The Westport Historical Society hosted an opening of two new exhibits last week: Taking the Cure: Public Health 1880-1960 and Vision & Dignity: The Art of George Hand Wright. Either one would be reason enough to visit this gem of a resource in the heart of downtown, but together they are especially compelling motivation.
Taking the Cure examines historical perspectives on and treatments for mental illness. The straightjacket, the register of poisons, and the definitions of various ‘ailments’, including my personal favorite for ‘hysteria’ pack this small room with a strong punch. As the program notes, “The goal of the exhibit is to spark conversation and consideration among visitors in this time when mental health and welfare has become a pressing national discussion.”
Vision & Dignity fills several rooms with the fascinating, delightfully rendered work of artist George Hand Wright, who moved to Westport from Pennsylvania in 1908. It addresses and reflects on myriad events and milieus, from World War I, to the Caribbean, New Orleans, and very rural Connecticut. Each piece warrants close examination, and fortunately for us, Ed Gerber, steward of these works, was on hand to walk us through and share background and anecdotes for several pieces. The exhibit evoked Norman Rockwell in the way it “portrays the dignity of everyday life and everyday people without irony or judgment” (exhibit program).
After walking through the charming building with Ed and Bob Mitchell (historian extraordinaire, also of the WHS) I realized how much I’ve been missing. Like so many natives of any given locale, we often ignore the marvels in our own backyard until visitors come and we see things with new eyes, or exhibits like this force us to open them. How many New Yorkers haven’t or don’t ever visit the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building? I know many folks in England who have never been to Stratford Upon Avon, and many Stratford Upon Avoners who have never attended a performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company or any of the Shakespeare homes. But those attractions admittedly require much more time and effort than a stroll around the WHS and a chat with some of its knowledgeable staff. I have lived here for 20 two years and had never even heard of George Hand Wright or Westport’s two sanitoriums.
Learning more about the heritage that we all share made me feel even more connected to my hometown, and I intend to visit the WHS more frequently to delve deeper into their collection and strengthen this connection even further.