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‘A gem of the city’: Somerville Museum gets a makeover to become accessible to all

(From left) Somerville Museum officials David Guss and Barbara Mangum and former Somerville mayors Dorothy Kelly Gay and Eugene Brune stand atop a staircase created by famed architect Charles Bulfinch in 1792.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In the 1920s, the Somerville Historical Society constructed a new building on Westwood Road to store and exhibit its collection of paintings, photographs, and other artifacts of the city’s past.

Nearly a century later, the red brick Federal Revival structure — known today as the Somerville Museum — is in the midst of a major overhaul aimed at making it fully accessible for the first time and eventually correcting other longstanding deficiencies.

Leaders of the independent nonprofit museum said the physical enhancements will help support their expanded mission to not only educate residents about local history but to serve as a focal point in the city for culture and art of today and the past.

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“This is an incredibly exciting time for us,” said Barbara Mangum, president of the museum board. “What we want to do is bring the museum into the 21st century. We want it to be here as a vital part of the people of Somerville’s experience for the future.”

The accessibility upgrades — the highlight of which is the installation of an elevator inside a small new addition — began last October and are set for completion this November. The $1.95 millioncost is being funded through $1.03 million Somerville provided from its Community Preservation Act revenues, as well as private and state funds raised through an ongoing capital campaign.

Outside construction upgrades to the building are underway. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The elevator will provide access to all three floors, including the basement, where the museum’s only two bathrooms are located. Until now, people with disabilities have only had access to the first floor. The current work also includes adding handicap-friendly features to those bathrooms and reconfiguring basement space to create a fully accessible multi-purpose room.

If the museum succeeds in raising another $350,000 through the capital campaign, it plans a second phase of improvements that would include waterproofing its basement collection storage area and restoring a 1792 staircase created by famed architect Charles Bulfinch that was donated to the museum and installed in the 1940s.

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The “Access for All & More Campaign 2021,” whose public phase began in May, is headed by a committee that includes former mayors Dorothy Kelly Gay and Gene Brune, with former governor Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, the honorary chairs.

Brune said he first became involved with the museum when as mayor he agreed to serve on the committee that raised funds for a 1980s renovation. “I fell in love with the museum during that campaign,” he said, and he has since served on the organization’s board.

“I call it a gem of the city,” he said, citing the value of the museum in educating residents, particularly newcomers, about the city’s past.

“World history is important, but knowing the history of where you live, where you were brought up, is just as important,” he said.

The city’s history, including its waves of immigration and changing economy, is told through exhibits that incorporate parts of its varied collections of paintings, framed prints, drawings, books, documents, photos, and other artifacts.

Rather than simply chronicling the past, the museum looks for ways to connect it to modern Somerville and to past and present arts and culture, according to David Guss, the museum’s programming director and a trustee.

For example, Guss is curating an exhibit starting this fall that will display Somerville postcards from what he called the “golden age of postcards,” 1905-15. In addition to visually appealing works of art, the colorful postcards — and the background stories Guss tells about them — offer a window into city issues from that time that can resonate even today.

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One series of postcards, for instance, puts a spotlight on the conflict in that era over whether land should be set aside for parks or housing. The photographs, which show new homes as well as parks, were apparently created by people on both sides of the divide.

“It’s uncanny how so many issues that troubled people then trouble us today,” he said.

Another exhibit set to open next winter — curated by two Latin American artists, José Falconi, of Peru, and Santiago Montoya, of Colombia — will feature sculptures made of chocolate made by the two, with accompanying text about the many past and present chocolatiers that have operated in the city.

An ongoing initiative of the museum is its “community curator” program, in which historians, artists, and others are selected to create exhibits.

“We are spreading the word to a bigger demographic in the city that we are here, and we welcome not just your patronage but your active participation,” said Guss, a retired chair of the Anthropology Department at Tufts University.

The museum is also increasingly serving as a platform for events highlighting social justice and diversity issues in the city, such as a virtual discussion series on “Rage, Fragility, and Anti-Racism” last summer, and an ongoing program in which people from different ethnic communities offer presentations on their backgrounds and cultures.

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“The mission is always to reflect our city and the culture we live in,” said Alison Drasner, the museum’s assistant director.

Established in 1897, the Somerville Historical Society lacked a facility of its own until opening its present building in about 1930.

The society operated out of the building for decades, but by the late 1960s, its membership had started to dwindle, according to Mangum. A new group of leaders attempted to revitalize the organization in the 1980s, including through a $400,000 renovation. But the repairs, which included finishing the basement, did not address the access problem.

Part of a doorway from the Somerville Public Library on Central Hill now housed in the museum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In 1988, the organization rebranded itself the Somerville Museum because “the board wanted to expand the mission and really put an emphasis on the visual arts,” Drasner said. “That included a lot of exhibitions that were both historical and of local significance and had some art to them.”

Presenting a blend of history, arts, and culture remains the museum’s guiding approach today, she said. “We really straddle these three categories.”

Drasner said the accessibility project is being complemented by other initiatives to broaden the organization’s reach and impact in the community. Those efforts include revamping the museum’s website, recruiting new members, better promoting events, and expanding virtual programming.

“This is an all-encompassing opportunity to make us accessible in many different ways, not just physically,” she said.

“Not everyone is aware we have this museum, even in Somerville,” said Gay, the former mayor. “Especially now with so many newcomers in the city, this is a wonderful time to be talking about the museum.”

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Gay, who lives close to the building and regularly walks by it, calls the museum “something that I really cherish as part of the city.

“I always felt it was underutilized,” she added, citing the building’s lack of adequate access as a major reason for that.

“What makes it so inspiring,” she said, “is that it has history but it’s also able to look at what’s happening in our world today.”

Former Somerville mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay, who is on the museum's capital campaign committee, and Barbara Mangum, the museum's president. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.