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A Sea Half-Full

Fairfield Museum Explores Fairfield’s Coast: Past to Future



Two men wade through the flooding in the Beach Road area caused by the hurricane of 1953.

Summer may be a distant memory, but at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, you can still relax in beach chairs, try on clam-digging gear, learn about the importance of the salt marsh, and take in views of the Connecticut coastline. Life at the beach has been animated in the museum’s latest exhibition, Rising Tides (now thru February 28, 2017.) The ambitious and thought-provoking exhibit will fill two galleries, addressing the future as well as the past.

The exhibition, featuring objects such as 1900s bathing suits, shellfish rakes, photographs, paintings, and maps, explores the history of how people have lived along the coast in this region, the pleasures and dangers of the shore, and how Fairfield and neighboring communities are responding and planning for future sea-level rise and the need for storm protection. “Living on the coast has always been part of Fairfield’s identity, whether we’re thinking of sea captains or beachgoers,” said Elizabeth Rose, museum library director. “This exhibition looks at both the past and the future of what it means to live along the shore.” 

It’s hard to imagine, but the “beach area” was not always populated by year-round residents. Instead, the coastline was seen and used as an economic resource. Native people, English colonists, and their descendants all took advantage of the shoreline’s abundant shellfish as well as its salt marshes with hay and grasses that attracted a range of animals. Oysters, digging clams, and fishing were all important aspects of Fairfield’s economy. The coastline also served as a “highway of commerce” in the 18th and 19th centuries, as ships carried goods like flax, livestock, and Southport globe onions from Fairfield farms to New York, Boston, and the West Indies. 

It was not until the turn of the 20th century when newfound leisure time and alternative forms of transportation influenced shoreline towns like Fairfield, that people began to see the beach as a place for recreation. Development began along the beach around that time, and beach cottages sprang up to house vacationers and local families. (Photo: Pine Creek beach circa 1920.)

Pavilions and public beaches provided access to those who did not live along the shore, and the Pequot Yacht Club helped begin an era of recreational sailing as the shipping businesses declined. 

Living near the water, of course, comes with the risk of storms and floods. Since 1635, eight extreme hurricanes have hit New England. Rising Tides showcases photography of hurricane damage along the shore, particularly the destruction from the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes. Photos of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 connect the past and present, and a special area invites people to share their memories of the storm.

“Because the coastline is still changing, we are also going to be taking this opportunity to preserve today’s histories by inviting Fairfield residents to the Museum to share their coastline stories,” says exhibitions curator Laurie Lamarre. “We are interested in hearing from locals who lived through some of our recent storms, and we will have a special community event on January 26 for that very purpose.” 

The final piece of Rising Tides explores the future of the coast and the challenges of sea-level rise. Around the world, coastal planners are making decisions about whether to create a more resilient shoreline or to consider retreating. The exhibition explores how Fairfield and Bridgeport are taking action in different ways.  

What makes the Rising Tides exhibition particularly special is that it will serve as a starting point for many interesting and vital conversations for the community. Forums, panels, lectures, and events related to the coast—on topics ranging from protecting your home to renewable energy—will take place from now through February. 

“During Superstorm Sandy, kayakers paddled through the parking lot of the Fairfield Museum,” says museum executive director Mike Jehle. “We witnessed first-hand the need to examine how coastal adaptations of the past impact present community policy and sustainability. This exhibition, Rising Tides, is our way of looking to the past of the Connecticut coastline to help those who live here prepare for the future. We invite the community to participate in our many programs and to become involved in this very important conversation.”

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