Pequot Museum & the Hill-Stead Museum

A friend and I visited the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT today. I’d been wanting to go to this museum since I moved here, but things just kept getting in the way.

Overall, it was a pretty cool museum — one that spared no expense. It’s nice place. My friend and I were particularly intrigued by the supercool looking firehouse on the reservation — very cool architecture. We both agreed that this was the hippest fire station either of us had ever seen. And I’ve been to wedding receptions at fire stations.The museum had a lot of diorama-type displays — the “ancient peoples” displays of history museums. Those kids of exhibits always make me think of this passage in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden is in the Museum of Natural History in NYC by the Park, and he describes the diorama exhibits and mentions how he feels comforted by them because they never change, that no mater when he visits, that eskimo will always just have caught a fish, and that deer-skinned clothed woman will always be starting a fire. Not that there’s any correlation between the two, other than the fact that those kinds of exhibits make me think of the novel.

While I did really like the museum, I wasn’t blown away by it like I was the National Civil Rights Museum, which I visited last year when I was in Memphis. I highly recommend that one.

Last week we went to the Hill-Stead Museum, which I also had been wanting to see for awhile. It was an enjoyable tour — and I really like having a tour guide. But I also thought the museum was a little stodgy. Okay — I do love china, especially antique china (it’s my one anglo-phile weakness) (okay — Jane Austen, too) (Who am I kinding — there’s lots more English “stuff” I like — but not colonialism!). But the museum is a little self-important in terms of commemorating Theodate Pope and her wealthy, art-collecting father, Alfred. And when we asked questions of our tour guide, she did not seem to like that our interests went beyond the realms of the immaculate life of Theodate Pope, whose name incidentally means “gift of God,” a name she took on. I’m going to start calling myself Gift of God and see how people react.

Don’t get me wrong, the Hill-Stead museum and grounds seem to do a lot of great things, like the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and I did enjoy the museum. At one point we saw these two little paintings — clearly Indian in origin, and I think they may have been mughal miniatures — a fascination of Bharati Mukherjee. In an interview called “Holders of the Word”, she describes the way these paintings influence her writing. When I asked the guide about these two works, she consulted the “room guides” to all the pieces of artwork, and those were not listed. While there were two or three Japanese woodcut prints in the house, the fact that there was no listing for these obviously eastern pieces made me think that this house had a particularly Eurocentric point of view. And that irked me a little. I suppose it has every right to be Eurocentric, but again, it seemed a little like the wealthy class patting itself on the back for being so wealthy. I was particularly interested in the library which had a large collection of old books. I searched titles that the family owned — and I saw noting that seemed “against the grain” in any way. The guide was trying to portray Theodate (and she continually referred to her as Theodate) as this very progressive woman, simply because she became an architect at the turn of the 20th century. She opposed a woman’s right to vote — how progressive could she be. So she was wealthy enough to pursue her own goals… Grr.

Clearly I felt some classism that drove me a little nuts.Nonetheless, I plan on going to see Billy Collins this summer. So there.

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3 thoughts on “Pequot Museum & the Hill-Stead Museum

  1. Sharon Stotz says:

    Dear Heidi,

    I was glad to read that, overall, you did enjoy your visit to Hill-Stead museum. I can understand how we appear a little stodgy, after all, we are a microcosm of a wealthy lifestyle a century ago. The family story is what we are all about. Mr. Pope’s passion for the “new painting” is the focus of the collection. Far from the masters that most of the wealthy were collecting at that time to showcase their wealth (and pat themselves on the back), Mr. Pope was collecting paintings that very few of his colleagues collected, understood or appreciated because as he put it, he “rose to” the paintings. Because Theodate felt that art belonged where the public could enjoy it, she set up Hill-Stead as a museum when she died.

    Theodate did not choose her name because it meant “gift of God”, she chose it out of respect and love for her adored Quaker grandmother, Theodate Stackpole Pope. We tend to mention its meaning because everyone asks what it means if we don’t! I am sorry the guide appeared unhappy if your questions went beyond our family and collection, perhaps she just didn’t have the answers (our guides are always acquiring new knowledge, it just takes time – even after 35 years here wearing many hats, curatorial, rights and reproductions, facility rentals, education, etc. I still don’t have all the answers).

    Out of respect for her father during his lifetime, Theodate did not support suffrage. After his death she became active in the cause. One of her letters to the Governor was even published in the Hartford Courant. She also was very interested in socialism and there are a number of books on the subject in the library. She was very involved in the community, starting sewing classes, rug-hooking classes, the boys club, and always had holiday parties and movies for the local children, etc. She also had a very interesting circle of friends, including the muckraker, Ida Tarbell and pioneer of industrial medicine, Alice Hamilton.

    Of course the paintings are the most important aspect of the collection, but two of the “runner-ups” are the collection of thirty beautiful Japanese woodblock prints and Chinese pottery from dynasties spanning two thousand years. Traveling in those days was not as quick and easy as it is today, so the Popes did not make it to Asia, but John and Theodate Riddle toured China, Japan and Korea in 1919.

    We know very little about the two pictures that you mentioned. They are listed on the room guide as Indo-Persian paintings, your guide just didn’t find them. If you know someone that could tell us more, we would love to learn more. The museum does not have the money to hire experts, so we often rely on experts who are willing to share their knowledge with us.

    Sharon Stotz
    Education Coordinator
    Hill-Stead Museum

    P.S. If you have never heard Billy Collins read his poetry in person, you are in for a treat! He has been here a couple of times and is by far my favorite.

  2. heidi says:


    Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and thorough reply! I feared that I might come off as a bit too harsh, because I did enjoy my visit, but at times, I feel a bit to Euro’d out, if that makes sense, and through no fault of Hill-Stead.

    I was a tour guide once myself — as a park Ranger in the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site — for one summer, so I know how challenging it is to research and learn to deliver a great tour. Our guide was, for the most part, very knowledgable. She just may not have known some of the off-the-beaten path sort of info we asked about. But YOU have been extraordinarily helpful in your comment.

    I was a little sad that there wasn’t info on the two works of Indian origin, mainly because it has become a significant interest of mine.

    I would indeed recommend the museum to friends and family — and even moreso because of your thoughtful response. Clearly the people who work there really care about the place, and that makes an enormous difference.

    Also — I have seen Billy Collins a number of times, and I even had a lunch-chat with him about his poem “On Turning Ten.” I love to teach his poetry, so I will surely be there for the event!

    Thanks again!


  3. Sharon Stotz says:


    Thank you for your very lovely response as well! I would love to meet you when you come for the Billy Collins reading. Just ask for me in the shop and they will track me down!

    Best Regards,

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