Emily Dickinson Museum set to expand restorations

  • The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/14/2018 9:26:32 AM

AMHERST — An effort to restore the Emily Dickinson Museum’s homes and grounds to the way they were during the 19th century is continuing through a new project that will eventually open up to visitors more parts of The Homestead, the residence in which the famed poet was born in 1830 and where she composed most of her poetry.

Amherst College, which owns the museum created in 2003, this week announced the latest renovations at the Main Street site, some of which will be undertaken following the acquisition of a neighboring property on Triangle Street, and others that will be completed using a $300,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In June, the college bought the 2,200-square foot, two-story 1909 Georgian Colonial home, on a 1/3-acre property, at 20 Triangle St. for $525,000.

Executive Director Jane Wald said the museum’s administrative offices, currently in The Homestead, will be moved to this property directly to the north, allowing the museum to expand interpretation of the poet’s life by restoring spaces inside the home where Dickinson lived until her death in 1886.

“The offices will move, most likely in late spring after we make a few adjustments on that property,” Wald said.

Once the offices, administrative functions and storage are moved, the museum can prepare a design and plans for restoring spaces, then implement that plan.

“This change sets us on a pretty clear path for restoration of more spaces, which is pretty exciting,” Wald said.

The plan would include examining the physical space and seeking documentary evidence, such as scraps of wallpaper.

As an example of how space might be restored, she points to the bed chamber on the second floor behind Emily Dickinson’s room, where her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, lived the last years of her life. This, Wald said, could introduce space where visitors would learn about a lesser-known figure in Dickinson’s life, as well as touch on themes of illness, nursing and health care.

The purchase of the neighboring property was unanimously approved by the museum’s Board of Governors, which also provided the bulk of funding, in partnership with the college, through a fundraising campaign.

Ken Rosenthal, immediate past chair of the Board of Governors, said the project comes because the museum is at an inflection point, with an average of 15,000 visitors annually.

“An extraordinary visitor experience depends on moving administrative workspaces out of restorable spaces and sets the Emily Dickinson Museum firmly on a path into the future,” Rosenthal said.

Wald said there is no cost estimate yet, though more fundraising is ahead.

This will be the latest improvement to The Homestead in the 15 years the college has owned the museum. Other projects have included bringing back the original exterior house colors in 2005, installing a period-appropriate fence and hedge along Main and Triangle streets in 2009, as well as the restoration of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom and the creation of an heirloom orchard on the grounds.

The most recent project, finished in 2017, brought back the garden conservatory, reconstructed from original materials saved on site, and restored The Homestead’s library interior finishes.

Meanwhile, the Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections program grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will enhance The Evergreens, the residence next to The Homestead, built for Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and where Dickinson heirs lived until 1988.

Matched with funding from the college, the grant will be used for a $600,000 project to replace and expand the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at the 1856 Italianate-style home, and also to fix leaks, put in new insulation and storm windows, and better control light filtration. This money will also serve to protect the historic collections there, including textiles, upholstered furniture and works of art, and allow more of these objects to be on regular display.

These items, with only 15 to 20 percent on display, are used to illustrate important themes in 19th century social and cultural history, such as gender and domesticity, changes in aesthetic tastes, class and social prominence and civic engagement, Wald said.

“Enhanced insulation and a new HVAC system in The Evergreens will create the kind of stable environment necessary for long-term protection and stewardship of this unique historic collection, and will allow us to display significantly more of the collection,” Wald said.Some of the pieces in this collection may also return to The Homestead for use in restored rooms.

This project is underway and will go about two years, but when complete will mean a better presentation and stewardship of the museum.

The Evergreens project was one of 218 proposals awarded $43 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

​​​​​​Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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