Published: November 10, 2015
The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., completed a renovation overhaul this year, highlighted by the reopening of the tastefully appointed galleries in the 100-year-old Morgan Memorial Building, which integrated paintings, decorative arts and sculpture among the museum’s European collections. Leading the redesign of the European galleries was a museum team led by senior curator Linda Roth, the Charles C. and Eleanor Lamont Cunningham curator of European decorative arts, and Oliver Tostmann, the Susan Morse Hilles curator of European art.
Tell us a bit about the renovation that led up the reinstallation of the European galleries.
The renovation was a behemoth 5-year, $33 million project to reclaim space, fix structural issues, and reimagine the presentation of the museum’s collections. The project specifically addressed waterproofing and new roofs for the museum’s buildings, a proprietary energy plant and upgraded window treatments to stabilize gallery climate, a state-of-the-art facility to better protect collections, enhancements to gallery lighting systems, and the uncovering of original architectural elements. We also addressed cosmetics, installing new flooring and fresh paint in many galleries. Finally, wiring to bring in-gallery technology and Wi-Fi to museum visitors was installed, and comprehensive way-finding signage was implemented throughout the buildings.
This was the first renovation in many years of the galleries housed in the 100-year old Morgan Building. What were some of the biggest challenges?
This was the first major structural renovation anywhere in the museum since 1969. The Morgan Memorial Building, specifically, celebrates its centennial this year and has never received such an overhaul. Challenges were mainly due to an old roof, which, once replaced stopped the leaks that plagued many of the galleries. We also wanted to honor the architectural integrity and historical accuracy of many elements, bringing in specialty contractors to address plaster moldings and a historic stained glass laylight.
How were the European galleries reimagined?
The primary concept for the reinstallation was that painting, sculpture and decorative arts would be integrated. With this as our premise, we organized the galleries chronologically while at the same time exploring themes such as patronage and cultural exchange within this overall arrangement. We grouped objects to complement each other and create dialogues between them, keeping their historical and artistic context and function in mind.
During the renovation, did you uncover any long-hidden museum elements or come across any surprises?
We discovered many objects that had not been on view in decades, especially in the collections of ancient and Chinese art. Examples include a Second Century limestone head from Palmyra, Syria, a Tang dynasty limestone head of Buddha, a Ming wall painting and in the European collection, a medieval bronze panther. There were other surprises as well. We found that there were an unusual number of works in the collection that relate to the French Revolution, prompting a gallery devoted to this historical event. We also were surprised to find three paintings of the story of the Trojan Horse, ranging across schools and periods.
What was your role in the reinstallation?
I worked in tandem with Oliver Tostmann, the Susan Morse Hilles curator of European art, to create the overall concept for the installation, choose the objects, write the interpretive materials — labels, text panels. Then we worked with the designers to implement the vision.
In the reinstalled galleries, there are some new acquisitions and special loans. Tell us how you chose these works and how they enhance the museum’s collections.
Regarding the new acquisitions of decorative arts, the focus was primarily on enhancing the already strong collection of works that would go in the Cabinet of Art and Curiosity through purchase and gift. Among the purchases were a narwhal and ivory cup, a group of three memento mori wooden skulls, and a mother-of-pearl powder horn from Gujarat, India. We were also able to add two important works to our already outstanding baroque painting collection, Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Self-Portrait as a Lute Player” and a battle scene by Falcone. The two special loans in the reinstallation were received through the generosity of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The National Gallery lent us Titian’s “Ranuccio Farnese,” which we felt would enrich a lesser-known part of our collection. Picasso’s “La Vie” is an iconic work from the artist’s blue period, which is not represented in the Wadsworth’s collection, but that corresponds to one of our core areas, the late Nineteenth–early Twentieth Century.
Tell us about the loan exhibition the Wadsworth is organizing for the Winter Antiques Show in January.
“Legacy For the Future” will showcase a selection of objects that pay tribute to the diversity and forward-thinking vision of the museum collection, with highlights ranging from antiquities and baroque masterworks to Hudson River School landscapes and contemporary sculpture.
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