A historic village. Costumed reenactors. Living history events.
This is the Colonial Williamsburg everyone knows about.
Less well known are its two world-class art museums.
The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum showcases the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670-1840. Under the same roof, visitors discover the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art.
For the first time since the collections opened to the public in 1985, their home has undergone a major renovation and expansion opening later this spring. The donor-funded $41.7 million project broke ground in 2017 and will add 65,000-square-feet to the facility’s existing 100,000-square-feet, allowing for a 22% increase in exhibition space.
“I’d say (the renovation is) about 97% done at this point and we’ll probably be finished early May,” Ron Hurst, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and Vice President for Museums, Preservation, and Historic Resources, said. “I guess if there’s any silver lining in the current situation it’s the extra time it will give us to polish up exhibitions on the inside of the building once the construction is done.”
The “current situation” being that Colonial Williamsburg, like most of the nation’s cultural institutions and tourist attractions, is closed through at least April 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The most obvious improvement guests will experience at the museums comes by way of a new entrance. Previously, entrance to the museum was largely hidden from visitors and included traversing through an underground tunnel. Entrance to the renovated museums will be vastly more welcoming and intuitive.
Once inside, the additional space will allow for guests to enjoy a wide variety of objects previously packed away in storage.
“There will be dedicated space for whole aspects of the collection that only occasionally get out,” Hurst said. “For example, we always had dedicated spaces for fine art, folk art, textiles, furniture, things like that; going forward, there will be dedicated space for our incredible collection of early maps, coins and currency, toys and doll houses–of which we have terrific collection–clothing, tools and machines, musical instruments, there are whole categories–archaeological collections–architectural artifacts (that were rarely exhibited previously due to limited space).”
In all these areas, the collections of the art museums at Colonial Williamsburg are distinguished.
Hurst believes their early Southern maps are second only to the Library of Congress. Coins and currency focused on early America are the finest in the nation. Early 18th century clothing and early musical instruments rank among the best in the country.
On top of that are 60 million archaeological artifacts gathered through years of excavation on the property.
Art lovers who know Abby Aldrich Rockefeller primarily for her essential role in founding New York’s Museum of Modern Art may be curious how the New York socialite’s folk art holdings came to this small Virginia town. The relationship began when her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was approached by the rector at the local Episcopal Church in the 1920s. He wasn’t so much interested in art as in trying to restore the town to its earlier appearance. With that, both John and Abby became heavily involved in what would become Colonial Williamsburg.
“She had begun collecting folk art in the 1920s and she put it on loan to Colonial Williamsburg in the early ‘30s,” Hurst explains of how the collection moved south. “It was on display in one of the historic houses in the village and then in 1939, she gave the majority of the collection to the foundation.”
Aldrich Rockefeller died in 1948. As a memorial to her in 1957, her husband established the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The folk art collection at Colonial Williamsburg has continued growing ever since.
That collection helps the museums augment the site’s mission by drilling down on fine details.
“The village gives us the opportunity to tell really grand sweeping stories of the times leading up to the (American) Revolution and of the stories of everyday life for both free and enslaved residents of this town; the museums, on the other hand, allow us to get more microscopic, to get up close and personal with artifacts of the period,” Hurst explained. “We really see everything from furniture to metals, to paintings, as documents, people, place and time, and what we do with the museums is to put a broader context around the historic village–in the village we’re looking at this particular town from the 1760s to the 1780s, in the museum we can look at the broader Anglo-American world in the late 17th century to the early 19th.”
Not all of the facility’s improvements will be noticeable to guests. The mechanical systems have been entirely replaced. A dedicated workshop has also been added.
“We design and build all our own exhibitions in-house and heretofore that work had been shoehorned into every little nook and cranny we could find,” Hurst said. “Now we’re going to have state of the art cabinet shop, upholstery shop, welding shop, design studio, graphic suite, so, we will be dramatically more efficient.”
The Colonial Williamsburg art museums present a handful of new exhibits annually. In 2019, it 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” for its “Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence” exhibit.
What was the greatest challenge the museums faced during 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’ve struggled to get their audience back after a two or three year closure, so our big challenge was staying open during construction and we did it successfully, but it was no mean feat.”
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.