By Lynne Williamson and Jody Blankenship
In June, the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program (CHAP) became a part of the Connecticut Historical Society. Originally developed by and based at the Institute for Community Research in Hartford since 1991, CHAP is a wonderful program that works with communities across the state to document and share all of Connecticut’s stories through folk and traditional arts. The CHS and CHAP came together because of a common mission and goal: to cultivate a vibrant sense of place and history in communities across Connecticut.
We think that one of the most interesting histories in our state is how successive waves of immigrants have influenced and been influenced by Connecticut. And how, from these interactions and exchanges, we have redefined or developed new understandings who we are and how we express ourselves. Since history is fundamentally the study of change over time, CHAP and its projects allow our state to see this change through different perspectives. They help us to better understand how we have become who we are and what we aspire to become.
The CHAP’s current project is titled “Mas,” which is short for “masquerade.” This project documents, shares, and keeps vibrant the West Indian tradition of the pre-Lenten festival (similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans) marked by the “playing”(performing) of masqueraders in vibrant costumes they have fashioned. Here in Hartford the tradition is celebrated in August during the week-long West Indian Independence Day Celebration and Parade. The Mas project is an opportunity for Hartford artists from Trinidad who grew up with Mas to pass along their traditional costume design and construction techniques to middle and high school students. In addition, the project teaches young people valuable skills and habits, from showing up on time and following instructions, to problem solving and critical thinking, as well as developing their natural creativity. The costumes created through this project were worn by the students and more than 70 volunteer performers at the Taste of the Caribbean and Jerk Festival at the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on August 1, at the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s block party, and at the West Indian Parade and Bushnell Park Festival on August 8. Next, they will be displayed in an exhibit at the CHS, titled Mas: Costumes from Hartford’s West Indian Community that will open on August 27.
A couple of weeks ago some of us had an opportunity to visit the Mas workshop in Hartford’s north end. Seeing students work intently, witnessing teen-leaders managing teams of peers, and watching community elders passing along their wisdom was heartening. This project is a great example of how the CHS hopes to involve our broader community. This is history as and where it happens – there are exciting and relevant stories to be told all around us, and CHS will be part of helping people tell their story.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get witnessing this project. We welcome you to experience it up close at the CHS on August 27 at 5:30 p.m. as we open the Mas exhibit. You’ll be able to hear traditional steel band music, meet some of the project participants who will wear their costumes, and eat some delicious West Indian foods. Come join us in celebrating Connecticut’s living history!
Jody Blankenship believes that history provides a framework and context for understanding and thriving in our ever-changing world. As executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society, he understands that Connecticut’s unique narrative encompasses a broad swath of the American experience that gives us perspective about who we are and where we are going.
Under Jody’s leadership, the Connecticut Historical Society is collaborating with the numerous historical organizations across the state that are collecting, interpreting and sharing Connecticut’s story. He continually seeks opportunities where history can be applied for the advancement of the public good, supporting the creativity, passion and courage of our state’s residents to act on the critical challenges of our time.
Lynne Williamson has directed the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program (CHAP) at the Institute for Community Research since 1993. In June 2015, CHAP began its partnership with the Connecticut Historical Society and moved into the Connecticut Historical Society offices. Lynne’s work continues to involve professional museum practice, community-based oral history and technical assistance programs, arts administration, teaching, and cultural conservation.
About the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program (CHAP)
The Institute for Community Research established the Cultural Heritage Arts Program in 1991 to document the state’s rich and diverse cultural traditions and to share the excellent artistic work and community experiences of folk artists living here. CHAP began its partnership with the Connecticut Historical Society in June 2015, moving its offices to the CHS building. CHAP’s activities contribute to greater public understanding of Connecticut’s history, cultural character, and changing demographics. CHAP partners with artists and their communities to record their traditional art forms and cultural practices, provides technical assistance that strengthens their resources, and develops public presentations that bring traditional artists and the stories of their communities to new audiences. Part of a nationwide network of public folklore programs, CHAP serves as Connecticut’s official folk and traditional arts program with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Connecticut Office of the Arts/Department of Economic and Community Development, the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the Connecticut Humanities Council, the City of Hartford and several local foundations.
About the Connecticut Historical Society
A private, nonprofit, educational organization established in 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Located at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, the CHS houses a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center that are open to the public and funded by private contributions. The CHS’s collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials accessible at our campus and on loan at other organizations.
The CHS collection, programs and exhibits help Connecticut residents connect with each other, have conversations that shape our communities, and make informed decisions based on our past and present.