Earlier this month, the Springfield Museums hosted a panel of distinguished art scholars who gathered with staff to discuss the reinterpretation of the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum. The group, which included experts from the art world, museums and academia, met as part of an ongoing evaluation of the GWV Smith museum's collections, its exhibits, and its mission. The conference was funded by a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Opened in 1896, the Italian Renaissance-style museum building was created to house the considerable private art collection of George Walter Vincent and Belle Smith. The collection was celebrated at the time by museum experts and philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, who called it "the finest single collection" he had ever seen. Today, the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum represents one of the oldest and best examples of 19th century art collecting in America. The collections are broadly cross-cultural, focusing on Chinese, Japanese, and Islamic decorative arts, American and Italian paintings, and arms and armor from Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. Particularly noteworthy is the collection of Chinese ceramics and jade. The cloisonné collection is one of the largest in the world outside of China.
Recent grants from the NEH and the Institute of Museum and Library Services helped fund the addition of climate modification in the Museum as well as the stabilization of the building’s Tiffany windows. These renovations have presented an opportunity to move the reinstallation of the galleries forward. An on-going review of the collections by museum staff and national and international subject specialists has provided a foundation of exciting discoveries that will be incorporated within the renovated spaces. Additionally, research on the life of George Walter Vincent Smith and his wife, Belle Townsley, has provided an expanded understanding of the founders of the Museum and the time in which they were collecting.
Springfield Museums President Holly Smith-Bové commented that "our ultimate goal is not to have the museum look like every other modern museum; rather, the challenge is to make it exciting and relevant to 21st-century audiences while preserving its distinctive original character and respecting the ideals on which it was founded."
Attendees at the November summit were gathered to identify the unifying themes of the collections and offer recommendations on a ways to provide multiple layers of information through labels and interactive media. The panel included:
- Margaret K. Burchenal, Curator of Education, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- Steven Conn, Professor of History, Ohio State University
- Daniel Czitrom, Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College
- Walter B. Denny, Professor of Art History, Adjunct Professor of Middle Eastern
- Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
- Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Curator of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Jeff Hayward, People, Places & Design Research, Northampton, MA.
- Anne Higonnet, Professor of Art History, Barnard College of Columbia University
- Benjamin Weiss, Curator of Visual Culture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Robert Wolterstorff, Independent Curator and Museum Consultant.
Led by Kay Simpson, Museums Vice-President and Project Director for the NEH Interpretation grant, the visiting experts spent time visiting the Museum and meeting with administrators and staff, including Director of Art Museums Heather Haskell and Curator of Art Julia Courtney. The scholars were divided into work groups based on their individual expertise, with each group charged with discussing a different approach to interpreting the museum. The experts’ suggestions will be integrated with visitor and community input into a formal implementation plan by April 2013.
“We think that it’s a wonderful museum, one with a great story to tell,” commented Simpson, adding “we just need to figure out the best way to tell it.”