New Haven Museum and Historical Society
Nestled within the Yale University campus, the New Haven Museum and Historical Society stands as the premier source for both local and Connecticut history, and within its massive collection, visitors can discover historical exhibits that span centuries and feature art, photography, furniture, rare books, and other artifacts detailing New Haven’s history. Nearly 375 years of history are presented within the colonial style building located down the street from the acclaimed Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. From collections showcasing New Haven Colony’s puritan beginnings in 1638 to permanent exhibitions associated with famous New Haven residents such as Eli Whitney and Benedict Arnold, visitors can explore the various nuances that made up the city’s past.
Backstory and Context
Once known simply as the New Haven Colony Historical Society, this museum dates back to its founding in 1862 with the mission to collect, preserve, and present New Haven’s history to the public. However, the location of the museum was moved several times throughout 19th century New Haven, including the City Hall and at the State House on the Green. This endured until 1929, when the current building was designed by notable colonial architect, J. Frederick Kelly, and then built on Whitney Avenue.
It was during this time that the holdings at the museum expanded to include the Whitney Library, the city’s Photographic Archive, and the Curatorial Department. Among these collections, the Whitney Library on the museum’s first floor carries the largest collection of historical records pertinent to New Haven’s history. In fact, this library contains more than 300 rare manuscript collections, 4,000 architectural resources, and nearly 30,000 printed titles that includes both pamphlets and monographs. Every year, this library services more than 1,300 researchers, professors, genealogists, and history enthusiasts.1
The New Haven Museum and Historical Society does much more than simply collect and organize historical documents, photographs, and works of art, as this museum also seeks to provide educational services to the public through its Education Department. In fact, the New Haven Colony Historical Society has always put emphasis on local scholarship, and in the museum’s early days, members would give lectures and publish findings in the New Haven Colony Historical Society Papers.
Nowadays, the museum’s Education Department offers workshops, lectures, tours, and a variety of activities for both visitors and school groups. Before making a trip to the museum, make sure to check the Event Calendar to see what activities the museum is currently sponsoring or hosting. Educators and parents can work with the museum to develop school programs, scouting programs, family programs, and much more.2
Although the New Haven Museum and Historical Society continually features a several changing exhibits a year, it is the permanent and special exhibitions that truly expose New Haven’s past. The Fine Arts section, for example, offers a visual tour of paintings and landscapes created by local artists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. On the other hand, technology buffs can actually explore an original model and full-size working version of Eli Whitney’s revolutionary cotton gin, as well as one of the first Morse code receivers and a reconstruction of the area’s first telephone switchboard.
Other permanent exhibitions are found in The New Haven Gallery, The Ingersoll Room, The Amistad Gallery, The Clement Room, and The Maritime Gallery, each of which offers a different frame to view New Haven’s history.3