Renovations make Hood Museum more accessible to community

by Madison Wilson | 5/17/19 2:10am

I’ve never thought much about how art is moved. We can carry small pieces or move them on a cart, but what about the massive ones? Like “Guernica” or “Water Lilies” or “Hovor,” a piece on display in the new Hood Museum of Art? The answer: a massive elevator, one story high, that could fit at least eight normal elevators inside it. This is my first point of contact with the inner workings of the Hood Museum of Art. 

When I go to meet John Stomberg, the Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director of the Hood, I travel up to his office in such an elevator, with gleaming stainless steel-walls reminiscent of a sci-fi film — beam me up, Scotty. 

This elevator certainly matches the new Hood Museum: neutral greys, industrial undertones and a modern aesthetic. The new building comes after a 14-month renovation, when the museum completely closed down and opened a satellite location in downtown Hanover. 

This January, the museum reopened. Over the course of two years, the renovation cost $50 million and added six new galleries and three classrooms, totaling a 50 percent increase from the previous square footage to 62,400 square feet. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the new museum as a muted yet bold backdrop to the art itself.

The renovation aimed to increase the size and accessibility of the Hood, making design subservient to utility. The old Hood was designed by architect Charles Moore in the postmodern style, and, while interesting, was dark and difficult to navigate. Academic curator Kathy Hart said that it was even difficult to find the front door. Now, the Hood opens up to the center of campus and is better connected architecturally and physically with the Hopkins Center, creating a literal corridor of the arts. 

But what is the Hood Museum? The answer has not changed much over the course of the museum’s lifetime. At its core, the Hood is a museum for learning that reflects the culture of the College in its very structure and is involved in constant conversation with scholarly work. 

“Art museums can start collecting the same 50 artists just to check boxes,” Stomberg said.” We’re going to be a museum that has its own personality that fits Dartmouth.” 

According to documents from the Rauner Special Collections Library, while the building has only existed since 1985, the College has been actively collecting art since 1796 — starting with a single woolly mammoth tooth. Even prior to Dartmouth’s founding, Eleazar Wheelock collected Native American artifacts. The College kept these holdings in Dartmouth Hall until 1811, when neighboring students destroyed many of the works with a cannon. After that, the College kept art in a variety of buildings strewn about campus, including Carpenter Hall, Wilson Hall and the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Eventually, faculty decided it would be beneficial to have somewhere to store the vast collections, which then included Assyrian reliefs, a Picasso and a Rothko, among many others. They believed that “the absence of an art museum of real consequence is the source of the imbalance in the arts” at Dartmouth, citing a preference at the College for the sciences. Finally, the College decided to house its collections under one roof — which would eventually become the Hood Museum — in 1978. 

When the Hood opened in 1985, record numbers of students, faculty and community members visited the museum — 16,000 in the first three months, according to a 1995 Hood Museum Statement of Purpose. In a 1985 issue of the Valley News, one woman called it “the next best thing to visiting the Met.” The Hood has always been an academic art museum focused on supporting students, scholars and professors across disciplines, according to Stomberg. When curating, the museum must keep this central goal in mind.

“A big municipal museum might take a work of art simply because it’s beautiful and rare. We have to find something that’s beautiful, rare and historically significant and relevant to the curriculum,” Stomberg said. 

The goal of the museum was not just to be a place to display art. Literature on the original Hood Museum stresses the museum’s academic bent and its priority of teaching even before the physical museum existed. 

According to the architects of the new Hood Museum, “The Museum is far more than just a place to go and see art; it is a place where one can go and learn how to see art.”

While the museum enjoys nicer facilities and a larger collection than when it first opened, this goal has not changed. The Hood was the first in the country to have an “academic curator” — a curator dedicated to academic programming and teaching within the museum, a central tenet of the museum’s identity as a “teaching museum.” Four faculty sit on the acquisitions committee to ensure that the Hood’s collections continue to serve the academic community at large. In addition, the Hood has five teaching coordinators and classrooms where faculty can bring students to study and learn about the museum’s collections.

These classrooms in the Bernstein Center for Object Study are a notable feature of the new Hood. I go in one such classroom to speak with Kathy Hart, academic curator, and Juliette Bianco, deputy director of the museum. The high ceilings, warm grey walls, large window and modern tables ensure that all attention is on the object for studying. 

“This very room we’re standing in is the result of years, if not decades, of thought from Kathy and other curators and faculty members how best to teach with objects,” Bianco said. “You know, what’s the height of the table and how does that facilitate the best way to look at an object that’s sitting on the table?”

On the physical level, the museum has changed significantly. Everything in the new museum feels intentional. Walking through the museum, I’m struck by the never-ending hardwood, creating continuity through each exhibit and gallery as well as the openness, the high ceilings, the yellow light. 

“A museum is already, for some people, a bit of a barrier, because it seems like this third space, so the last thing you want is for that to be more difficult,” Bianco said. 

These new changes are only the beginning — the renovation changed both the façade of the Hood itself as well as its identity on campus. Stomberg called this a “reorientation.” The museum is now focusing on collecting different kinds of art, including American art, global contemporary, photography and Native American art with the creation of a Native American Art department within the Hood. 

The new Hood is also focusing more on student and community outreach programming. The Hood has always prioritized serving and integrating with the Upper Valley; literature describing the Hood’s original mission states, “The Hood Museum contributes to an understanding and appreciation of the fine arts and of human culture in the community at large.”

On April 28, the Hood hosted Family Day — a packed event for Upper Valley residents complete with juggling and art projects. Laughter reverberated in the vaulted ceilings as children and their parents collaborated in making new works of art. The Hood’s opening event for students was so packed that food ran out in a few minutes and people were unable to weave through the mass of bodies in the Hood atrium. Other student programming includes the Hood interns, the Museum Club, Museum Curating 101 and the Hood after Five. 

“You can come in for five minutes or you can bring a book and sit for five hours. How can the museum be more a part of [students’] daily lives? And making the museum more visible through the expansion and hopefully more-welcoming-looking was part of hoping to serve the students in their whole lives while they’re here,” said Bianco.

Charlotte Grüssing ’19, a Hood Programming intern, said she hopes that the new Hood will continue to integrate into the community and the lives of students. A key part of her role is bringing students from across campus to the Hood, showing them that the museum has something to offer everyone. 

“Collaborating with people just brings in a whole new audience. It also gets people to think about art differently. It makes it okay for art to be fun and engaging, to laugh in the museum,” Grüssing said. 

While an incredible resource, like many museums, the Hood must reckon with the means with which it has accumulated such a diverse and extensive collection in art from other cultures. For example, the British Museum’s famous Egypt collection came as a result of colonialism and imperialism. How did the Hood’s Assyrian tablets or its vast collection of Native American art get here? The Hood must come to terms with the power dynamics that facilitate its vast holdings, which likely did not come to the Hood as a result of a fair or equitable transaction.

“It’s something that we have to wrestle with all the time. We are 100 percent legal, so we’re wrestling with the ethics,” Stomberg said.

Stomberg said that the museum is struggling with how to make reparations for the past while maintaining the museum and its art from around the world used as important objects for teaching. He hopes that the museum and its artifacts can continue to facilitate discussion around this issue, with learning as the central goal. 

These questions are some with which the Hood, and the Dartmouth community at large, will continue to wrestle. How can we facilitate reconciliation while still exploring other cultures and learning? As the Hood continues to define itself on campus and in the world, perhaps the answers will become clearer. 

“The Hood Museum ... is neither old nor new in its style but wonderfully and tantalizingly in between.”

The Hood, along with museums all over the world, will need to remain in conversation with societal changes while simultaneously maintaining its founding goals. Architecture critic John Goldberger said of the new Hood, “The Hood Museum … is neither old nor new in its style but wonderfully and tantalizingly in between,” — not quite a museum, not quite a classroom, not quite modern, not quite antique. The study of objects exists in the space between observation and understanding, the space between the real and the imaginary. It is in this liminal space that the museum finds its eternity on campus.