Vice President of Collections and Museums Ron Hurst says refreshed exhibits and gallery spaces make two of Colonial Williamsburg’s museums warm, welcoming, and inviting.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Ron Hurst, who is Vice President of Collections and Museums at Colonial Williamsburg. Something big happened at the DeWitt Museum lately, I probably should ask you to describe it in one sentence, but that seems unfair. What happened?
Ron Hurst: Well, after a year of work replacing the fire suppression system, a sprinkler system in the DeWitt Wallace Museum, it re-opened to the public with all exhibits back in place. But that year’s work meant taking out every artifact, every work of art, moving all the staff away from the building, and taking out every inch of plumbing in the structure.
Lloyd: To get that done, you had to take out pretty much everything that you would normally call a museum.
Ron: That’s right. It basically ended up being a structure with nothing in it. The artwork, the props, the platforms, the railings, the light fixtures – everything had to come out.
Lloyd: Which means, at least to me, if you change all this stuff, even if you put the same material back in; it doesn’t look the same anymore.
Ron: That’s right, that’s right. In fact, it was a wonderful opportunity to refresh the entire museum. Some of the exhibits that went in are new ones that have never been on public view before, but some of the exhibits are ones that were there previously. Now they look like new pennies again. We’ve also used this as an opportunity to make the museum warmer and more welcoming by adding color to the walls, replacing the carpets, refinishing the floors, and it really does look terrific.
Lloyd: The walls in the old museum were white, right?
Ron: That’s right.
Lloyd: Which is not necessarily the color to display art and things.
Ron: That’s a good point.
Lloyd: So now you’ve livened them up.
Ron: We have, we’ve added all kinds of color, even to the masterworks gallery, which has, for the last 20 years, been a largely white space. The walls now include tans and reds and other colors, and the art looks spectacular.
Lloyd: So even if you’ve seen the museum, you haven’t seen the new museum.
Ron: That’s right.
Lloyd: This is probably unfair, but that doesn’t bother me: How long do you think this incarnation will last before somebody says, “Boy, this looks kind of old and dull.”?
Ron: Well, as a matter of fact, at Colonial Williamsburg’s museums, we don’t tend to think of any of our installations as being permanent. We’re constantly about the business of putting up new shows. We do about nine in an average year anyway. So we’re always thinking in new ways as we move forward. Things that we did ten years ago are not necessarily the things that we do today, and that affects not only things like color choice, but the way we structure the labels, and the way we put the art into the exhibits.
The way public guests come into museums has changed in the last 20 years. Museums used to be very staid and very formal places. We want to be sure that today, people find museums to be welcoming and friendly and easy to use, because we want people to come in. After all, if we don’t get them in the door, then we have failed in our mission to educate.
Lloyd: So actually, the color is more to draw people in – and make them feel welcome, and friendly, and warm, and all those things, – than the old white walls which were just kind of formal and you stood there and you looked at the art or you didn’t look at the art.
Ron: That’s right, that’s right.
Lloyd: You mentioned before, a masterworks exhibit. Can you explain that to me?
Ron: It’s a selection of about 120 objects from our collection of more than 60,000 pieces of art. They are arranged, more or less, chronologically from about 1680 through the 1830s, and they’re drawn from all the media: furniture, paintings, silver, textiles, and so on. We’ve chosen them because they are the best of their kind. They’re in very good condition; they’re very well executed. In fact, in the new labeling, we have taken the dictionary definition of masterworks and stenciled it onto the wall.
Lloyd: That explains it better than I could. Are there any new exhibits?
Ron: There are new exhibits in the Wallace Museum. There is one on tea chests, tea containers, tea caddies, that are mostly from the 18th and early 19th century. And there’s another that has the intriguing title of, “Pounds, Pence, and Pistareens.” It’s about coins and currency in Colonial America.
Lloyd: That would be interesting. I know one of the problems around Colonial Williamsburg is when the guests and visitors say, “How much would it cost now?” And everybody just sort of looks at each other and says, “I don’t know.”
Ron: That’s right, that’s right. It’s almost impossible to equate 21st-century values for material goods with 18th century values, because everything was so different.
Lloyd: In the new museum, what do you personally like best?
Ron: That’s a tough question, and it changes from day to day.
Lloyd: OK. What is today’s best, then?
Ron: Well, I think one of the most appealing objects in the gallery is a Virginia tea table from about 1720. It’s one of the earliest examples of the form known from colonial America, and it was made right here in Eastern Virginia. Probably not by a cabinetmaker, but by a joiner, or carpenter. We can tell that because of the rough-hewn tool marks on the bottom. This is a person who probably also made architectural paneling for houses, because it uses many of the same tools.
Lloyd: 1720-something. Would a person looking at that know what it was, or would he have to be told?
Ron: Well, he would probably have to be told. He would certainly recognize it as a table, but in the 18th century, there were many furniture forms that were designed for specific purposes. There are often cues in the details of those objects that tell you how they were intended to be used. Tea tables, for example, usually have a rim around the top edge that’s designed to keep you from pushing the valuable tea equipage off the edge inadvertently as you’re passing things around.
And we try to be sure that our labels are written in friendly ways, so that we can explain those kinds of things to people, “This is a tea table, and you can tell because thus and so.” Now, 20 years ago, it was enough in an art museum to put a table like that out and have a label that said, “Tea table, Virginia, 1720.” But that assumes that the visitor knows everything about the object and is in the loop, and that’s not a good assumption necessarily. It’s important to help people understand why things are interesting, not just to put it out there and let them guess.
Lloyd: So you’ve not only friendlied-up the building itself, you have made the exhibits friendly to patrons, to people who come look at them.
Ron: We’ve actually been trying to do that for a number of years, and have had some pretty good success at it, but we keep pushing on in that direction.
Lloyd: How do you get your collections?
Ron: Well, the collections come to us in various ways: some are gifts, a few are loans, most are purchases. We purchase them from families, from auction houses, from antiques dealers – and we do that by ascertaining what kinds of things we need to tell the educational stories for the institution, and then seeking those goods out in the marketplace. It’s not a consistent stream of material.
Lloyd: How would you know that somebody had something that you might really want?
Ron: By building up a network of people who are interested in these kinds of things, word gets to us directly, or indirectly. Oftentimes, people with family heirlooms will approach and say, “This has come down in my family, and my children now live in Honolulu, Timbuktu, wherever. They’re not as interested as I have been, and I want to guarantee its preservation in the future. Are you interested?” And, quite often, we are. And so we end up becoming, in a way, custodians for the future, by caring for these parts of our material history.
Lloyd: I hate to say it, but it almost makes you an historical warehouse.
Ron: It would, if we took everything that came our way. But we’re very particular about what comes in. It really needs to fill a niche in the educational mission, and if it doesn’t, then we will usually try to help those folks find another institution where it would be useful. Because the last thing we want to do is to take works of art, antiques, period artifacts, and just put them in storage.
Lloyd: That helps no one. Certainly doesn’t help with your educational mission –collecting dust doesn’t do very much for education. How many – and I don’t know if you can answer this specifically, but let’s give it a try – how many pieces of everything that are in the museum are there?
Ron: Well, the collection as a whole is a little better than 60,000 objects, and between the two art museums, the DeWitt Wallace Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, and the buildings in the historic area, almost 50 percent of that is on exhibition at any given time. Now, most museums run an average of 12 to 15 percent of their collections on view, but we’re a great deal higher than that, and we always have been.
Lloyd: Fifty percent on view at any one time – how often do you change the 50 percent, so that the 50 percent that’s not on view in January will be on view in … ?
Ron: It depends upon the medium. There are some kinds of objects that are very sensitive to light damage – textiles, works on paper, organic materials like leather – and so those things get rotated fairly frequently. Other kinds of objects that are more stable don’t have to be rotated nearly as often, so for example, metals and ceramics can stay on view for long periods. But in the two art museums, we tend to rotate those shows on an average of about 18 months to about four years, depending on the subject. So that the next time the visitor comes back, there’ll be something new to see and learn about.
Lloyd: You’ve mentioned twice, two art museums. I’ve been talking about one, so what’s the second one?
Ron: Ah, the second one is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, which is actually the nation’s oldest museum devoted to the study of American folk art. It just moved to new quarters, immediately adjacent to the DeWitt Wallace Museum, having been previously been located a couple of blocks away. We now have both museums together under one roof, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for visitors to compare and contrast these two very different collections.
Lloyd: Yeah, I guess a folk art museum would be completely different from the DeWitt Wallace Museum, which is not folk art.
Ron: That’s right, that’s right. Folk art tends to be produced by people who are not professionally or academically trained. It’s often thought of as the art of the self-taught artist, whereas decorative arts in the Wallace museum do tend to be by the professionals. And I think, many years ago, there used to be the thought that one was better than the other, but what we need to understand today – and most people are beginning to understand it – is that these are simply expressions of past cultures. They represent the time, the place, the ethnic background of the people that produced them. And it isn’t our job to say, “This one’s better than that one,” it’s our job to say, “What does this tell us about that time and place?” And that’s how we try to use the collections.
Lloyd: When I was younger, I think the first folk artist I ever even heard of was Grandma Moses, and everybody just was amazed that this old woman, which she really was, had become a painter late in life.
Ron: That’s right.
Lloyd: I thought she was wonderful, because she just painted what she saw.
Ron: She did, and she produced wonderful pictures that are easy for people to relate to, even today. She’s been gone for a number of years, and she used a lot of interesting techniques: not just paint. She would sometimes work, for example, glitter into the surface when she was painting a snowy scene, so that it had a reflective quality.
Lloyd: That was folk art, right? I am right about that?
Ron: That’s right.
Lloyd: Art is not my field, but I like, at least, to keep up. So under one roof, right?
Lloyd: You have two museums, with two entirely – I don’t want to say unique, because that’s the wrong word – but different collections. Folk art over here, art over here. But the art includes textiles, tinwork, tea table. Again, tea table is for the tea service, it’s not where you would sit?
Ron: You would sit around it, and it would be arrayed with things like – hot water kettle, tea pot, creamer, sugar basin – things like that.
Lloyd: Odd question: how many visitors at the two museums do you think – I know I’m asking you to project – but in ’07, how many visitors will you have?
Ron: Well, let me answer by saying it this way: the last full year of operation at the Wallace Museum brought in 270,000 visitors. We think that now that the Wallace Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum are together on one site that the attendance will certainly increase, and because we expect more visitors in Williamsburg in 2007 anyway, we’re expecting numbers in excess of 300,000 at the museums. The Wallace Museum is usually in the top ten of all the sites at Colonial Williamsburg for visitation each year, so its new combination of the decorative arts and folk art, we think, will be even more appealing.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time, check history.org often; we’ll post more for you to download and hear.