An exhibition 200 years in the making

By Kristina Dorsey


Published 07/03/2012

Photo courtesy of Stonington Historical Society
The flag that flew in Stonington while the British fired on the town in August 1814.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is, of course, a big milestone – so significant that a number of organizations in southeastern Connecticut wanted to mark it in a major way.

They ultimately decided to work together on a project, creating an exhibition that opens Friday at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

Five organizations – the Stonington Historical Society, Mystic Seaport, the New London County Historical Society, the New London Maritime Society and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum – joined forces for “The Rockets’ Red Glare – The War of 1812 in Connecticut.”

The initial discussions began about three years ago. Edward Baker, the executive director of the New London County Historical Society who is the project manager for this collaboration, says the organizations agreed to contribute artifacts to one main, major exhibit rather than try to do five separate shows on their own.

“Instead of each one of us trying to go for a small local audience, we thought if we bring our resources together, we can go for a statewide and, in fact, even a national audience,” he says.

Then, it was a matter of nailing down the details.

“We got together and said, ‘Well, what do we want to do, how do we want to do it, and how do we make it happen?'” Baker says.

Lyman Allyn Art Museum had a window of availability in its exhibition schedule, so the show could be installed there.

And it turned out that the exhibition opening date coincided with the arrival in New London of OpSail.

“It was very fortuitous,” Baker says.

So, too, was the mix of participating groups. Bringing together so many organizations to work on a single exhibit is a pretty unusual arrangement, Fred Calabretta notes. Calabretta, the curator at Mystic Seaport, is the guest curator for “The Rockets’ Red Glare.”

“I think collaborations like this aren’t easy to pull off. Everyone has different needs, different priorities and special interests, but it’s a really good working group, and everybody worked toward a common goal,” he says. “It was a good example of a collaborative project.”

The organizations received a planning grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council and then, once the planning was completed, they were given an implementation grant from the council. Calabretta says he thinks the project appealed to the council because, with a single grant award, they were supporting five organizations.

The Coby Foundation of New York also provided funding. Coby focuses its support on exhibits featuring important textiles. In this case, that textile was the Stonington flag that flew while the British fired on the town in August 1814.

That piece, in fact, serves as the centerpiece of the “Rockets’ Red Glare” exhibit. The 11- by 18-foot flag survived four days of bombardment and took nine direct hits.

“It has always been one of the most treasured objects in the collection of the Stonington Historical Society,” Baker says. “But, in truth, very few people know about that flag and know about that story if you’re not from Stonington. That was certainly a primary motivation for Meredith (Brown, former Stonington Historical Society president). He wanted to get the story known by more people.”

Calabretta says that, for the exhibit, the goal was to find a balance between using the strongest artifacts and making sure there was a good representation from all the partners’ collections. It worked out well, he adds, because all the organizations have some unique artifacts.

That includes a militia coat from the Stonington Historical Society that shows the damage caused by a cannon explosion. The coat was worn by John Miner, who was 19 when he was injured helping to defend Stonington. He was with a crew that was loading a cannon to fire at the British. They accidentally loaded the cannon before it had cooled, setting off a premature explosion. He survived, but the blast injured his head, neck and shoulder. His family kept the coat, which shows significant damage.

Among the pieces from the Lyman Allyn is the painting — in oil, on a mirror — of a New London encampment of the War of 1812. The 1815 work, by an unknown artist, looks to be idealized. The text in Glenn S. Gordinier’s companion book describes it as showing “militiamen in their tidy uniforms relaxing, lounging, and smoking, suggesting a summer outing rather than a military encampment. In actuality, Connecticut militiamen stationed in Groton and New London commonly endured miserable food, leaky tents, and inadequate arms and equipment.”

On view in “The Rockets’ Red Glare,” too, are an early 19th-century sea bag embroidered with War of 1812 battle scenes (it’s from Mystic Seaport); a model of the USS Constitution, with a base made from wood taken from the Constitution (Mystic Seaport); a map of the British blockade of New London (New London County Historical Society); and a spent carcass of one of the rockets the British fired at Stonington. (The exhibit design is by Jeff Crewe of Mystic.)

The exhibit complements the striking visuals with an aural element. Audio programs have been created and will be motion-activated. Three programs are featured: one is an overview; one focuses on the Battle of Stonington; and one employs music from that period. The spoken-word audios use quotes from participants or witnesses, with those words read by actors. Sound effects have been woven in as well.

As far as the exhibit’s impact goes, Calabretta hopes museum-goers will learn that, while this was a little-known war, it had a major effect on Connecticut.

“The state was so dependent on maritime commerce. That was really disrupted severely before the war and during the war,” he says.

Additionally, the danger that people who lived on the coast felt was palpable. British ships — some with crews of 450 men — were right offshore.

“It was a really formidable force, just few miles from the coast,” Calabretta says. “I try to visualize in my own mind what it would be like today — if there were ships right off the shore with al-Qaeda operatives or something onboard and how we would feel. Or German or Japanese ships during WWII. It was a very real threat.”

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