Westport history museum set to reopen next week

WESTPORT — When schools in town closed abruptly in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramin Ganeshram, executive director of the Westport Museum for History and Culture, decided to follow suit.

“We were prepping a new exhibit,” Ganeshram said. “And we closed down. This is when we thought we’d be closed for a few weeks. But we’ve been closed ever since.”

But the museum, housed at the historic Bradley-Wheeler House at 25 Avery Place, is planning to reopen on Oct. 1 for the first time since the pandemic hit. Due to the continued presence of COVID-19, masks will be required, and visitors will have to book time slots in advance.

No more than 10 people will be allowed in a tour group at any time, and capacity in the building’s program space — where special events and presentations happen — will be capped at 15 or 20 people.

“We’re discussing requiring proof of vaccination, but we haven’t decided yet,” Ganeshram said.

Though the pandemic is soldiering on, she said she decided it was time to reopen the museum and history center because of the tone of conversations she had been hearing, largely around political and social justice issues.

“We’re in the business of educating people about history,” Ganeshram said. “We’re at a critical time in our nation’s history where there is a lot of acrimonious discourse. And a lot of that is based on a misunderstanding of history.”

History museums such as Westport’s are a place people can go to view primary documents about history — everything from crockery and opera glasses to deeds of sale for slaves. “This is a place to go for information,” Ganeshram said.

Even through the heights of the pandemic, Ganeshram said, museum staff worked to provide programming and education to the public. Shortly after last year’s shutdown, the center made some presentations available online. Staff also offered walking tours and even a driving tour of Westport that allowed people to scan a QR code and learn about the town’s history as they drove.

But Ganeshram said she’s pleased to be able to offer in person programming once again. In preparation for the reopening, staff are readying a number of exhibits — including one that had been up for only three weeks when the museum closed last year.

That exhibit is about Sigrid Schultz, a female reporter, and longtime Westport resident, who Ganeshram said was embedded in Nazi Germany and was the first female bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune’s Central Europe Bureau. As her job became increasingly treacherous, she was forced to write under a pseudonym and several attempts were made on her life.

Eventually, Schultz was forced to leave Germany after being injured in an air raid. Even in Westport, historical records showed, she continued to write about anti-Semitism and extremism. Ganeshram said her story is an example of how the history of Westport is a good lens through which to examine national and even global history.

“(Schultz) was a Westport resident, but what was talked about was very important to our time,” Ganeshram said.

Other exhibits planned include one focusing on public health at large with a special focus on mental health and a hyperlocal exhibit on Westport’s past. The exhibit being prepared during the initial shutdown about photographer Nell Dorr is expected to open sometime next year.

Ganeshram said she’s looking forward to the reopening, because learning about the past can teach people about the present. “Who we are culturally, who we are as a nation, and who we are as a town is based on our cultural habits, and those are based on past events,” she said. “And those past events are history.”