Stories help us learn more about ourselves, more about other people, more about what it means to be human. When you’re immersed in a great book, you’re immersed in a different worldview: you build empathy, you strengthen your ability to imagine new realities. And great museums also do that work, by using storytelling to connect us to objects, buildings, land, texts, and other people. At KTM&HC, I help make those connections for our audiences.
- Katie Burton, strategic storytelling at Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center (KTM&HC)
In 2026, the Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Katie Burton, Director of Strategic Storytelling at the Museum, will lead local efforts to engage the community in this momentous occasion starting next year.
Meet Katie Burton and get ready for her new column "KTM&HC America250" which will make its HamletHub debut in early 2024.
Q: Your academic achievements are truly commendable! How does this impact your role at KTM&HC?
A: I received my bachelor's and master's degrees in English at UConn (go Huskies!) and went on to earn my doctorate in English from Lehigh University. While there, I focused on Literature & Social Justice and spent most of my time teaching undergraduates and reading Victorian and 19th-century American texts, especially texts that mentioned canaries. What I learned while getting those degrees was how to approach, appreciate, create, and share stories in meaningful ways. Words have so much power, and it’s exciting to think about how that can be used for good. Stories help us learn more about ourselves, more about other people, more about what it means to be human. When you’re immersed in a great book, you’re immersed in a different worldview: you build empathy, you strengthen your ability to imagine new realities. And great museums also do that work, by using storytelling to connect us to objects, buildings, land, texts, and other people. At KTM&HC, I help make those connections for our audiences.
Q: In your role as Director of Strategic Storytelling and Grants at the Museum, what is your favorite part of your job?
A: I’ve been at KTM&HC for about two and a half years, and I love so many things about my job!
Essentially, what I do is develop and share our museum’s stories in a variety of different ways: through grants, marketing and communication, and interpretation. I think about how we use words to engage and educate our audiences: how we strategically tell our stories. I love experimenting with words, trying to reach people in different ways, different formats, with different purposes and outcomes in mind.
My work here is also very collaborative, which is another aspect I enjoy. We have a small and talented staff, so we’re always working together to get things done. Being able to think and work together with such awesome people, to hear their perspectives and learn from them, makes me a better professional, and makes the job so much more interesting.
Also, not going to lie, being a museum professional often has the benefit of getting free or discounted admission to other museums, and that is awesome.
Q: KTM&HC is a historical “hub” in the heart of Ridgefield. How are you different from the Ridgefield Historical Society?
A: We think Ridgefield is so lucky to have two locations committed to preserving local history! The difference really is about the difference between a museum and a historical society. Ridgefield Historical Society focuses on collecting and preserving the heritage of our town.
At KTM&HC we focus on our site history – the stories of the generations of people who lived on our land and in our buildings – and how those stories can provide a window to the national stage. We connect our former site residents’ experiences to broader regional and national happenings. It’s our mission to be a place where people can gather, discuss, and make past/present connections – it’s really important to us that we help audiences of all ages develop curiosity, empathy, and critical thinking.
Q: KTM&HC's mission includes this statement: “Creating a space for ongoing learning and open dialogue about how the events of the past connect to the present and shape our future”. What does this mean and how are you implementing it?
A: We’re invested in being a place where people can come to be curious, to ask questions, and to learn about history and its larger significance. We provide context and help people understand the complexities of history: talking with our visitors about how we know what we know, providing glimpses into the different perspectives and experiences of people who lived at our site, sharing the stories of people whose voices have been marginalized. We do this because we know that a fuller understanding of our past helps us better understand our present: we can identify patterns, have a better sense of how current situations were shaped. Two concrete ways we’re doing this:
1) Our tours are dialogue-based, which means interpreters ask visitors questions, encourage them to share their own knowledge and experiences, and make connections between the past and present. Though we have central themes and objectives, prioritizing dialogue means that every tour is different, depending on who’s there and what they contribute.
2) We do a lot of collaborative programming with other local organizations, where we invite the public to respond and discuss. These allow us to bring in other perspectives, other strategies for engaging with and making connections to history.
Some examples: Heritage in Motion with Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, where musicians performed and connected their art with cultural traditions; Suburbs with Thrown Stone Theatre, where actors wrote plays based on local history and connected them to issues of discrimination today; and First Principles, where we join with Ridgefield Library, Ridgefield Historical Society, Ridgefield League of Women Voters, and the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter to develop and promote programming examining our constitutional amendments, historically and today.
Q: Anything you wish I asked?
A: Would love to share a bit about our ongoing reinterpretation! In 2021, our museum received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a major reinterpretation project: an initiative to reexamine the stories we tell at our site, in our tours, our exhibits, and our programs. The project is ongoing – thanks in part to a 2023-2024 Planning Grant by CT Humanities – and we continue to make exciting progress creating experiences that are dialogue-based, interactive, and prioritize stories and voices of those who had previously been marginalized and/or underrepresented.
To see what we’ve been up to, visitors can come take our new “War at Home” tour, offered daily Thursdays through Sundays – it shares what the members of the Keeler household might’ve experienced during the Battle of Ridgefield, and the impact the Revolutionary War had on families and the community. And we have a new tour in the works that focuses on our early 20th-century site history: how people who lived and worked on our site built community in a rapidly changing town landscape. This will include stories about the Gilbert family, who summered on our site, as well as the immigrants and longtime town residents who kept the property running year-round. We’re excited about the possibilities with this new tour, as we’re going to be interpreting new sections of the museum and showcasing some of our collection strengths: textiles and photography.
Q: Favorite book
Q: Favorite hobby
Q: Favorite Saturday activity
A: Outside on a sunny day, sitting next to my amazing husband, a thermos full of chai in hand, watching my three amazing children play soccer. Or reading.
Visit Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center online https://keelertavernmuseum.org/ and get ready for America250 launching in early 2024!