The changes at the Slater Memorial Museum's famous cast gallery are a shining microcosm of all the work that has gone on during the site's renovation.
Everything seems brighter, sharper and more inviting.
Gone is the carpeting that used to cover the cast gallery floor - with its harvest-gold color and its wall-to-wall style, it was clearly from a long-ago era. Removal of the rug revealed a wood floor that was pitch black with aged varnish and countless layers of wax. Now, the floor - a mix of birch, hard pine and maple - is clean and fresh.
The gallery's lighting that had been, for lack of a more elegant description, fluorescent institutional has gone modern. New, high-effiency bulbs create a very clear, white light. Lightolier tracks also hold incandescent halogen pin-spots that can be directed at a cast's face and really bring out the work's dimensions.
The cast pedestals have been repainted, with a color scheme to help visitors better understand styles and eras.
That is just part of the Slater overhaul, which has included everything from structuring new exhibits, to pulling down drywall to expose windows, to installing an elevator.
Seeing the results of the renovation, museum director Vivian F. Zoe says, "has been very, very satisfying, even though, obviously, I see the things we still have to do with regard to labelling and the catalogue, even here and there little details on installation."
Attendance has doubled since the Slater reopened in November; it was closed for a year and a half while the work was being done. The numbers have jumped from about 2,500 visitors for a three-month period to 5,000. Membership, meanwhile, has increased by 20 to 25 percent, to 600 members.
"It's just been fantastic," Zoe says of the public's response. "In addition to people who may have never been here before, people who haven't been here in a long time and know the museum and care about the museum have come in and said, 'Oh my God, everything looks so great.' I still occasionally get some unsolicited emails saying, 'I finally got in there since you reopened, and it just looks terrific.'"
Some of the changes, of course, have been structural. An example: the museum's Converse Gallery has a new roof and skylight, and its walls were repainted a fresh white. (It's now the site of the 68th annual Connecticut Artists Exhibition, which Zoe says is one of the Slater's most popular temporary exhibitions. Nearly 400 pieces were submitted, and juror Jeff Andersen, who is the Florence Griswold Museum director, selected a diverse and striking 120 works to be part of the show.)
Other alterations focused on exhibitions, such as the creation of a new one showcasing Connecticut artists of the 20th century. The focus of the museum's mezzanine, meanwhile, has become Norwich history.
Adjustments were made, too, so that things would make more interpretive sense. The pieces that Emily Vanderpoel donated to the museum in 1935 previously had been kept in a mezzanine side room that was roped off. Visitors could see in, but they couldn't get close to the items that included Chinese, Korean and Japanese artworks. The items have been moved, and museum-goers can now walk right up to them for a better view. Vanderpoel's personal story hadn't been told either. Now, wall text explains her background.
Zoe says, "We tried not to change things so dramatically that our old stalwarts would be offended and upset. Yet, at the same time, we took a completely different approach to interpreting what I consider our important objects. The great thing is that the public got it, and they just said, 'Wow, this is so meaningful. It makes sense. Everything makes sense.' That's been very satisfying."
Much of the work was done by museum staff and within its operating budget. All the design and installation work was done in-house. Consequently, the cost was probably $15,000 to $20,000 in materials and in work that the Slater folks couldn't do themselves.
And, Zoe says, "We're not resting on our laurels. We can't, really. We know we have polishing to do."
Indeed, the work goes on. They will be exchanging paper labels for permanent plaques. They will be moving pieces that had been stored in various places - including the museum attic and a Sachem St. building the Slater owns - to a permanent, climate-controlled, state-of-the-art storage space in the basement of the atrium.
Yes, the atrium. One of the most dramatic things visitors will notice is the newly built, three-story glass atrium that connects the Slater to Norwich Free Academy buildings. It provides a stunning new entranceway to the museum. Multi-floor walkways that have been built along the outside of the Slater allows everything to get an up-close view of the building's architecturally intriguing exterior.
Museum-goers who come in via the atrium first see a quartet of panels introducing them to the history of the museum and to major figures.
They then come upon the visitor's center and the gift shop. The Friends of Slater sponsored the $5,000 set-up costs for the shop. It has raised $10,000 so far. The shop offers books and items related to the museum's collection - including small versions of the Slater's casts, such as a $125 Dying Gaul - as well as fair-trade merchandise and items made by Connecticut artisans.
After that, visitors can wander through the multitude of galleries and exhibitions.
Worthy of note is the exhibition about William and Ellen Slater's tour around the world on their private yacht in 1894-5. The show was only open for six months before the museum closed for the renovation work. Now, it's on view again.
On the museum-tour side of things, the Slater, which has never had guides beyond its museum educator, has been holding classes for docents. About a dozen people have been meeting every week for five months to learn about the museum collection and about Norwich history. Ultimately, they'll be leading tours of the Slater or answering questions at its visitor's center. Museum-goers might eventually get a more high-tech way to be led through the exhibitions, too. In the next three years, the Slater plans on developing iPod tours; the public would be able to download recorded tours from the museum's website.
As for now, the Slater has created gallery hand-guides that are selling for $5. The plan is to upgrade those catalogues. And the museum is producing a 10- to 12-minute orientation video for visitors to watch.
The Slater continues to motor forward. The museum will host an Abraham Lincoln exhibit this fall, and it is working toward making prints of some of its famous John Denison Crocker paintings.