Museum of Art shuts its doors for reorganization, plans to reopen in spring 2021

By Haeun Park

The exterior of the college museum before the pandemic. COURTESY

The Middlebury College Museum of Art will be closed to all visitors for the fall semester as it undergoes a complete reorganization of its permanent collection. The museum will reopen its doors at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester, with a tentative date set for February.

Originally, the museum had planned to provide limited access for faculty and students during the reinstallation, yet a new plan was made following the college’s evacuation in March. 

“We made the decision to ‘make lemonade from lemons’ and fast track the reinstallation,” Richard Saunders, director of the museum, said. “We are gambling that by spring, the pandemic cloud presently over us will be reduced to a level that makes visiting the museum a much more pleasurable experience.”

The reorganization of the museum’s permanent collection is part of a larger plan to reimagine the museum experience.

Currently, the museum’s gallery of Asian art is located upstairs, connected to the passage that leads into the special exhibition galleries. Every semester, the entire floor has to be closed to prepare for the debut of a new exhibit, creating stretches of time where visitors miss out on the art of the entire region. By moving the gallery of Asian art to the ground floor with the rest of the museum’s permanent collection, its contents will always be accessible — even as the second floor closes for new installations.

Jason Vrooman, director of engagement for the museum, added that another aspect of rethinking the museum experience is to shift away from traditional geographic and chronological organization of art.

“What ends up happening [with this approach] is, by accident, and maybe sometimes by design, there start to be these priorities put on different cultures and different time periods,” Vrooman said. “The truth is our collection is still pretty centered in European art, but we do have art from all over the world. So what we’re trying to do is a thematic approach to the gallery.”

By looking at art through a number of different lenses, including themes such as the body, rituals and devotion and environmental impact, the museum hopes to be able to connect art from multiple cultures while still telling their individual, unique stories. But, this kind of change will not happen overnight.

“I’ll be honest; it’s going to be a slow process because the history of most European and American museums have been so focused on European tradition,” Vrooman said. “But the hope is that when people come through the museum, it’ll be a much more inclusive story of global history.”

Another key component of the renovation is its attention toward greater physical accessibility, such as implementing a larger font on the labels and creating a greater contrast between the wall color and the font in order to make it easier to read.

“I think it’ll look like a very different museum [in the spring],” Vrooman said.

On top of their newly launched database, which allows visitors to examine their collection of close to 6,000 works of art online, the museum will also begin to provide more information through virtual tours as part of their efforts to increase their digital presence.

“Museums have already had a digital presence, but it’s increased so much since March,” Vrooman said. “We’ve realized it’s not perfect; there are still kinks to iron out, but we can reach so many more people [with this], and that’s a different kind of accessibility. The goal would be to integrate what happens in the galleries online so that someone anywhere in the world can have a connection to the museum.”

Connection, especially with the Middlebury community, is one of the museum’s main goals for the fall semester.

Student Friends of the Art Museum (SFoAM) is a student-led group with more than1000 members that hosts a number of events throughout the year, which in previous semesters have included yoga, coloring sessions and scavenger hunts all located inside the museum.

“Museums are not necessarily accessible spaces where everyone feels comfortable and welcomed,” former SFoAM coordinator Flo Montes ’21 said. “[SFoAM] attempts to break that barrier by creating an interactive environment that reminds students that it is our museum. We host events that invite students to view an art museum in a way they may have never before and thus reinvent their relationship with it.”

Although its physical doors are closed until the spring, the museum will continue working with SFoAM to plan events for students in addition to collaborating with other departments for events offered to everyone in the community.

“This fall, I hope that we can really have a virtual presence and get people engaged when they can’t come through the doors,” Vrooman said. “Some of that is relying on partners: our Student Friends leadership group that will be chosen soon and the other departments. But, I also hope that working internally, we can deliver on those promises on having the museum look and feel very different [in the spring].”