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In the early 1980s, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation decided it needed a permanent area to showcase its tens of thousands of historic objects that were not in use in the Historic Area.
That resulted in the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, which has grown from its humble beginnings as a showroom for artifacts to a sprawling museum where the foundation’s trained historians can tell stories about the past using remarkable artifacts in the foundation’s collection.
“We feel very strongly that three-dimensional artifacts are records of the time and place and people that produce them,” said Ron Hurst, the foundation’s vice president for collections, conservation and museums and the Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator. “We use them to talk about people and history and ideas and events of the past. And that’s why we open four to five new exhibitions every year.”
Today the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum hosts the world’s largest collection of southern furniture and one of the largest collections of British ceramics outside England. Also on display are metals, glass, firearms, prints and textiles from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
To celebrate the museum’s 30th birthday, a slate of activities have been planned throughout September, including special guided tours, new exhibits and a gala evening on Sept. 30.
The building where the museum is situated — located at 326 W Francis Street — has changed little since the museum first opened in 1985, said Richard Hadley, the director of museum design and operations for the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
The largest changes involve the addition of almost 12,000 square feet to the building and the repurposing of two gardens to clear space for family and children’s activities in what is now the Susan Goode Education Gallery and the Abby Aldrich Folk Art Museum.
“That space was always intended to be an expansion space, never meant to be a garden in perpetuity,” Hadley said.
Hadley said the museum has had more than 130 exhibits since it first opened. He pointed to the proximity to the Historic Area as an important attribute to the museum.
“Where else can you go through a fine and decorative arts museum and then one block away and go and see how these fine and decorative arts were used in an historic context in the Historic Area?” He said.
Hadley said the key to the museum’s ongoing success is the experience it offers visitors.
“One of the most frequent comments from guests is ‘I had no idea it would be this big and this great,’” Hadley said. “Our repeat visitors from out of town and our local audience have just gone and shared the experience — told people through word of mouth you have to go to art museums of Colonial Williamsburg. If you look at our TripAdvisor reviews, our Facebook page, the visitors are very complimentary.”
One challenge over the years has been the lack of a visible entrance to the museum. Until recently, there was little in the way of signage outside the museum. Since it was built, guests have entered through the Public Hospital of 1773, which may not appear to be anything more than a Colonial-era building at first glance.
“I think the philosophy 30-plus years ago was that the museum should not intrude on the vistas of the Historic Area,” Hurst said in a November interview. “It was thought that screening it with the public hospital would be a good way of doing that. What we’ve learned from 30 years of operating experience is that that’s very confusing and counterintuitive.”
All of that is about to change. Foundation President and CEO Mitchell Reiss announced late last year that the current entrance will be replaced with a large building on South Nassau Street with better signage for passersby. It will be marked with flags and embossed letters on the sides of the building.
The celebration of the museum’s 30 years runs through September. Events include:
- A gala evening will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 30. Tickets are $15 for individuals and $30 for couples. Gala attendees will receive special tours through the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, instrumental music performances, refreshments, drink ticket for beer or wine and a concert in Hennage Auditorium featuring DeWitt Wallace museum performers from the past 30 years. Tickets are available at any Colonial Williamsburg ticket location, the Colonial Williamsburg website or by calling 855-296-6627.
- A concert called “A Rich and Varied Culture: Music from the Early South” will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 26. It complements an exhibition introduced last year called “A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South.” The music explores the region, with Southern Music from the late 1700s through the 1850s with dance tunes, parlor songs and music from the Era of Good Feelings. The concert and admission to the museum is free that day.
- Live music will be played throughout the month while guests are touring.
- The museum will celebrate the reinstallation of the foundation’s permanent silver collection in a new exhibit called “Silver from Mine to Masterpiece.” It includes about 170 objects — including some never-before-seen artifacts — opens Sept. 12.
- Every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., museum visitors can take tour to learn about the history of the museum and how and why objects have been collected over the years.
- On Fridays, guides will show visitors hidden stories behind objects on display in the museum. That tour, which includes paintings, ceramics and textiles, starts at 10:30 a.m.