Makeover at the Mead

By Emily Gold Boutilier

The Mead's Bassett Gallery displays early-20th-century art.

When Elizabeth Barker became director of the Mead Art Museum three years ago, “we got out of the business of renting traveling shows,” she says, and focused on “plumming the depths of our own collection,” which now includes more than 17,000 works of art.

To better showcase that collection, “we wanted to rearrange the displays in a way that was more coherent,” Barker says. “We decided to start almost from scratch.”

In June the Mead closed for a makeover. It reopened incrementally, one gallery at a time, beginning in July. The renovated museum is modern and inviting, encouraging visitors to linger on the 300 works on display at a time.
Visitors first walk into an open room (a partition was knocked down and a new passageway created) painted a warm yellow and home to two of the Mead’s signature pieces, Thomas Cole’s 1838 masterpieces The Past and The Present. The galleries are now organized mostly by date rather than by nationality of the artist, which means an 1884 Rodin bust shares a room with Winslow Homer’s The Fisher Girl (1894).

The reopening celebration, with Barker at center in black

“Many of the objects we’re showing have never found a place in the Mead’s permanent collection displays before now,” Barker says, including Japanese prints, Pre-Hispanic artifacts and Mexican popular arts. Ancient artifacts are integrated with relevant pieces from later periods, allowing the museum to quadruple the number of those artifacts on view. For example, ancient perfume bottles complement an 1891 French painting in which a cupid sprays a Grecian woman with perfume.

Among the works in the post-World War II gallery are a sculpture by Frank Stella (who received an Amherst honorary degree in 2009) and the museum’s newest acquisition, They Took Me to a Dark Room (2008), by Daniel Heyman.

Barker expects the museum’s curatorial team to change the displays frequently, although certain works, including the Cole and Homer paintings, will likely always be on view.

SEE FOR YOURSELF: Every work on display at the Mead is also on view at Go here for clickable panoramic images of every gallery (you can zoom in to view individual pieces). The museum is free and open to the public. Hours while school is in session are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to midnight and Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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