted or accepted into the collections,” it was not the museum’s right to lend.

Though the museum did not have the funds to ship the Remarkable Guy to Kramer, who lives in Massachusetts, they promised to keep it safe until he could retrieve it.

Or perhaps, Ganeshram said, he could officially donate it to the museum. Then, however, it could not be lent to anyone, because of insurance complications. She noted, “It is our understanding that the figure was brought to the museum but never intended to be an ‘artifact’ per se.”

Kramer worried that the museum might not treasure the Remarkable Guy.

A solution arose when Kramer’s longtime Westport friend Pam Barkentin offered to keep it in Westport, so it can be loaned when appropriate.

Chris O’Dell — whose O Living Experience builds high-quality, high-efficiency new homes and renovations — quickly agreed to move the Remarkable Guy to Pam’s garage. gratis.

Chris O’Dell (left), O Living Experience owner, and employee Chuck Hilman volunteered to move the Remarkable Guy.

That’s where he sits now, safe and sound.

And waiting to be loaned, to lend a bit of local history to organizations that appreciate and cherish him.

Pam Barkentin is keeping the Remarkable Guy safe for Mark Kramer.

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.

Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.

Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.

Ann Sheffer

Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.

For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.

The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.

A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:

Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.

Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.

As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.

So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”

First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.

Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.

“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design.  Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.

I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.

I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.

Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.

 I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”

Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:

Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.

The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.

The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.

“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”

“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.

While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.

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.

Ramin Ganeshram: Historical Society Can Look Backward, Move Forward

Ramin Ganeshram has been an editor for companies like Ziff Davis and Hachette. She was a cultural strategist for a major market research firm, a New York Times stringer, and a researcher and writer on culture, history, food and travel. And she’s a professionally trained chef.

Now Ramin has a new gig. This week she takes over as the Westport Historical Society’s new executive director.

It’s the next, entirely natural fit for the New York native and Columbia Journalism School grad.

Ramin Ganeshram (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Her father was Trinidadian, her mother from Iran. “They met in Brooklyn!” she laughs.

They assimilated into America. In fact, Ramin says, the only time her parents nodded to their cultures was around food. As he cooked, her father told stories.

She started writing about food 25 years ago. “It wasn’t as hip and trendy as it is today,” she says of that genre. “But shopping and cooking is really about history and anthropology.” Her writing focused on those elements of food.

She’s been a Westporter for nearly a decade. She and her husband, JP Vellotti, moved here for the schools — and so their daughter Sophia could learn her dad’s family’s history. (They’ve been in the Norwalk/Rowayton area for generations.)

Ramin wanted to be near a beach, no more than an hour from New York — with a downtown she could walk to. They fell in love with an old house on Evergreen Avenue. The seller grew up in it, and was thrilled that Ramin and JP would not tear it down.

Soon after moving, Ramin organized a fundraiser for Haitian earthquake victims. It raised $10,000.

That led to more volunteer work. She attended meetings of TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural committee — and after a year, was appointed a full member. She welcomed the opportunity to address Westport’s diversity (or lack thereof).

She applied for the Historical Society executive director position knowing that “I don’t come to museum history and curation in traditional ways. But I love history. I’ve done a lot of research. And I have a strong business background.”

Ramin believes the WHS can be “a more expansive organization. Sue (Gold, the previous executive director) was amazing. But all businesses have to look at how they manage themselves.”

Right now, Ramin says, the Historical Society is “a consistent and well-thought-of part of the community. Lots of people go to lectures and exhibits. Lots of kids go to the camps. It’s high-quality, very professional, and and it fulfills its mission incredibly well.”

Ramin’s vision is for the WHS to extends its reach, and become more integrated into the community. “A historical society can be seen as aimed at only pockets of people — history-minded older people, young children. I want us to be more expansive.”

She’d like a better social media presence, interactive programs to accompany exhibits, “virtual” exhibits on the website, and livestream talks.

“I want the Westport Historical Society to be a place people want to come to and enjoy — a place where they know they can have an ongoing conversation.”

Ramin Ganeshram wants to make the Westport Historical Society a welcoming place for all. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Challenges include “the perception that historical societies in general are just repositories of old information,” and — of course — funding.

With enough money, Ramin says, the WHS can even do outreach to nearby under-served communities.

She’s spending her first week getting to know the staff and volunteers. She’s excited about the exhibit opening in May — it’s on Westport’s African-American history.

Ramin looks forward too to meeting directors of other non-profits: the library, Westport Arts Center, area historical societies.

So what’s been her favorite exhibit, in the hall she now oversees?

“The Danbury raid,” she says without hesitation. “I love that Revolutionary War era of history. It’s great there’s still a tangible link, with the Minute Man monument at Compo. It was mounted beautifully, with amazing artifacts.”

And, the multi-talented, food-oriented new director admits, she had a small part in the display: “I did something on colonial kitchens!”

Future Chefs Stir It Up In Westport

Tomorrow (Thursday, November 6, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Imperial Avenue parking lot) is the final date for this year’s Westport Farmer’s Market.

They’re ending the year with a bang.

Farmers MarketStaples High School’s Advanced Culinary Arts students of Cecily Gans will be among the chef demonstrators (10:15-11 a.m.). And “chef” is the right word. These guys are not just tossing together a Cobb salad.

They’ll feature a recipe by recent graduate Sarah Rountree. Her Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Honey-Mint Sauce was chosen for its seasonality, and the local availability of most ingredients.

But that’s not the only Westport connection. Sarah’s recipe is 1 of 5 featured in Future Chefs: Recipes by Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World. The handsome book — just published by Rodale Press — includes 150 contributions from teenagers around the world.

Sophia Hampton shows off her culinary skills. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

Sophia Hampton shows off her culinary skills. (Photo/JP Vellotti)

But Sarah is not the only Stapleite with a recipe in Future Chefs. Senior Sophia Hampton is included twice, for her Delicata-Crab Hash with Poached Duck Egg, and her Kale Caesar Salad.

Zach Reiser offers up his Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread; Deanna Baris, her Breakfast Cookies.

But it’s not only Staples students who are featured. Wes Beeler was in 8th grade when he contributed his Competition-Ready St. Louis-Style Spareribs. (The competition was the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival. He placed 3rd.)

But the book is not limited to recipes. Each young chef has a full write-up. Sophia’s, for example, notes that she volunteers one day a month — with the Culinary Club — serving food at the Gillespie Center, and that as features editor for the school newspaper  Inklings she moved from fashion writing to the food beat.

Future Chefs coverBut they’re not the only Staples students mentioned. Class of 2013 graduate Rusty Schindler was cited in the introduction, while last year’s entire Advanced Culinary Arts class was thanked — individually — in the acknowledgements, for testing many of the recipes.

But those are not the only local connections. Future Chefs was written by Westport author (and New York-trained chef) Ramin Ganeshram. The compelling photographs come courtesy of her husband — and frequent “06880” contributor Jean Paul Vellotti.

There are probably more Staples/Future Chefs tie-ins. If so, you’ll find them at the Farmers Market this Thursday. And the book — available for signing.

If not, you’ll still enjoy Sarah’s Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Honey-Mint Sauce.

(Click on Future Chefs for ordering information.)

Future Chefs - Wes Beeler

Wes Beeler eating his BBQ on the roof of Bobby Q’s. JP Vellotti took the photo on a very cold day. The roof was still a mess from Hurricane Sandy. The publisher said, “Try to make it look like he’s in Texas.”