I didn’t plan on spending my entire afternoon in the New Haven Museum, but my friend and I ended up exploring the place for over two hours, fascinated by the exhibits on New Haven’s past and present. Besides recognizing New Haven’s significant contributions to the world of food (the hamburger and the lollipop?!), I also learned about New Haven as a place full of history and stories. Given that I’m about to spend at least four years of my life here, I almost feel ashamed that I didn’t know about this earlier.
The museum is a relatively small space with only two floors. Nevertheless, its collections and exhibits are amazingly rich in content and diverse in topics. There are four ongoing galleries focused on topics in New Haven history: the New Haven Gallery, which traces the area’s transformation from a Puritan colony in the 17th Century to an industrialized city in the 20th; the Ingersoll Room, which presents some of the finest examples of furniture from the Federalist era; the Maritime Gallery, which introduces New Haven’s close tie to the sea since the colony’s establishment; and the Amistad Gallery, which commemorates the Amistad affair.
Among the ongoing exhibits, I was most impressed by the Amistad Gallery. The Amistad was a Cuban schooner that planned to ship a large group of West Africans to Cuba to sell into slavery. The captives, however, revolted and took over the ship, only to arrive in New Haven in 1839 and be put on trial for murder. But several racial justice advocates kindled public sympathy during the trial, and the captives were eventually freed.
Before walking into the exhibit, the first thing I noticed was a striking line above the entrance: “Cinque lives here,” commemorating Cinque, the leader of the captives’ revolt. One of the most significant pieces in the gallery is a portrait of Cinque by Nathaniel Jocelyn, who was the first American artist to depict an African as more than just a slave. In the painting, Cinque is portrayed with strength, beauty, and a self-assured expression. However, the unconventional artwork aroused discomfort at that time. Initially, it was excluded from public exhibition. Nevertheless, it has become a “symbol of freedom and justice to the anti-slavery movement.”
In addition to the four ongoing galleries on New Haven’s history, the museum has several temporary galleries for themed exhibits. My favorite two are “From Clocks to Lollipops: Made in New Haven” and “Strange Times: Downtown New Haven in the COVID Era.” The Lollipop exhibition was where I learned that both the lollipop and the hamburger originated in New Haven. The exhibit presents over 100 selected consumer goods produced in New Haven over the past 300+ years.
I found the “COVID” exhibit to be extremely relatable. Roderick Topping, who spent most of his adult life in downtown New Haven, uses photography to document the community’s new reality during the pandemic. His photos depict fragments of daily life, such as the once-bustling streets that are now quiet and empty. For long-term New Haven residents, such scenes must be familiar and strange at the same time. Moreover, I found his photos visually striking; most of them are black and white—a choice that, according to Topping, captures the “bleak, lonely, and surreal” memory of the pandemic.
From the past to the present, the New Haven Museum reveals the power of preserving and presenting history and memory. Isn’t it amazing that so many things took place where we stand right now? As the museum states on its website, “New Haven’s history is brought to life for our visitors, inspiring a rich appreciation of the City’s past, present, and future.” Indeed, now that I think about it, my heart is filled with awe.
Next time you eat a burger or grab a lollipop, stop for a moment and take a look at the city around you. Remember to thank New Haven for the treat!