The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) recently announced that the museum will be temporarily closed this winter as the museum staff undertakes a reinstallation of 10 of the museum’s 13 galleries. According to publicity information released by WCMA, the reinstallation seeks to raise questions about the meaning and role of art across time and culture as well as the role museums play in shaping understandings of art. Included in the reinstallation will be 50 objects on loan from Yale as part of a collection sharing project that includes Smith, Mount Holyoke, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Oberlin and Williams.
“The museum is always interested in different ways of seeing and thinking about the collection,” said Lisa Corrin, director of WCMA. “We thought it would be interesting for a college museum to tell different stories about art, drawing on the strengths of the collection and showcasing what a wide ranging and unique collection it is.”
The museum will be closed to the public beginning Dec. 13. The majority of the reinstalled galleries are slated to reopen on Feb. 3, while other galleries will reopen throughout the spring. WCMA will celebrate the opening of the entire project on April 7. During the museum’s closure, the Rose Gallery will remain in operation to allow students and faculty to view artwork necessary for classes.
To fund the project, the College will receive approximately $100,000 provided from a Mellon grant that Yale received to support its collection sharing program. According to Corrin, WCMA will subsidize the grant with the museum’s own resources. The funding will cover costs such as crating, transportation and insurance for the pieces on loan from Yale, as well as projects such as producing labels, painting galleries, building mounts and pedestals and putting up walls.
“It’s really a no-frills project – not a massive redecorating,” Corrin said. “We will complete this project on a modest budget relative to the ambition. We have the resources to do this, and we’re skilled at working on a budget.”
At the same time, Corrin acknowledged the large scale of the project, noting that even the museum’s largest gallery on the second floor will be reinstalled.
“We have to move all the objects out of the spaces, move everything into storage, repaint walls in some cases and move everything back in again in a different way,” Corrin said. “It’s a massive operation.”
The reinstallation plan was conceived in February 2008, when college and university art museum directors attended a meeting regarding a Mellon Foundation grant. According to Corrin, the desire on the part of WCMA’s staff to tell new stories came together with the Yale initiative to loan pieces from their own collection to make the reinstallation possible.
Following the initial meeting, WCMA’s curators and educators, along with College art department faculty members, visited Yale to see its collection and choose pieces that would fit well with the College’s art history curriculum. Among the pieces selected are objects including Japanese screens, ancient Greek art, sculptures by Brancusi and Giacometti and paintings by Thomas Eakins, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. The pieces from Yale will remain at WCMA for one to three years.
“Although WCMA staff chose objects from Yale, we also collaborated with the art department faculty,” Corrin said. “They were able to focus on areas of the curriculum in which we’ve never had the objects to support the teaching. For example, [Profesor of art history ] EJ Johnson’s dream throughout his career here has been to have a Brancusi. We got him a Brancusi.”
Peter Low, professor of art and department chair, said that the faculty on the whole are excited about the project.
“This reinstallation project is an opportunity to look anew at that whole mission [of the museum] and to think of new ways that the College can accomplish that mission to an even greater degree of success,” Low said. “It is an opportunity to attract attention to the museum and its role, to get people excited about art on campus, to see what’s possible in terms of teaching.”
Low said that faculty members made requests for works that would be useful for teaching or could be exciting contributions to museum exhibitions. He added that the impact on teaching will vary from class to class.
“This is an exciting new opportunity,” Low said. “We’re borrowing great works of art that will help to recharge the experience for students. I think everyone’s teaching is going to benefit.” Low added that three pieces of 20th century sculpture are being used by the current Art History 101 classes as subjects for papers.
To design the reinstallation of the galleries, art department faculty again joined with museum staff to create new exhibitions. John Stomberg, WCMA deputy director and chief curator, led the process of the staff compiling the final checklist for each gallery, according to Corrin.
“Every single educator and curator has been involved,” Corrin said. “The team approach is a good model for students showing how colleagues in a museum form a brain trust. Each person has a different perspective, different expertise. They’ve been very generous about sharing what they have to offer and learning from one another.”
The end result of the process of collaboration and negotiation is a set of galleries that ask questions about the nature of the museum.
“We can ask questions that have no answers – questions about what objects mean, how objects take on special meaning, who gives objects meaning,” Corrin said. “This is a way of approaching how a college museum can approach a collection in a different way than other museums can.”
As an example, Corrin used an exhibition titled A Collection of Histories, which focuses on Assyrian reliefs from 3500 B.C. brought to the College in 1851. The exhibition is divided into a number of parts that delve into areas such as the original context of the reliefs, the process of acquiring the reliefs and the story of the deaccession of another set of reliefs to acquire objects more suitable for teaching. A final part of the exhibition will examine the contemporary city of Mosul and the remains of the palace in which the reliefs were currently located, exploring the question “Who owns the past?”
The first of the galleries included in the reinstallation is already open, featuring the exhibition Art Re: Art. “What makes it unusual is that we will be showing art works from different, periods, cultures, media – all in one space,” Corrin said. “This has been tried at WCMA, but never on this scale. It’s such an unusual way to work.”
As to the future, Corrin called WCMA “a museum of endless possibilities,” noting that there are no concrete plans for the collection when objects are sent back to Yale.
“Thinking outside the box like this has given the staff an incredible sense of possibility,” Corrin said. “The curators and educators have generated so many ideas during this process that we could be reinstalling the museum for many years to come without repeating ourselves.”