One of the World’s Richest Museums
WINTERTHUR, Del. (AP) _ The people who run Winterthur Museum feel the nation’s premier collection of American furniture and decorative arts hasn’t gotten the audience it deserves - and they blame the institution itself.
They say the sheer size of the immense collection and the imposing surroundings of a former Du Pont manor are intimidating to many people. The nine-story, 150-year-old country house, set on a 985-acre estate, contains 89,000 pieces displayed in 196 period room settings.
Museum-goers also have been encouraged to make advance reservations for tours of the collection, and for most of its 39 years Winterthur never tried to reach out for a broad audience.
The museum’s directors began changing direction in the mid-1980s. They’re stressing programs for children to attract more families, and they’re planning a new hall to house a smaller, more digestible exhibition of the musuem’s Americana pieces.
Why the new approach?
″Because it wasn’t felt it was necessary,″ said Thomas A. Graves Jr., the museum’s executive director. ″It was perfectly all right to keep Winterthur exactly the way it was, which was wonderful.
″The collection itself is absolutely extraordinary. But we, the trustees, felt the time had come that in order for us to really thrive and be of service in the future, we were going to have to open up and expand.″
The changes have meant Winterthur had to join its museum brethern in fund raising, seeking aggressively for the first time to tap revenue sources like corporations and federal and private grants.
The changes also meant being more businesslike.
Graves, 66, who was hired in 1985 after 14 years as president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said Winterthur lacked ″normal business management practices and controls on spending.″
″Winterthur was not in trouble (financially), but it was clear we didn’t have good control over our costs, personnel and security. We were just sort of here. We had to establish ourselves as a first-rate business enterprise if we’re going to be first-rate in the future,″ Graves said.
Before it started fund raising, Winterthur operated comfortably off the income from its $150 million endowment left by its founder, the late Henry Francis du Pont, which made it one of the richest museums in the country.
The endowment now generates about $7.1 million in income a year, providing about 54 percent of the museum’s $13 million operating budget.
Winterthur’s first fund-raising campaign started in December 1988, seeking to raise $19 million for the new exhibition hall. About $12.3 million has been raised so far, and the building is scheduled to open in the spring of 1992.
The new hall will be a traditional museum, where objects are displayed as if in an art gallery.
″This is an extraordinary place, and when you have this kind of a treasure, I think we have an obligation to share it with as many people and families as we possibly can. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing,″ Graves said.
A $450,000 grant came from McDonald’s for the hall to house an expanded version of the museum’s ″touch it″ room for children. The exhibit lets kids dress up in old clothes and pick up and examine objects from the collection.
In an effort to make itself better known, the museum has sent its catalog to 8 million people and it recently began participating in furniture trade shows, displaying reproductions of its collection. It also opened a store Sept. 22 in Alexandria, Va., to sell reproductions from the collection.
″We’ve been doing a lot of promotions with groups specifically, and we’ve been doing a lot of internal staff training - sensitivity training to realize that we need to be very aware of what our visitors know and don’t know″ about decorative arts, said Peter H. Hammell, director of museum and public programs.
He said the effort is paying off in higher attendance. In the first 10 months of the year, 132,340 people had visited Winterthur for tours and special programs, an increase of 16 percent from the same period last year.
″What we’re seeing, I hope, is people will give us a chance. It’s a whole changing of our image in the community,″ Hammell said.
The move to make Winterthur more accessible is part of a national trend, said Edward H. Able, executive director of the American Associaton of Museums in Washington.
Museums are serving broader populations and hiring culturally diverse staffs and boards. Museums are ″making sure exhibitions are understandable to and enjoyable by wider populations,″ Able said.
Marvin D. Schwartz, a lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said Winterthur’s collection is unrivaled.
The American wing at the Met and the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have ″some wonderful objects, but I don’t think it is quite as varied″ as Winterthur’s, he said.
″A number of other museums have American rooms and American sections, but no place but Winterthur has it all.″