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11/23/2022 12:55 PM

John Proto: Trolleys Are More Than Transportation

As executive director at the Shore Line Trolley Museum, John Proto is keeping an eye on the future while preserving the past. Photo by Aaron Rubin/The Courier

From the time he was six years old, John Proto recognized the wonder of trolley cars. It became almost mandatory that he and his family visit the Shore Line Trolley Museum every year.

“It was really like a daddy-and-me trip: every single year we had to come here,” says John. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they surprised us one year with a trip to Disney. I said, ‘Well, that’s great, but does that mean we can’t go to the Trolley Museum?’”

Since then, his passion for the museum and its mission to preserve and share the social and technological history of the country’s oldest continuously running suburban trolley line has sprouted into him now being the exhibit’s executive director. And in that position, he tries to educate visitors and patrons of the museum that trolley cars are not just relics of a bygone era when they were the convenient chief mode of urban transportation. Rather, they are emblematic of such mesmerizing, rapid acceleration in technological capabilities at the onset of the 20th century, and it happened significantly in East Haven and around Connecticut.

“It really shows the ingenuity and importance of what happened at the turn of the last century. How a lot of these inventors had little more than a grade school education and were incredibly dedicated, to me, shows how important the Industrial Age was to bring us to where we are now," John says. "I can’t fathom in the course of 50 years: telephone, electric light, electric streetcars, gas-powered automobiles. I think what we see now, it’s all an offshoot of that. I can’t possibly imagine how exciting that time actually was.”

In equal measures, John points out the romantic perspective of the Golden Age of Rail Travel, when trolleys were a central part of transportation.

“When people find out that this trolley line has been operating for 120 years and connected New Haven with the shoreline, they’re absolutely amazed," says John. "There was a certain romance about being in the cars. You took them to places like Savin Rock, the movies, or amusement parks. People met each other; relationships were formed. People fell in love and got married by meeting on the trolley car, which sounds really bizarre! This isn’t just a railway museum. This is a living history museum.”

As the administrative leader of the museum, John's responsibilities are not strictly within that area of work. Instead, it’s a flexible position, especially for a smaller type of exhibition.

“When you’re an executive director in a small organization, the typical day could run a gambit. Anywhere from applying for a grant to cleaning a bathroom.”

Among his many priorities as executive director, the Museum is currently looking to the future in preserving the history presented at the 75-year-old institution for the next exact period of time, adapting it to the changing modern world. This is motivated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on museum establishments across the country, including the Trolley Museum.

“Whatever was isn’t anymore. Everything’s been turned upside down. And [we’re] really just reinventing the museum for a modern audience,” says John. “Post-COVID, we’re having more trouble getting volunteers. And that’s industry-wide in non-profits.”

“It’s going to be a lot of virtual experiences. We also have a collection of 75,000 photos. Those are going to be digitized, especially Connecticut-based ones. We’re going to start with that to make that available for people. It’s almost like a museum within a museum.”

John also envisions more educational programming at the museum, including sensory-friendly sessions tailored towards children on the autism spectrum and other special needs, which will begin next year. With 28 libraries across the state taking advantage of the museum’s pass program, education at the museum could be expanded beyond New Haven county, as John sees opportunities for underprivileged individuals and families to learn about the historic service streetcars played in the economy and growth of Connecticut.

“Trolleys ran all over the state, they interconnected every major city, and they were a huge part in creating suburbia. [I ask], ‘How can I bring the education message to the areas of the state that are not New Haven-based?’”

He stresses the importance of adapting the museum and the property on which it stands to modern times in regard to climate change, which would still mean education through the vessel of trolleys.

“Everything we do is educational, but we also have 77 acres of absolute, beautiful marshland. We had people from the USGS [United States Geological Survey] a couple of weeks ago talking about climate change, so I’d like to bring people in so that they can actually experience and see what climate change is doing by going for a ride on our trolleys.”

For any aspiring museum curators and directors who are looking to preserve history and educate future generations on the significance any chosen subject, John has some sound advice for their success:

“Look at your mission, find out how you can expand your mission, and stay true to what the museum is supposed to be. Eyes wide-open as to possibilities because possibilities for museums are absolutely endless. They have to keep that message out. You can’t close yourself within the confines of your membership. Everybody has to know what it is you do, why you do it, and how you do it better than anyone else.”