A Historic Makeover for the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
Living history, taverns and binderies, oh my! The Colonial Williamsburg that Virginians know and love has always been all that and much more. In fact, it is the world’s largest living history museum. But as of June 14, 2020, it became a whole lot more: 65,000 thousand square feet and nearly $41.7 million more raised entirely through philanthropic support.
Since 1985, two world-class Colonial Williamsburg museums had enjoyed a far lower profile—as in underground—than they deserved. Still, from their subterranean quarters, accessed through the historic Public Hospital Museum, they had become the second most visited museums in Virginia, just after the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, boasting some 7,000 pieces from the 18th through 20th centuries, including the largest collection of paintings by Edward Hicks of The Peaceable Kingdom fame. Aldrich, known widely for her essential role in founding New York’s Museum of Modern Art, loaned and then gifted her collection to Colonial Williamsburg. Her husband, John D. Rockefeller, established the museum in 1957 as a memorial to his wife who died in 1948.
The collection has continued to grow since that time, and the Museum is recognized as the world’s oldest continually operating institution dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition and preservation of American folk art. With objects that hail from Maine to Texas and the Southwest, it is the only folk art museum in the country that is not strictly regional.
Its sister institution, The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, named for its premier benefactor and the founder of Reader’s Digest, houses some 67,000 pieces of period antiques and works of art representing the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670-1840. Colonial Williamsburg itself boasts among its supporting ranks quite a few recognizable names including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who serves as the chair of its Board of Trustees Architectural Design and Review Committee.
Without enough space to showcase vast swathes of their holdings, which help piece together the intersecting narratives of our nation’s past, nor to house essential back-of-the-house functions anywhere but in the most cramped nooks and crannies, the museums were long overdue for their first large-scale expansion and upgrade to the buildings. Remarkably, the museums stayed open during construction, which broke ground in 2017, after learning from sister institutions around the country that it is difficult to rebuild an audience after a closure of two to three years.
To the existing 100,000 square feet of museum space, the expansion and enhancement added a beautiful new dedicated entrance on South Nassau Street, seven new galleries, a grand concourse connecting both museums, a museum café and outdoor dining terrace, a museum store, upgraded and replaced mechanical and climate-control systems, motion-sensitive lights, and acoustic improvements to the Hennage Auditorium plus green and dressing rooms.
Staff members design and build all the museums’ exhibitions thereby exercising ultimate creativity and control as well as cost savings. Now they can engage in preparation, conservation, materials testing and related functions in dramatically enlarged workshops, state-of-the-art conservation labs, a pristine and well-lit design studio and graphics suite, expansive and open cabinet and welding shops, offices and an eventual ceramics study area.
“It sits comfortably in its neighborhood,” Ronald L. Hurst, Carlisle H. Humelsine, Chief Curator and Vice President for Museums, says of the new entrance. Its mid-18th-century garden pavilion design features two gently curved arms that extend to visitors a subtle visual embrace. The handsome structure, with its cupola and weathervane, incorporates Flemish bond masonry, an 18th-century arrangement in which each offset course of bricks consists of alternating stretchers and headers.
Just inside, beautiful brickwork and gleaming floors lead guests through a rhythmic series of alternating arches and modern light fixtures that define the space and frame view, while blending old and newIn the process of removing “lots of turns and dead ends” in the former space, the new design “opened the vistas” within, using some of the most appealing objects to draw guests in through lines of sight, and “brought in daylight” where possible.
The first exhibition to greet guests is Early American Faces, curated by Hurst. Here, he chose works of art that embody the diversity of early America. “I wanted old, young, native, African, fine and folk.” As such, the small but tone-setting exhibition features Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of a young George Washington, entitled Washington at Princeton, and Mary Anna Randolph Custis’s Portrait of an Enslaved Child. Especially over the last two decades, the museums have made a concerted effort to better represent all of America through their collections and exhibitions, including the contributions and perspectives of African and Latin peoples, as well as women.
Continually rotating and changing exhibitions or parts of exhibitions is a dynamic approach that keeps the visitor experience feeling and looking fresh. Dazzling, but not overwhelming, the exhibition design throughout enhances the objects and intuitive wayfinding. Says Hurst, “We want to make navigation through the galleries fun and easy,” and “we don’t want people to feel they need to tiptoe or whisper.”
Toward that end, the designers use visual cues like color—dictated by the works of art—lighting, and techniques as deceptively simple as raised panels to organize content, almost like paragraphs on a page of text. With a desire to “give equal weight to both institutions,” they also used architectural features—different in each of the two museums—to help keep guest oriented.
With some dozen exhibitions on view at any given time in both museums, current exhibitions at Abby Aldrich include American folk pottery, paintings by Edward Hicks, hooked rugs, Navajo weavings, Down on the Farm, early American iron, American ship paintings, outdoor folk art, German toys in America, American folk portraits, and more. About one of the most beloved objects in the collection, Hurst quips, “If the watermelon’s not out, I get letters.”
Down on the Farm is an especially unique diorama-like exhibition, designed for children. Based on a story about Prince, a carved wooden dog in the collection, and authored by staff members Jan Gilliam and Christina Westenberger, the narrative is written on storybook-style labels at child-height and illustrated with additional pieces from the collection.
Meanwhile, current exhibitions at DeWitt Wallace offer guests opportunities to peruse furnishings, textiles, weapons, portraits, silver, and more. It is home to the world’s largest collection of southern furniture and one of the largest collections of British ceramics outside England.
An exhibition entitled Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence showcases the 50+ year career of Leroy Graves, once a CW maintenance worker now dubbed “the man with the million-dollar hands” for his restoration of some of the world’s most iconic antiques. Graves is renowned for inventing the Graves Method, a nonintrusive procedure for preserving antiques used by museums around the world which has garnered both him and the museum prestigious awards. In 2019, the museum received a prestigious Excellence in Exhibition acknowledgement from the Alliance of American Museums in the area of “Special Achievement for Innovative Use of Behind-the-Scenes Personal Narrative.”
Promoting America: Maps of the Colonies and New World looks at maps as propaganda and exposes “blatant hierarchies deeply embedded in these objects” with their cartouches presenting the “new” world as a kind of Garden of Eden.
In spaces where there are no exhibitions, the staff has created “teasers” of what’s to come—a representative object with a text panel or maybe a video “hook”—and, during the Pandemic, demonstrations by costumed Historic Trade interpreters take center stage, as the village’s trade shops are too small to allow for social distancing.
Through innovatively displayed collections of material culture—costumes and clocks, ceramics and silver, furniture and fashion; maps, mirrors and metals; portraits and other paintings, toys and tools, weapons and weavings—the patchwork of our colonial past is pieced together. Says Hurst, “All of these objects have connections to you, but you just may not know how.”
Learn more about the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg at ColonialWilliamsburg.com/Art-museums or by calling 888-965-7254. Hours: 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily. Admission $8.99-$14.99; annual membership $20-$125.