RISD Museum Unveils Renovated Galleries

PROVIDENCE, RI — On September 24, The RISD Museum will reveal its latest major renovation and reinstallation: the ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance galleries. These spaces, located in the 1926 Radeke Building, have been fully restored to their original architectural grandeur, and the collections on display in them—some of the Museum’s most important holdings—have been reinterpreted in fresh and compelling new ways. The galleries have been closed since last year. “These are among the most beautiful and highly articulated architectural spaces in The RISD Museum,” says interim director Ann Woolsey, “and we are very pleased to return them to their former glory and to reinstall them with treasures from our permanent collections.”

The renovation and reinstallation of the ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance galleries were supported by the generosity of a number of donors, including Board of Governors members Glenn Creamer and Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss and their wives Mary Jane Creamer and Dr. Yvonne Weiss.

The project was also funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which in 2006 gave the Museum a $600,000 matching grant for reinstalling and reinterpreting the permanent collection. The ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance gallery renovations are part of this five-year plan. October will bring a reinstallation of the European galleries, building upon the engaging approach already fully realized in the Museum’s acclaimed Paula and Leonard Granoff Central and South Galleries, which display 20th-century works of art with furniture, apparel, and design from the same period, presenting a fuller portrait of the time. The next and final phase of the project, a renovation of the 6th floor of the Radeke Building, will begin in 2011 and be completed the following year, resulting in a reinstallation of the Museum’s Asian art, Egyptian art, and costume and textiles collections as well as the monumental 12th-century wooden Japanese Buddha. This will include the new Angelo Donghia Costume and Textile Study Gallery, an exhibition and study/storage area that will provide greater access to the Museum’s costume and textile objects to students, scholars, and—for the first time—the public.

Ancient Art Galleries

“Many of these objects in our ancient collections are very beautiful, and we tend to think of them as ‘art,’ but they were first created as functional objects. To tease out the contexts in which they were originally made, we’ve centered the new ancient art reinstallation around the themes of everyday life, religious customs and beliefs, and funerary traditions,” explains Gina Borromeo, The RISD Museum’s curator of ancient art. “Another section explores materials and techniques, which we hope will entice viewers—especially RISD students—to take a closer look at individual pieces. The Greek and Roman galleries are some of the most popular galleries in the Museum, and among those most visited by schoolchildren, so to have this opportunity to present the collection in new and engaging ways has been an exciting process.” This is the first time the ancient and medieval collections have been completely reinstalled since they were designed by Alexander Dorner in 1939.

Visitors can look forward to seeing works from the permanent collection that have not been on view in many years. These objects include the much-beloved neo-Babylonian lion tile relief, last on view 20 years ago, and a never-before-exhibited marble column with naturalistic carvings of birds on vines which dates to the second century CE, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. Objects that have recently undergone conservation treatment will be featured, such as a 5th-century BCE Greek red-figured oil flask depicting the goddess Nike in flight, and a number of new acquisitions will be installed. Among these new acquisitions is a two-handled Roman glass jar from the 4th century CE, possibly for holding wine, and several intricately worked Etruscan gold beads, whose exquisite workmanship substantiates the reputation of Etruscan metalworkers as among the finest in antiquity. The sarcophagus loaned in 2009 to The RISD Museum from the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History is also featured in the new installation, where its history is reveals the reworking of ancient objects and the nature of collecting.

The Weiss Gallery of Ancient Art will showcase the Museum’s Roman marble portraits and sarcophagi, wall paintings from the vicinity of Pompeii, and floor mosaics from the Roman province of Syria. Here the Museum’s collection of Etruscan and Italic ceramics and bronzes will also be shown, among these a bronze relief fragment depicting warriors on horseback dating to the 6th century BCE, a recent gift of Drs. Arnold-Peter and Yvonne Weiss.

New case displays in the gallery of ancient Greek art, organized around the themes of Early Greece, Gods and Goddesses, Religion, Funerary Customs, Everyday Life, and the Symposium—bring the pieces to life. The Museum’s Greek marble funerary lion, dating to the beginning of the 4th century BCE, not shown for many years, will be back on view there, along with favorites such as the grave relief of a woman (the Radeke Stele) and a large storage vessel (amphora) with twisted handles that depicts the god Apollo holding his lyre

The third gallery, devoted to Materials and Technology, puts on view more Greek and Roman coins from the Museum’s collection than ever before. Among these are a spectacular tetradrachm with a head of the god Dionysos from Naxos in Sicily and a decadrachm with a stunning image of the nymph Arethusa from Syracuse, as well as gold staters from Pergamon dating to the time of Alexander the Great, recent donations from Drs. Peter and Yvonne Weiss. A group of marble sculpture and cases devoted to ceramics, metals, and glass elucidates various creative processes and explains the effects of time on different materials.

Medieval and Early Renaissance Galleries

Revealing the history of religious devotion, pilgrimages, monasticism and artistic guilds, the Creamer Medieval and Early Renaissance Galleries feature a number of exceptional works from The RISD Museum’s collections. Among the important objects on display are a limestone figure of Saint Peter from the great Abbey Church of Cluny, and a monumental 13th-century Spanish sculpture of the head of a saint. Two highly significant Italian works will be returned to view following thoughtful conservation efforts: the life-size polychromed sculpture of the Annunciate Angel Gabriel and a majestic panel painting of Saint Anthony Abbot by Spinello Aretino, both from 14th-century Tuscany, were among the Museum’s earliest acquisitions. The display also includes small devotional objects made for private use, such as a gilt bronze corpus from a crucifix made in the 12th century and an ivory diptych narrating the life of the Virgin Mary. Viewers will also be able to study manuscript illuminations and texts created in European monasteries. Among these is ca. 1510 illumination depicting St. Nicholas, a recent museum purchase.

In the early Renaissance gallery, curator of painting and sculpture Maureen C. O’Brien has assembled a group of northern and southern European paintings and sculpture. “In the early 20th century, the Museum was very astute in its acquisition of Renaissance art. It purchased exquisite panels from the pinnacles and predelle of dismantled altarpieces, including works by Lippo Memmi, Jacopo da Cione, and Matteo di Giovanni. Each of these narrates an aspect of the life of the saint it depicts and provides us with clues about life during the Renaissance.” Domestic objects shown nearby expand that narrative, including maiolica vases and a desco da parto, a painted wooden tray that would have been presented to a woman to celebrate the birth of a child. Northern European images include a Portrait of a Cleric by an unknown Bruges master. Wooden sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider and Benedikt Dreyer, and a marble tabernacle by Domenico Gagini demonstrate a wide range of emotional expressiveness and further an understanding of the materials and techniques used by Renaissance masters.

European Galleries

The European galleries, to be reopened in October, will combine paintings and sculpture with decorative arts, works on paper, and textiles, including an extraordinary example of Italian stamped silk velvet dating from the late 16th century. Objects on view will span the Renaissance to the Neoclassical period, and include a terracotta model of a river god by Giambologna, a painting of the interior of the Palatine Chapel at Aachen by Hendrik van Steenwijk, a French rococo gilded console table, and Joseph Chinard’s marble bust of Madame Récamier. The many examples of textiles and works on paper—including books, prints, and drawings—exhibited in the gallery will add significantly to the historical, intellectual, and aesthetic context of works on view. “In concert, this diverse group of objects elucidates the many rich materials used by European artists, as well as the processes of making art in the period, a central theme of the new galleries,” explains curator Emily Peters.

Architectural Renovation

Along with conserving and reinstalling the works displayed in them, the gallery spaces have themselves been fully restored and are now fully handicap accessible. Beautiful herringbone oak floors—which for 80 years had been hidden by linoleum—have been refinished, and ornate Regency-style door surrounds with carved wooden volutes have been restored. State-of-the-art security, lighting, and life-safety systems have been installed in the galleries, and a sound system will play period music in the Creamer Medieval Gallery. In the Ancient Art Galleries, the walls have been replastered and painted complementary blue and blue-gray hues, while the walls in the Creamer galleries have been redone in rich bronze-greens. The gallery reinstallations were planned by New York exhibition designer Stephen Saitas, in concert with RISD Museum curators. The renovation was designed by Ed Wojcik Architects and executed by Shawmut Design and Construction. The Radeke Restoration Project has been overseen since its inception in 2006 by Ann Woolsey.

The RISD Museum of Art, a world-class museum in Providence, RI, was founded as part of Rhode Island School of Design in 1877. Its permanent collection of more than 84,000 objects includes paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, costume, furniture, and other works of art from every part of the world, including objects from Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and art of all periods from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, up to the latest in contemporary art. In addition, the Museum offers a wide array of educational and public programs to more than 100,000 visitors annually.

Image: Warren Jagger Photography, RISD Museum of Art


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