Opening of the University Art Museum with a new look

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Almost exactly two years ago, the grip of COVID-19 tightened on our community and closed so many doors, including those at Middlebury College Museum of Art. But now, as we head into spring 2022, the Museum of Art has announced that the public will be welcomed into the newly-appointed museum from April 15.

“We want everyone to feel welcome and at home right away,” said Richard Saunders, who is the museum’s director. “When we were closed, we took the time to reinstall all of our permanent collections. We’ve had things displayed the same way for a very long time.

And Saunders knows it. He was hired by the college in 1985 to be the gallery’s full-time director as the original plans for the Mahaney Arts Center and the Museum of Art merged.

“I was here when this gallery was built,” he recalls, “I look around the museum and see a group of friends – I remember buying these pieces and the stories behind them.”

Saunders walked to a display case with three delicate portraits, showing two circa 1855 daguerreotypes – one of a Middlebury elder giving an anatomy lesson, the other a portrait of John Deere with a plow – and a tintype of vs. 1862 of a group of former students from Middlebury who served in the Civil War.

From across the room, he pointed to the leopard head hip ornament from Benin looted by the British in 1897, as part of the so-called Punitive Expedition.

“It is believed that over 3,000 items were stolen,” Saunders explained, “but at this stage it is unclear how many will be returned to Nigeria in the coming years.”

Every piece in the museum’s collection has a story – not a story that freezes a moment in time, but rather a flowing and evolving story. Each piece has the potential to stimulate discussion and challenge all of us to broaden our understanding.

When the Art Museum took the time during its closure to relocate its permanent collection, museum staff kept the concepts of inclusion, equity and accessibility in mind.

“How the museum has been set up… it’s ancient history now,” Saunders said, moving straight through the museum’s current facilities. “It’s a balancing act — what we choose to exhibit and for how long. We try to accommodate different cultures around the world, different viewpoints, better gender balance, viewing height of a room, and what our teachers and students need for their lessons.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art team, including Saunders, curator Jason Vrooman and designer Ken Pohlman, led the reinstallation.

Vrooman is credited with the multi-voice approach to art tags (you know the little blurbs printed on the wall that describe a room).

“Historically, museums in the United States have prioritized art made by white men,” reads the museum’s website, welcome to the newly installed permanent collection. “As a result, the important contributions of many artists have been absorbed, marginalized, neglected or ignored…As curators continue down the path of greater equity in the collection and the way it is displayed in galleries, the quarterly rotation of photographs, prints, drawings and other light-sensitive pieces will ensure that diverse artistic perspectives regularly refresh the narratives presented.To further challenge a unique and authoritative art story, each gallery dedicates space to a “Label Talk” dialogue, where multiple people respond to a single piece of art.

Label Talk includes student-written labels and a QR code to scan and contribute your own thoughts or hear those of others.

Labels aren’t the only thing that’s changed. Yes, you will recognize pieces from the permanent collection, but on the whole they are not in the same places. The exhibits were organized “thematically to highlight the similarities as well as the differences between cultures”.

Visitors to the Middlebury College Museum of Art can explore the digital immersion “Into the Screen: Digital Art from teamLab” on the second floor of the gallery. The exhibition will be on view until August 7. Photo by Jonathan Blake

Now, moving ancient Greek antiquities and age-old daguerreotypes isn’t as easy as rearranging your living room furniture. Nope. This required the creative skills of Pohlman, who arranged (and rearranged and rearranged the gallery) digitally until the team was happy with the layout.

The first floor of the museum houses pieces belonging to the college’s permanent collection, which took more than 30 years to acquire. In total, there are approximately 6,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection, all of which are cataloged in a searchable database, and now (finally) 250 selected objects have been compiled into a hardcover manual.

“That’s another thing we did during the shutdown,” Saunders said as he flipped through a copy of the manual. “Usually a manual like this would be organized from oldest to newest, but we decided to go back and put the newer parts first.”

The manual chronicles each piece with descriptions by 76 different authors. The manual will soon be available for purchase, “at an affordable price,” Saunders added. “We want to celebrate the collection that we have been able to put together for Middlebury. Most coins are purchases and not gifts, allowing us to maintain the quality of our academic initiatives.

Climbing the spiral stairs to the second floor of the art museum, visitors will find two rotating exhibits that will be on view until August 7.

“From Contemporary to Classical” presents more than 40 works from the new manual from the museum’s permanent collection. Objects range from modern to ancient and include prints, photographs, paintings, and sculptures.

“Into the Screen: Digital Art from teamLab” highlights a singular immersive digital experience from teamLab and the traditional screens and prints from the 17th to 20th centuries that inspired it. Founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko, teamLab is a Tokyo-based collaboration of over 500 designers, engineers and technologists with a common mission to integrate art, technology and nature.

“We’re going to work to get people back into the museum,” Saunders said. “It’s free, open to everyone, and there’s parking right outside the door.”

From April 15, the museum will be open to all visitors, without reservation. Under current Middlebury College guidelines, masks are optional but encouraged.

For more information visit museum.middlebury.edu or call 802-443-5007.

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