A historic town. Costumed re-enactors. Living history events.
It’s the Colonial Williamsburg that everyone knows.
Less known are his two world-class art museums.
The DeWitt Wallace Museum of Decorative Arts showcases the best of British and American fine and decorative art from 1670 to 1840. Under the same roof, visitors discover the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum of Folk Art, home to the first collection of American folk art from the country.
For the first time since the collections opened to the public in 1985, their home has undergone a major renovation and expansion which will open later this spring. The $41.7 million donor-funded project began in 2017 and will add 65,000 square feet to the facility’s existing 100,000 square feet, allowing for a 22% increase in exhibit space.
“I would say (the renovation is) around 97 per cent complete at this stage and we will probably be finished by early May. » Ron Hurst, Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and Vice President for Museums, Preservation and Historic Resources for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said. “I guess if there’s a silver lining to the current situation, it’s the extra time it will give us to fine-tune the exhibits inside the building once construction is complete.”
The “current situation” being that Colonial Williamsburg, like most cultural institutions and tourist attractions across the country, is closed until at least April 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The most obvious improvement visitors will experience at the museums is through a new entrance. Previously, the entrance to the museum was largely hidden from visitors and included walking through an underground tunnel. The entrance to the renovated museums will be much more welcoming and intuitive.
Once inside, the extra space will allow guests to enjoy a wide variety of items previously stored in storage.
“There will be dedicated space for entire aspects of the collection that only come out occasionally,” Hurst said. “For example, we have always had spaces dedicated to fine art, folk art, textiles, furniture, etc. in the future there will be a space dedicated to our incredible collection of old maps, coins and currencies, toys and dolls houses – of which we have a formidable collection – clothes, tools and machines, instruments of music, there are entire categories – archaeological collections – architectural artifacts (which were rarely displayed before due to limited space).
In all of these areas, the collections of Colonial Williamsburg’s art museums stand out.
Hurst thinks their early maps of the South are right behind the Library of Congress. Coins and currencies focused on early America are the best in the country. Early 18e century clothing and early musical instruments rank among the best in the country.
On top of that, 60 million archaeological artifacts have been collected over years of excavations on the property.
Art aficionados who know Abby Aldrich Rockefeller primarily for her pivotal role in founding New York’s Museum of Modern Art may be curious how the New York socialite’s folk art collections arrived at this small city in Virginia. The relationship began when her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was approached by the rector of the local Episcopal church in the 1920s. He wasn’t so much interested in art as trying to give back to the city its former appearance. With this, John and Abby became heavily involved in what would become Colonial Williamsburg.
“She had started collecting folk art in the 1920s and loaned it to Colonial Williamsburg in the early 1930s,” Hurst says of how the collection moved south. “It was on display in one of the historic houses in the village and then in 1939 she donated the majority of the collection to the foundation.”
Aldrich Rockefeller died in 1948. In 1957, in her honor, her husband established the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Colonial Williamsburg’s folk art collection has grown steadily ever since.
This collection helps museums complete the mission of the site by going deeper into detail.
“The village gives us the opportunity to tell truly grand stories of the days leading up to the (American) Revolution and stories of daily life for the free and enslaved inhabitants of this town; museums, on the other hand, allow us to be more microscopic, to get closer to the artifacts of the time,” explained Hurst. “We really see everything from furniture to metals to paintings as documents, people, place and time, and what we do with museums is put a broader context around the historic village – in the village we look at this particular city from the 1760s to the 1780s, in the museum we can look at the wider Anglo-American world from the late 17th century to the early 19th.”
Not all property improvements will be noticeable to guests. The mechanical systems have been completely replaced. A dedicated workshop has also been added.
“We design and build all of our own exhibits in-house and up until now that work had been incorporated into every little nook and cranny we could find,” Hurst said. “Now we’re going to have a cabinet shop, an upholstery shop, a welding shop, a design studio, a state-of-the-art graphics suite, so we’ll be considerably more efficient.”
The Colonial Williamsburg art museums feature a handful of new exhibits each year. In 2019, he received a prestigious recognition of excellence in exhibition from the Alliance of American Museums in the area of “Special Achievement for Innovative Use of Behind-the-Scenes Personal Narrative” for his exhibition “Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence “.
What was the biggest challenge the museums faced during the renovation?
“After consulting with colleagues at sister institutions (we determined) that closing the facility for several years due to construction would be the wrong course,” Hurst said. “Many of our colleagues have told us that they have struggled to regain their audience after being closed for two or three years, so our big challenge was to stay open during construction and we did that successfully, but this was no small feat.”
The reopening of the museums will coincide with the reopening of the historic village. Follow Colonial Willamsburg on social media for updates on when that will be.