Wadsworth Atheneum Museum: a beautiful renovation in Hartford

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Downtown Hartford has stood for one hundred years, and has definite plans to stand for at least one hundred more. The imposing castle that houses the art museum is only a little more than two miles away from Trinity, and it holds within its doors one of the most unique art collections in the United States. The Wadsworth is a small museum compared to the mammoths of Boston and New York, but it is a competitor nonetheless. It also boasts a unique advantage: the Wadsworth’s collection reaches across the centuries and collects priceless art from all of them, taking special cares to find and curate pieces that serve to represent their zeitgeist and time period. This is why Linda Roth, Senior Curator at the museum, believes that the Wadsworth is a different animal altogether.
“The Wadsworth is not the Met, it’s not the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,” Roth said. “But the story that we are able to tell here is a little quirker, a little more eccentric.” But while the museum’s history is illustrious, It hasn’t always been an easy road. In 2008, the Wadsworth was experiencing real difficulty in its infrastructure, and with the space needed for its exhibits. Many of the rooms in the labyrinthine building were being used for storage, and a great deal of priceless art had been squirreled away into vaults and safes for years.
“This was a museum that was essentially crumbling,” laments Susan L. Talbott, Director and CEO But in 2010, the winds of fortune changed for the Atheneum. Funds were mustered, doors long closed were reopened, and the old dark Wadsworth began, slowly, to shed dust anddreariness. Now, five years later, the time has finally come for the grand reopening of the museum, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the reaction among the public will be one of awe and admiration. Where paintings were once hung sparsely in the Morgan Great Hall, the precious art now bunches together in its multitude and rises breathtakingly up the entire expanse of the wall in the style of an eighteenth century Italian salon. Walls have been repainted and ceilings repaired seamlessly, and there is an inexplicable sense of glory about the place that is difficult to pin down. The old storage rooms have now been converted back to what they were originally purposed for: they are new galleries. Twenty four, to be exact, and each with its own theme and feel. Take, for example, the newly christened “1789 Room”.
It is a gallery dedicated to a fascinating moment in history, the French Revolution. Here you will find china sets that belonged to Louis XVI, King of France alongside an enormous painting depicting the moments before his execution. The room is decidedly unbiased: it wants to show all sides of the turbulence of the Revolution. Of all of the rooms in the Wadsworth, the new galleries represent a 27% increase in exhibition space. Even an old electrical closet on the second floor is now a small gallery, lit with the refracting light of a wall of English silver plates and goblets. The new space means that the objects and pieces of art that were in storage for so long can now see the light of day in galleries that are designed with their story in mind exactly. Many of these objects are ancient and mysterious things whose years enshroud them and make them rise beyond value.
In the Alcoves of the Morgan Hall, an embittered looking stone head from the newly ravaged city of Palmyra in Syria, crafted sometime around 150 C.E., stares from its shelf with battered stone eyes. Not far away, two Egyptian cat Goddesses on exhibit, frozen in stone, stare directly into each other’s faces, as though locked in a kind of eternal feline standoff. Over a thousand new objects just appeared in the Wadsworth, and each one tells two stories. First, the story of the object itself. Where it came from, what it means, and why it was painted, sculpted, or made.
The second story is about the time from which the art comes: the state of the world at the moment the art was made, and what we can learn about our own world today. One can feel these things in the art, sometimes. Coiling words of poetry that twist just beneath the surface of a painting, or murmured political complaints that echo through the ages in a statue. It’s feelings like this that can make the viewing of art such a hallowed experience. But the Wadsworth wants to reach a new level of communication, one that many other museums and places of learning have reached for in the past few years. Roth is hopeful about moving forward technologically: “We’re really encouraging interaction.” She is speaking about a new exhibit function that employs touchscreens to connect with the art. One of the new exhibits focuses on shelves and cabinets of baroque art, popular in homes throughout that era in Europe.
While learning about the fantastical and incredibly intricate pieces of art in the actual shelves in front of them, visitors can use the screens to assemble a collection of art in a cabinet of their own, and learn about their place in history and society based on the choices they have made. Needless to say, the Wadsworth has entered a new era. Leading the way is the idea that if great art is meant to live forever, so too should a great museum.

 Courtesy of hyperallergic.com The Wadsworth Atheneum in Downtown Hartford as it appeared for the grand re-opening this past weekend.

Courtesy of hyperallergic.com
The Wadsworth Atheneum in Downtown Hartford as it appeared for the grand re-opening this past weekend.

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