In late 2022, the Ridgefield Historical Society engaged Stephen Bartkus, former director and curator of the Gunn Museum in Washington, CT, to serve as interim executive director as we refine our strategic plan in preparation for the decades ahead. Bartkus, an historian and practicing archaeologist, brings decades of excellence and a fresh eye to the history of Ridgefield.
Tell us how and when you knew you wanted to go into history and make a profession of it?
I became hooked on history at young age. Stumbling upon old bottle dumps as a child, when
exploring the woods around my neighborhood, sparked my curiosity in the past. I started
collecting antiques and developed a passion for preserving history. One thing led to another, I
joined my local Historical Society as a teenager, eventually volunteered to become their curator after college, and then became a board member as my career at the Gunn Museum began.
In middle school we had an assignment to write a paper about the profession we wanted to
pursue when we grew up, and I picked archaeologist. I couldn’t believe I could actually get
compensated for something that I loved. Encouraged by my late father who had a mutual
interest in history, I’ve been fortunate to experience Connecticut’s heritage hands-on in
museums and archaeology for over 20 years now. Every day has been an adventure immersed
in the past!
As a consultant you currently work with several organizations sharing your expertise and
learnings to help them move forward and preserve their history in meaningful and lasting
ways. What is appealing to you about Ridgefield?
I believe in the power of history to transform and strengthen communities and I’m attracted to
organizations where I can make a significant and positive impact. I personally find Ridgefield to
be a vibrant arts and culture destination, with a rich history that is cherished by its residents.
With my history and archaeology background I’ve always had an interest in the Battle of
Ridgefield – I first attended the reenactment of the battle in 2017 and have been a strong
advocate for the Ridgefield Historical Society’s pursuit of the National Parks Service Battlefield
grants to research, recognize, and celebrate the amazing history that you have here – right at
Do you have a ‘favorite’ period of history — be it Ridgefield, New England, U.S. or global?
What interests me, and what I was able to bring to life at the Gunn Museum in Washington,
was the beauty and interconnectedness of a town’s entire history. Certainly, there are events
in a community’s past that are prominent and celebrated, and they are fabulous. But there are
so many other factors — geography, trade, fortune or misfortune, weather, individuals,
migration — that define and profoundly contribute to how a town has arrived at today. And all of
that interests me greatly. What I love about the Ridgefield Historical Society is the breadth and
commitment to capturing all of this so that future generations will understand the past and
appreciate the present.
What does your role encompass at the Ridgefield Historical Society?
As the interim executive director, I am focused on day-to-day operations, managing our grants
and events and keeping the operation running in optimal ways. I’m also working with the Board
to look at areas for both focus and refinement so the work we do continues to be impactful and
meaningful to the community and visitors. Initiatives that I’ve undertaken include digitizing,
transcribing, and sharing the Historical Society’s large oral history collection and resuming oral
history interviews with a focus on preserving the stories of underrepresented communities;
exploration of preservation plans for historic town buildings; and the Battle of Ridgefield Phase 2
Project which will support further research and archaeological testing to better inform us about
that important event.
What might you say to a person who doesn’t like history?
History is a serious word and a daunting concept – when you consider all that has happened
before us. There is no way to learn it all. But history is stories, and people, and puzzles, and
houses, and all the things that surround us today. It’s the ground upon which we walk. Each
element and clue builds upon another, ultimately providing an extraordinary story which is
endlessly interesting and enlightening.