Rotunda Exhibit Highlights Maria Bissell Hotchkiss

Mrs. Joan Baldwin, curator of special collections, curated a collection of items related to Bissells life.


Mrs. Joan Baldwin, curator of special collections, curated a collection of items related to Bissell’s life.

Although the school was only boys until 1974, it was founded by a woman, Maria Bissell Hotchkiss. Last year, faculty and students worked to create an exhibit shedding light on Bissell’s life, which can now be viewed in the Rotunda.

Last September, Mrs. Joan Baldwin, curator of special collections, began to research Bissell’s life, eventually forming a collection of items to be featured. The collection includes a portrait of Bissell, along with objects of the 19th century that offer insight into her life. Mrs. Baldwin curated many of the artifacts from surrounding communities in Lakeville as well as the Hotchkiss Archives and Special Collections. “The way the school talked about Bissell over the years wasn’t always very flattering, so I thought it would be nice to remember that this school, which has previously been very male and white-oriented, had a woman founder that probably didn’t agree with the way this school was run,” Mrs. Baldwin said.

In creating the exhibit, Mrs. Baldwin’s goal was to highlight the role of women in the school’s history. She worked closely with the Litchfield Historical Society to find two dresses that exemplified the type of clothing Bissell might have worn. Several examples of women’s complex hoop skirts hang under the skylight in the center of the Rotunda. According to Baldwin, the dresses emphasized how male oppression affected Bissell’s life. “Women’s underwear at the time was extremely constricting, which was a metaphor for a lot of women’s lives,” Mrs. Baldwin said.  

Viewers of the exhibit were touched by Bissell’s significance in the school’s history. Marcus Lam ’23 commented “It’s surreal that Bissell’s life is so obscured by other figures and that Hotchkiss wasn’t even her maiden name – it’s her husband’s name.” Mary Groot ’23 added, “Most schools were not founded by women. Hotchkiss upholds the idea of diversity and inclusion, and Bissell’s story builds off of this. As a new student, this exhibition helped me understand why Hotchkiss has these ideals.” 

In the future, Mrs. Baldwin plans to curate an exhibit featuring former staff members.

Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.