Brandon’s Art Handling Adventures: 2020 So Far

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my schedule had become repetitive due to reading for comprehensive exams. I’ve been at home reading every day since January, and while the books I’ve been working on have been quite interesting and helpful for my future work, my day-to-day activities have been rather mundane. For the last couple of months, the most exciting thing I’ve been doing is walking around the neighborhood and seeing how many rabbits I can count (I’ve gotten up to 20, in case you were curious).

That hasn’t been true for Brandon though. As Senior Preparator at Colonial Williamsburg, he has not only continued going to work since the pandemic started (since he doesn’t interact with visitors he can social distance from them), but has also been busy installing brand-new galleries and refreshing older ones at the art museums as part of a long-awaited expansion. Today then, I’d like to highlight what he’s been up to by taking you on a tour of these new spaces.

For clarification, when I say art museums at Colonial Williamsburg, I’m referring to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Since these two collections are housed in the same building, they’re often just called the art museums. I’ll also start referring to Colonial Williamsburg by its initials, CW, as that’s what Brandon and I typically use when we talk about it.

This new exhibition, British Masterworks, showcases some of the most exquisite objects in the museum collection. And not surprisingly perhaps, a lot of them are very heavy.

Brandon took me to the art museums a few weeks ago so that I could see these spaces for myself. I hadn’t been to a museum since February, so I definitely noticed new safety protocols in place. All visitors are expected to wear face masks, and there’s plenty of signage reminding people to practice social distancing. CW has injected a little humor into these signs by using references from the collection. So a sign might say “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or one George Washington,” for instance, or “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or six teapots.” Through these playful references to the collection, CW aims to defuse the discomfort of social distancing while reminding visitors of these new rules.

The biggest change at the museum is arguably its entrance. For those who haven’t been the art museums before, the entrance was a little peculiar because it was underground. You’d enter through the old mental hospital, but in order to reach the museum, you’d have to walk downstairs and through the gift shop. It all felt a little covert and confusing, and the exhibits on the hospital itself felt like an afterthought.

Now however, you enter the museum through this building:

You then walk down this hallway to the entrance desk. It looks a little empty right now due to social distancing protocols, but I can assure you it feels a lot less covert than the old entrance. The openness and formality of the new architecture, with its series of brick archways, definitely plays a role in that. As for the hospital, it will use its newly-opened space to expand its exhibitions and explore the history of treating mental health more deeply.

What Brandon has been busy doing is getting the galleries ready for visitors by filling them with lots of wonderful objects. Some of this work has entailed refreshing older galleries with new collections or exhibitions. The gallery on the left, for instance, used to be dedicated to musical instruments, but now focuses on Southern pottery. Brandon actually picked up some of the newer acquisitions during a courier trip to Atlanta last year, so he was already familiar with some of these pieces and their structural quirks. The gallery on the right, in turn, is part of an exhibition called British Masterworks, which highlights the most ostentatious and sumptuous works in the DeWitt Wallace collection. There’s even an original portrait of Elizabeth I, which is pretty rare for a United States collection.

There are also several brand-new galleries. These two installations, which are placed right next to each other, are meant to show off the respective holdings of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Museum while also clarifying the two collections to visitors. The Rockefeller display on the left features plenty of imaginative folk art (including a carving of a hybrid rhinoceros-hippopotamus that doubles as a record player, because why not), while the DeWitt Wallace installation highlights furniture and other decorative arts holdings. There are also portraits of Rockefeller and the DeWitt Wallaces on view to help visitors connect the objects they see to the collectors who donated them.

While there are several new installations ready for visitors to peruse, other spaces are still in progress. The carved buffet below, for instance, was made by a former enslaved man named Jonathan Moss and will be part of a new exhibition showcasing Black furniture makers and artisans in Williamsburg. The gallery on the right contains a partially installed map exhibition.

Other expansions within the museum address the behind-the-scenes aspects of exhibition design. This new installation of paintings by Edward Hicks, for example, includes text panels that were designed and printed entirely in-house. Even that wall sticker you see with the Peaceable Kingdom backdrop was printed here. This allows the exhibition team more freedom and leeway in determining exactly what they want for each show, which will make them look that much more polished in terms of detail. The text panels for the Hicks show, for instance, are custom-designed to each painting, with details from each work appearing alongside the border. As someone who has had to outsource print jobs like this, I imagine it will be very liberating to the staff at CW to design and print their texts on their own time and by their own expectations.

This new exhibition on Edward Hicks offers a more comprehensive overview of his career. In addition to the Peaceable Kingdom paintings for which he’s most famous, this space features examples of his landscapes, trade signs, and history paintings. I especially like the decal used on the entry wall, which is basically a giant sticker that CW produced in-house. The fact that CW can print its own exhibition materials will give them a lot of freedom in terms of design.

This installation work has not been easy for Brandon. As I mentioned in a previous post, being a Preparator demands creative problem solving, especially with collections as eclectic as those at CW. Even under the best of conditions, the objects he works with are often old, heavy, and fragile all at the same time, qualities that demand delicate installation work. Social distancing has made his work even more challenging because he’s had to move these pieces with either fewer coworkers to help out, or none at all. During the peak of the installation process, Brandon would come home from work exhausted, but was already thinking about what he would need to do the next day to get the next pieces in place. Despite these challenges, however, Brandon and the rest of the collections department have done a wonderful job, and the galleries look fantastic. While the pandemic has necessitated that CW cancel the opening receptions that would have celebrated these new spaces, I’m still proud of Brandon and all his hard work, and I’m delighted to have been able to see these spaces he’s helped assemble in person.

When you feel safe to visit, there’s a smiling hippo-ceros-record player waiting to say hello!

I hope everyone gets a chance to see these exhibitions when it feels comfortable for them. There’s some great stuff to check out, and there will be more exhibitions to come in the near future. And Brandon will be there to make sure they’re all put up safely.

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