Ridgefield museum reopens with renewed focus on town's untold history

RIDGEFIELD — A collection of never-before-seen photos will be available to the public this Thursday as part of Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center’s soft reopening. They were taken by German photographer Joseph Hartmann, whose lens captured daily life in Ridgefield between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The exhibit is just one of a few new experiences the center will offer this summer after limiting on-site visitation for the past 15 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The individuals and organizations who stood by us through a year of challenges ... helped us pivot, adapt, engage and expand,” the center’s Executive Director Hildegard Grob said. “Now, we’re ready to welcome the public back on site.”

The museum will institute expanded regular hours beginning June 10 (Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Mondays from 5 to 8 p.m.). During the grand reopening celebration on June 13, visitors can enjoy free all-day site admission for access to multiple tour options, new exhibits and enjoyment of its four acres of gardens and grounds.

More Information

The Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center is at 152 Main Street in Ridgefield. For more information about its reopening plans, visit keelertavernmuseum.org.

Head of Communications and Grants Katie Burton said, “We want people to get familiar with the entire site and make more use of our space as a destination.”

The museum’s new guidelines stipulate that all staff and visitors wear masks inside the Visitor Center, Tavern Museum, Carriage Barn and Museum Store, but they are not required to wear masks outdoors. Air purifiers have been “strategically” installed in “key rooms,” Grob said, and museum-quality cleanings will take place on a daily basis.

While the reopening is just getting underway, the resources visitors will soon find there have been under development for the better part of a year. When the Black Lives Matter movement grabbed the nation’s attention last summer, Grob said it forced the center to “take a hard look” at how the site interprets its own history.

“We want to create a whole new array of visitor experiences ... that go beyond the cannonball and tricorn hats,” she said. To curate an “inclusive museum experience, we were thinking about immigration and the different classes of people that (made) Ridgefield happen, not just the wealthy class.”

In a newly renovated archival space below the Visitor Center, Curator of Collections Erika Askin carefully thumbed through a box of paper-wrapped photo plates. These were included among some 7,000 glass negatives Hartmann left behind when he closed his studio garage in town, Grob said. They have been in the museum’s possession for 30 years.

The images showcase wealthy residents, business owners and immigrants, and provide a picture of Ridgefield’s economic spectrum during the 19th century.

In one photo, a trio of children pose in “Sunday clothes” — provided by Hartmann — their tattered street pants still visible under the crepe frocks and fur coats; in another, a group of blue-collared workers have conversation inside an Italian deli; and in a third, an upper-class family enjoys a luxurious picnic in front of their sprawling estate.

A handful of negatives were made into prints for the exhibit opening in the Carriage Barn this Thursday. Its aim is to encourage present-day viewers to consider in what ways the town was a place of opportunity, and for whom.

The exhibit is part of the center’s ongoing efforts to “speak authentically” to the stories that Ridgefield may have forgotten. Burton said the museum is currently working on a land acknowledgment to add at the beginning of its tours, which will recognize the indigenous populations that lived in the area long before European settlers arrived.

The goal, Grob said, is “to ... engage and encourage learning through contemporary relevance and affect positive change, and get people to critically examine their actions.”

Burton added, “It’s all about understanding that we’re agents of history.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com