Summertime is often the season when I, as I am sure many of our readers as well, will go and explore various museums. Seeing as how I am from Virginia, this usually means going to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the (newly renamed) Virginia Museum of History & Culture. One of my absolute favorite hidden gems in Richmond, however, is Agecroft Hall. A beautiful Tudor-era English manor house that was brought over piece-by-piece in the early twentieth century from its original place in England, Agecroft Hall is a unique blend of early modern architecture with modern conveniences (such as closets and radiators).
The tours that visitors are treated to at Agecroft are likewise an interesting mix of early modern English history and the estate’s twentieth-century history of how it made its way from England to the US due to the popular desires to have European-style homes. T.C. Williams, Jr., the man who purchased Agecroft and had it brought over to Richmond, actually wanted to create a kind of Tudor-style neighborhood surrounding Agecroft Hall (although this didn’t ultimately happen, Agecroft’s neighbor is likewise an early modern English-style home). Some visitors, I think, will be unsure of how to feel about a very historic English home being taken from its original grounds and brought over and adapted to fit 1920s standards of living; I know I at least was not sure what to think of this initially. However, Agecroft Hall was on the verge of collapse due to mining in the surrounding English countryside and had fallen into disrepair. So while extra closet spaces and radiators are perhaps not quite what is usually done in the maintaining of an historic house – indeed, nor is changing the entire floor plan, as Williams chose to do – at least Agecroft Hall was given a kind of second life as the home-turned-museum in Richmond, Virginia. This choice was also not made without much thought and care – Agecroft Hall only left England with the approval of Parliament after a debate.
For me, it is also so interesting to think of how much conservation and preservation work has developed from the time when Agecroft Hall was brought over to the US to today. I think that while the methods perhaps are not what would have been done now, that the spirit of wanting to ensure the survival – at least in some capacity – of a historically significant building is something that is in common between past and present efforts.
Gardens at Agecroft Hall, modeled after the gardens of Hampton Court Palace
The museum also is such a wonderful opportunity to learn about and experience these kinds of historic houses that usually one would have to fly overseas to Europe in order to see. As my area of focus is early modern England, you can imagine my delight when I first went to Agecroft Hall. The majority of the museum is staged just as an early modern home would have been in its day, giving visitors an idea of what life in a manor house like Agecroft Hall would have been like for both servants and the family. Rich tapestries and wood furniture darkened with age; portraits of Elizabethan courtiers; a curiosity cabinet; herbals and King James I’s treatise on the evils of witchcraft; and, most exciting of all, a pardon with Elizabeth I’s own beeswax seal. These are only some of the wonderful artifacts on display at this fascinating historic house and I know I can’t wait to go visit again as soon as I can.
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As I was scrolling through some news articles about museums on my phone, I came across an interesting article about how the Musée Rodin in Paris is using revenue from the sale of bronze casts of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures in order to decrease their budget deficit due to the pandemic. I was not previously aware of the museum’s decision from two years ago to dramatically increase the number of works that can be cast, a decision that is clearly benefitting the museum now. Initially, it seems strange to allow for the sculptures to be made again in bronze and sold to private collectors and other museums; however, this decision was allowed for in the institution’s bequest and Rodin himself stipulated that the museum has the rights to his works. This year, two large bronze pieces have been sold to a Middle Eastern museum, helping the Musée Rodin to lower their deficit to about three million euros. The institution has also set up an online donations page from which they have received 1,200 euros.
What efforts have other museums made to decrease their financial burdens? The Museum of the City of New York is discussing launching virtual adult education courses that might include online discussions moderated by curators that are focused on New York topics. The museum is also putting the online programming it has released during the pandemic to good use: it has collected over 4,000 photographs and “Covid Stories” documenting New York’s experience of the pandemic and curators are now preparing an exhibition for the fall centered on this topic (using a previous 2018 exhibition focused on past epidemics in the city, titled “Germ City” as a model).
Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). [Infirmary.] ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York 184.108.40.2062.
Meanwhile, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Germany is aiming to restructure the extensive bureaucracy within the foundation and perhaps even dissolve and replace it with a new foundation to manage the state museums in a more streamlined and concise structure. This would also allow for more budget autonomy for each individual museum as well as restructuring financing in order to allow for improved long-term planning.
This is an extremely difficult time for all museums as they struggle to survive the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Many institutions have had to furlough staff and cancel programming, and still some might not survive. However, it is encouraging to see the diverse and creative methods – and self-evaluation – that some institutions are employing in order to improve their economic prospects.
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