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Suburban museums face challenges, but see opportunities

An artist’s rendering of the $13 million renovation and construction project at the Concord Museum.DesignLAB Architects

A new, $13 million educational facility at the Concord Museum. A 40,000-square-foot gallery space under construction at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. A new emphasis on multiculturalism at Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum. An exhibit in which quilting is used as an expression of geopolitical strife at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell.

Much is new in the museums sprinkled throughout Greater Boston. Some of it is tangible, as in construction projects at the Concord Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum; some of it is more philosophical in orientation. But one thing is clear: Museums in this day and age cannot afford to be static, and those in the communities surrounding Boston are meeting the challenge to continuously rethink their approach.


The Concord Museum broke ground in late February on a $13 million renovation and expansion that will vastly increase its educational, meeting, gallery, and courtyard space; the Peabody Essex Museum is currently constructing 40,000 square feet of new gallery space and has devoted $16 million to creating new installations throughout the complex.

But it doesn’t always take physical growth for a museum to enrich its offerings. The Pilgrim Hall Museum, said to be the oldest active museum in the country, having operated since 1824, has no plans to augment its footprint right now, says executive director Donna Curtin, but it is constantly expanding its philosophical mission.

“Our focus has always been on the early Plymouth settlement and the Pilgrims, but we’re finding that our visitors are increasingly interested in the Native American story and how a more diverse grasp of history is an essential part of understanding the early Colonies,” Curtin said. “Visitors greatly appreciate those parts of the exhibit that tell a more multicultural story. So we are looking at ways to devote more of our exhibit space to that perspective.”


And sometimes, museums find a rare opportunity in having no physical plant at all -- as is currently, though temporarily, the case with Framingham’s Danforth Art Museum/School.

When the museum was evicted from its Union Street facility, plans began to take shape to move to a new location. But along with the enticing possibility of a partnership with Framingham State University came an ongoing delay in actual relocation.

The Danforth’s solution? If you can’t bring people to your museum, bring the museum to the people.

“It was an unplanned opportunity,” said Robin DeBlosi, the museum’s director of communications. “We discovered there were ways to bring our permanent collection out into the community.”

Endicott College in Beverly offered Danforth some gallery space, which it will be using until March; after that a Danforth exhibit will open at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester.

North Hill, a senior residence community in Needham, is currently serving as another satellite exhibit space for the Danforth, and some of its pieces are on loan to the Worcester Art Museum as well.

The Danforth will be opening its new permament gallery space in the Jonathan Maynard Building, where its administrative offices recently relocated, in the future. Museum officials say further renovations are required and they don’t know when the gallery space would be ready.

For the Milton Art Museum, opportunity also arose when circumstances forced a change of location. In 2003, when the museum lost the use of its Milton facilities, Massasoit Community College reached out with an invitation to the museum to relocate to a space on its Canton campus – perfectly suited for the small, 260-piece collection.


As a result, said Ellyn Moller, chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, “we went from being a limited community resource used mostly by grade schools to gaining a much wider reach into the community.

“Our location on the Massasoit campus gives us visibility and accessibility,” she said. “Moreover, because admission is free, we serve as a resource for groups on limited budgets looking for cultural opportunities. Just in the past few months, we’ve hosted groups from Rosie’s Place, the Boy Scouts, and the Boston Renaissance Charter School.”

For some small museums, identifying the audience isn’t always easy.

Kristin Noon, executive director at the Wenham Museum, says this is a question she and her staff contemplate.

“We are a 94-year-old accredited museum. For many years, we have been the historical repository for the town of Wenham. But over the past several years, we’ve become more of a destination for families with young children than we previously were. We think about how to balance those two core constituencies – local history buffs and families.”

Ways that the Wenham Museum meets these varying needs range from a military lecture series now in its second year called “Pathways of Patriots” to an exhibition currently in development that will explore the equestrian history of the North Shore. A perennial draw, meanwhile, is the Wenham Museum’s model railroad collection, which features 11 working model train layouts.


Other museum directors echo Noon’s concern about finding ways to keep museums contemporary rather than becoming static repositories of history.

When Nora Burchfield became executive director of the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, she discovered that the facility served largely as a draw for quilters and those who loved historical quilts.

Certainly the historical aspect matters, she says, and the museum proudly displays its permanent collection of more than 450 antique quilts. But quilting is a modern-day art form as well, she says.

“In the last two to three years, we have really tried to position ourselves to be an everyman’s museum,” Burchfield said. “There is such a strong interest right now in contemporary textile art. Our newest exhibit, ‘Water Is Life,’ is about the impact of the water shortage and water crisis on women and children around the world.”

Meanwhile, the newest exhibition at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, which opened in mid-February, shows jewelry from the famed “Burning Man” Festival, an annual gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

“Jewelry is an integral part of the Burning Man Festival,” explained Titilayo Ngwenya, director of communications at the Fuller Craft Museum. “Festival attendees make jewelry there. They trade it. They use it to foster the festival’s gifting tenet.”

With all that’s new in museums today, their leaders want potential visitors to understand how much there is to see in those institutions beyond Boston.


“There’s so much to do in Boston and Cambridge that you really have to be motivated to explore further,” said Burchfield. “But once people are here, they’re so glad they came. And from Lowell it’s just a short drive to Lexington, Concord, North Andover. You could take a whole museum road trip to explore these wonderful places that are just a little farther afield.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at