Norwalk Museum move full of surprises

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Norwalk Historical Society President David Westmoreland, left, and Vincent Kulish move paintings from the Norwalk Museum to the City Hall complex recently. Westmoreland figures he is spending 40 hours a week on the project, in addition to his full-time job.

NORWALK, Conn. – Thirteen full trash bins have been hauled away from the Norwalk Museum, but there’s still plenty of waste left littering the closed establishment, in every room, even a janitor’s closet.

Included in what’s left are “tons” of pottery shards, pieces of pottery that had been glazed with lead paint. The shards aren’t useful for anything, Norwalk Historical Society President David Westmoreland said.

Open a flat drawer file, you’ll find them. Look under a table, they’re there. Get around to opening that door to the janitor’s closet and find two buckets full in the sink. It’s at the point where Westmoreland feels disappointed if he doesn’t find pottery shards when he investigates a room, he said.

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Two buckets of shards sit in a janitor’s closet, where Norwalk Historical Society President David Westmoreland said he found them.

The museum was closed a year ago in a cost-cutting move initiated by Mayor Richard Moccia. Westmoreland, a volunteer, and four paid workers are in the process of transferring the museum’s content to the City Hall complex, where it will be stored until the Lockwood House is vacated this fall by Norwalk Fire Department administrators. The museum’s archives have been moved to the Norwalk Public Library, and are expected to be open to the public July 1, he said. The museum itself may reopen next spring after new exhibits are set up, he said.

Moving the museum is a tremendous opportunity, Westmoreland said.

“For the last 15 years, one of the goals that was set up for the collection was an inventory and that was never done,” he said. “Now it’s going to be done in four months.”

The city was lucky to hire Laura McCarthy, a collections manager who moved a museum in Montana, Westmoreland said.

“She answered our ad and knows exactly how to do it. It’s amazing,” she said.

McCarthy, who is getting a master’s degree in Trinity College, immediately set up work stations to document everything in the collection and pack it in custom made boxes. Everything is being digitally photographed; the location of all the items is being stored in a searchable database.

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Paintings from the Norwalk Museum collection sit in the City Hall complex, after being moved from North Main Street.

McCarthy is intrigued by the items but focused mainly on documenting it, she said.

“I think Norwalk history is incredibly interesting, but I am trying to not to muddle my head with it,” she said. “I want the people of Norwalk that know the history to be able to find everything. I just want the right people to find the right thing and then I’ll be happy.”

The collection includes concentrations of framed art, china, hats and pottery, she said.

“It’s an incredible collection, it really is. There’s some absolutely beautiful things,” she said.

The collection is worth $5 million to $6 million, and will all be moved by the end of July, Westmoreland said. Then McCarthy will be on her way.

There was one “terrible” moment, Westmoreland said.

“We found a Revolutionary War document specific to Norwalk from January 1779 in the trash,” he said.

Then there are the shards, collected by for­mer Norwalk Museum cu­rator Susan Gunn Bromley.

“The historical association in 2006 voted against accepting the pottery shards,” he said. “The curator took it anyway, defying the commission. Now we have basically a liability. Literally, I’m going to have to write a check that taxpayers are going to have to pay for (to dispose of them).”

On Friday, Westmoreland said he had a estimate of $11,000 from one vendor, but was optimistic that another bidder was going to come in lower. He fielded a phone call from Norwalk Waste Programs Manager Alison McCrady, who offered the use of a truck to get rid of them. He said that wouldn’t work.

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Barrels of pottery shards sit in a second floor office at the Norwalk Museum.

“People think we have a box of shards,” he said. “No, we have tons of shards.”

They might also be called sherds, said Yale-educated  archaeologist Holly Cuzzone, who also said the weight of the fragments now sitting in barrels on the second floor adds up.

“I think there are three elephants standing in this room,” he said. “I think there are tons of it.”

Some of it came from the Smith Street pottery works that Norwalk was famous for, but the documentation is so poor that there is no archaeological value, Cuzzone said. The sherds were collected from the edge of the Norwalk River, which wasn’t their original location, she said. A professional archaeologist would keep careful track of where they were found and photograph the process, she explained. The fragments were probably discarded items – pieces that came out of the kiln and were judged to be trash, she said.

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These pottery shards are being saved, David Westmoreland said.

It’s as if you went to get your haircut, she said. The cut hair lands on the floor and is swept up with hair from other people. It’s all mixed together, a “conglomerate of debris” that would tell an archaeologist nothing, especially since they had already been moved once.

To add to that problem, Bromley and others spent much time washing the shards, removing any useful information, she said. It wasn’t done in a scientific way.

“What was she thinking?” she asked. “I don’t know. … It’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal. There was a lot of time and money spent in trying to curate it, which they really weren’t.”

Some arts organizations have asked for some of the shards to make into mosaics she said, but most are not suitable for that.

Not everything is being discarded.

“We’re creating what we call a study collection,” Westmoreland said. “We’re keeping anything that has a design on it.”

Cuzzone said the goal is to show how the pottery was made.

But the vast majority will be discarded for good, they said.

“We’re a small city museum. How many shards do we need?” Westmoreland asked. “Most people want to look at stuff that was used.”

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These items are called “furniture,” Cuzzone said. The were used to stack unfired pottery, she said.



6 responses to “Norwalk Museum move full of surprises”

  1. LWitherspoon

    Thanks for a fascinating story, Nancy.

  2. Bruce Kimmel

    Nancy, thank you for this story. It is now obvious that the decision to move decisively on the Norwalk Museum — creating the special task force, removing the former “curator” — was a great move for the city. Why we allowed the nonsense to go on for so long a time is beyond me.

  3. David McCarthy

    I have to agree. Also, interestingly, I will be the first to point out the extraordinary lengths that Mr. Westmoreland is going to in order to preserve the collection. 40 hours a week? That is an amazing amount of work.

    And as I always say, if there is something being done, undoubtedly there is a McCarthy involved. Welcome to cousin Laura. (Just kidding)

  4. Bruce Kimmel

    My apologies for forgetting to commend David Westmoreland for all the good work he’s doing for the city. Holly Cuzzone should also be applauded for the countless hours she’s spent trying to make heads or tails out of several tons of pottery shards. It’s nice to finally putting our city’s history in proper order.

  5. Marjorie

    What an interesting story, Nancy. You find the most unique story threads and then weave the story together. What rock are you going to uncover next? Keep up the great work.

  6. Broderick I. Sawyer

    A hazard may have been created by placing possibly tons of these shards on the second floor, this may compromise floor support.
    It would be prudent to place them in the basement just to be sure.

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