As the seasons have changed, so has the scenery on South Nassau Street. Construction crews line the sides closest to the Art Museums and a large steel skeleton of a building has finally started to take form.
This is what the expansion of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, poised to open to the public in April 2020, looks like.
The expansion of The Art Museums in Colonial Williamsburg is expected to be substantially finished enough to open to the public on time, according to Ronald Hurst, vice president of collections, conservation and museums for Colonial Williamsburg.
The only setbacks to construction have been weather-related, Hurst said, and construction is about 10 days behind schedule. However, he said they won’t know exactly how far they are behind until the contractor gets rain totals from November and December.
“Unfortunately, the contractor has to get his numbers from National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is closed because of the government shutdown so they can’t get their numbers,” Hurst said.
Other than that, Hurst said the expansion is on time and on budget, with substantial completion for the project to be in late summer or early fall of this year.
“When the grand opening happens in April of 2020, most of the museum will be up and ready to go,” Hurst said. “There will still be a few galleries that won’t open until 2021, and that is because we are actually a little unusual here in that we design and build all of our exhibitions in house.”
According to Hurst, the new space will have room for more dedicated exhibits for objects they haven’t been able to show as much, things such as maps, archeology and costumes.
“For instance — coins currency and metals, we don’t currently have a dedicated space for that, we have to do smaller exhibitions,” said Rick Hadley, director of museums design and operations for Colonial Williamsburg. “We will have a dedicated space for that collection, as well as a dedicated space for the folk art toy collection, which oftentimes only comes out during the fourth quarter holidays.”
The museum expansion began in 2017 and will add 65,000 square feet to the building. Hurst said the project is completely donor-funded, at just under $42 million.
One of the biggest changes to the building will be the entrance. Currently, there is no visible entrance to the folk art and decorative arts museums. Guests must go through Colonial Williamsburg’s Public Hospital, and then travel underground through a tunnel to reach the art museums.
“For many of our guests, it’s very confusing. They walk up to the front (of the hospital) and wonder if they’re in the wrong place,” Hurst said.
He said the new entrance will be visible from Duke of Gloucester Street and will use period materials with more modern architecture to help it stand out as a museum.
“We really believe architectural design gives us, as humans, clues about what we are supposed to do,” Hurst said. “(The new entrance) says ‘come in.’ ”
While under construction, the museum has remained open. Hurst said the exhibits have been moved to different spaces as others were being worked on.
“So it works out to have some spaces renovated because it gives us temporary space to move things around," Hurst said.
Hadley said in addition to keeping open as much as possible, the museums will even open new exhibitions during the expansion.
“Not only are we building a new museum, we are still continuing our program of changing exhibitions,” Hadley said. “The first one will open in the second quarter (of 2019).’”
Hurst said the museum didn’t close for the expansion because when museums close they tend to fall off people’s radar.
“Anytime you have construction on a public building like this you can expect to have a decrease in attendance, but (the Colonial Williamsburg Art Museums) were up by 3 percent in 2018,” Hurst said. “I think what we are finding is that our guests are fascinated by the construction and are delighted to find out there’s so much of the museum that is still available to them.”
Want to stay up to date?
You can watch the expansion’s construction in real time via webcam visit history.org/history/museums/expansion.cfm.
“We have fans from across the country who if the lens is a little foggy they call and say ‘I can’t see the construction site, can you go out and wipe the lens off?’” Hurst said.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.