Slater Museum set to re-open after facelift

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Nov. 8, 2011
Plaster busts survey part of the Slater Memorial Museum's famed collection of plaster casts of art masterpieces. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Plaster busts survey part of the Slater Memorial Museum's famed collection of plaster casts of art masterpieces. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

One of the jewels in the crown of the city of Norwich is in the last stages of being polished to a new luster, to be revealed at last on Saturday, Nov. 12. The Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy will open its doors for the first time since the end of May 2010, when it was shuttered to undergo a $9 million addition and restoration project.

It’s far more than a facelift: it’s a literal lift, as well. The new atrium entrance includes elevators to provide handicapped accessibility to the museum, to the adjacent Converse Art Gallery and to Alumni and Norton gymnasiums. The atrium space also houses some sorely-needed restrooms for all four buildings.

Museum Director Vivian Zoe bustled through the museum the Monday before the opening, describing how exhibits have been re-organized to shine a brighter light on local history. “Our goal in interpretation is to focus on Norwich [and its] tremendous, really remarkable history,” she said.

“Lots of people will be looking for their favorite things, and in some cases will be unable to find them,” she said. Some items – “many of which needed to be given a rest” – have been moved to storage, she explained.

The upside is that visitors “may see some newly-acquired objects that they never had the opportunity to see before.” Visitors will enter through a newly-reorganized exhibit space on the mezzanine floor, where artifacts and paintings focus attention on Norwich history. Here are display cases with artifacts from Norwich’s glory days as a maritime hub; items manufactured by the city’s potters, ironworkers, gunsmiths and glassblowers; and a collection of native American artifacts which reflect the history of the region before the advent of European settlers.

Most of the museum’s donors over the years have been from long-established city families, said Zoe. “They gave us things that represent family life over several centuries,” she said.

One long side of the mezzanine is devoted to two significant local artists: John Dennison Crocker, who also was an inventor and maker of patent medicines, and Alexander Emmons, known as “the city’s portraitist.” Both 19th-century artists made professional connections with wealthy industrialists at the height of Norwich’s manufacturing heyday.

Another new installation envelops viewers in the epic sweep of the “grand tour” – the Victorian-era custom of traveling the world to absorb its varied cultures and as much of its art as possible. Popularized by Mark Twain’s book, “The Innocents Abroad,” which is generously quoted in gallery labels, the tour was considered an essential part of a cultured person’s experience, and could be as frugal or as opulent as the traveler could afford.

The Slater’s exhibit centers around the truly “grand” tour experienced by Slater Museum founder William Slater with his wife Ellen and two children, aboard the family’s opulent yacht, the Eleanor, in 1894-5. Along with an array of artifacts and souvenir pieces typical of what grand tourists would encounter, are some of the Slaters’ personal effects. Notable among these is a set of spectacular repousse metal goblets and a gilt dinner plate from Eleanor’s dining room, both recently acquired and never before displayed. A nearby mannequin wears Ellen’s elegant, pristine amethyst ball gown, complete with bustle and train.

Slater fans can rest easy that the museum’s claim to fame – its 147 plaster casts of sculptural masterpieces, ranging from ancient Egyptian through the Renaissance periods – still loom large over the museum’s central hall. Zoe said that besides cleaning and restoration on the casts, the pedestals were painted in coded colors to help guide visitors through the stages of art history. A newly-refinished floor and improved lighting bring a new clarity to the exhibit, and a glass display case helps illustrate the process of using molds to make plaster casts.

A new exhibit on Islamic art – one that Zoe said was especially timely – will join the Asian art, which has been re-arranged by region, on the mezzanine floor. African and Oceanic art will have separate gallery space to avoid confusion, and an additional downstairs gallery focuses on Connecticut artists of the 20th century, particularly those with close ties to the Slater and to NFA’s art school. There’s also a roomful of animal-themed art geared to children, with pieces ranging from a Japanese relief carving of a crane to Audubon prints of squirrels to a mola from Panama depicting a cat.

Saturday’s opening is by invitation only, but afterwards the Slater will resume its usual hours: Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m., and Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.


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