The New Hood Museum of Art Revealed

The Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in Hanover underwent a massive renovation and is ready to reopen. Get a first look at this local art gem.

Postwar art in the Hood Museum’s recently completed northeast gallery. Photo by Rob Strong

Tucked around the Dartmouth College campus in downtown Hanover are oodles of hidden gems that casual visitors won’t find unless they stumble upon them by accident: a statue of Robert Frost near the observatory, the Dr. Seuss reading room in Baker Library complete with funhouse-mirror furniture, and a 4 p.m. teatime every afternoon in Sanborn Library.

Up until recently, the Hood Museum — one of the most prestigious art museums in the academic world — also fell into the category of a Dartmouth hidden gem since it was pretty much impossible to find. Adjacent to the Hopkins Center for the Arts, the entrance was secreted down an infrequently used courtyard, and it wasn’t unusual for an art lover to find herself wandering through Wilson Hall, the adjacent Romanesque brick building, complete with turret.

John Stomberg installing the new northeast gallery with the museum’s exhibitions and preparations staff Photo by Alison Palizzolo

The $50 million, 30-month renovation — to be unveiled on January 26 — will change all that: The museum will directly face the Green, meaning it will be highly visible from the street.

Though there have been some grumblings from architecture critics and alumni about the design, according to Executive Director John Stomberg, the museum’s architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams — whose work includes the Phoenix Art Museum — have kept the particular needs of a college museum in mind during the entire process.

“A college art museum answers to a different audience,” says Stomberg, who came on board three months before the old museum closed, and whose CV includes stints at academic museums and galleries at Boston University, Williams College and Mount Holyoke. “Traditional museums have to satisfy the whims of curators and trustees, the public and art critics — as well as the marketing department,” he says. “When we have an exhibition idea, we talk to professors and students, and there’s less manipulation of an idea from inception to realization.”

Students, of course, are the primary audience — both undergrad and graduate, art majors and those taking elective courses — and after that come the faculty, followed by community, including a concentrated program catering to local K-12 classes. The art world and its critics and trend forecasters appear last on the totem pole.

The Hood Museum was named for Harvey P. Hood, a member of the Class of 1918 and grandson of H.P. Hood, who founded the eponymous New England dairy. Even before the museum opened in 1985, the architects and builders working on the first incarnation already realized that 40,000 square feet would be insufficient in the long run, and therefore included blueprints for expansion in their original plans.

One of the Hood’s recent acquisitions — Jeffrey Gibson, American / Choctaw / Cherokee, born 1972, WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHEN DO YOU WANT IT?, 2016, driftwood, hardware, recycled wool army blanket, canvas, glass beads, Artist’s owned re-purposed painting, artificial sinew, metal jingles, metal studs, nylon fringe, nylon ric rac, high fire glazed ceramic, 92 1/2 × 39 × 64 in. (235 × 99.1 × 162.6 cm). Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through the Evelyn A. and William B. Jaffe Fund, the Acquisition and Preservation of Native American Art Fund, the Contemporary Art Fund, the William S. Rubin Fund, and the Anonymous Fund #144; 2017.47.

With between 65,000 and 70,000 objects in the collection and more added each year — it’s no surprise that space quickly became tight. Just half a percent of the Hood’s entire collection was displayed pre-renovation, with that figure rising to about a percent with the new museum, which Stomberg says is the average for museums, academic or otherwise.

Approximately 10 percent of the collection circulates every year, due to the fact that the Hood differs from traditional museums, functioning as more of a library — though you don’t get to take the items home. Students, faculty and community members are welcome to request items for closer examination. During these visits, which once took place in a storage facility, the curious can get up close to the item and ask Hood staff all about whatever object they’re studying. The pre-renovation room was less than ideal, and due to high demand, time was fairly limited. The building’s new design includes three new classrooms, which will also allow professors to offer longer classes, and five new galleries for exhibiting student work.

Excitement is palpable on campus since the shuttered museum presented huge challenges to faculty and students alike. Mary Coffey, associate professor of art history, explains that when the museum was open, her students’ projects were primarily based on items in the collection. With it closed, “we had to get creative,” she says. Museum staff created an online collection and archive, allowing professors and students to curate their own virtual exhibitions, but as the digital version only comprised a tiny fraction of the collection, the study wasn’t as broad as she would have liked. For example, in Coffey’s class on early American art — which relied heavily on items ranging from powder horns and tankards to Shaker furniture and walking sticks — students perused the Hood’s digital catalog, but in the end, they had to travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see items in person.

She is eager for the new museum to open, not only because she and her students will have access to the collection again, but also because the new-and-improved classrooms come with all kinds of digital features to help enhance her teaching. “I’ll be able to pull objects from the collection and broadcast digital examples to supplement them,” says Coffey. “It will be a richer form of teaching than I’ve ever been able to do in the past.”

The first floor of the renovated museum, including installations of contemporary photography, global ancient art, and traditional African art Photograph by Michael Moran, courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth

But it’s not just art majors who will benefit from the new classrooms. Since Dartmouth has long prided itself on offering a liberal arts education in the classical sense of the word, professors and students in other disciplines are eager to make use of the new Hood. Ross Virginia, a professor of environmental science and director of the Institute of Arctic Studies, views the museum as both a mini-laboratory and a playground. “I think it’s really important for students to understand how to observe and interpret,” he says. In his Environmental Issues of Cold Regions course, he often pulls an object from the collection — a harpoon, for example — and then encourages students to analyze it by itself as well as in its historical context.

He’ll ask these questions to start:

What are the materials? [Sinew, wood, bone, ivory.]

Who used it? [The Iñupiaq or Yupik of northern Alaska and the western Arctic.]

When was it made? [19th century.]

What was it used for? [Hunting and fishing.]

The Hood Museum’s new Center for Object Study Photograph by Michael Moran, courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth

Virginia then uses that as a springboard for wide-ranging discussion: What were the influences going on at that time? What were the social and political conditions at the time, and what can we learn about that through this object? “When students are able to see and touch a real harpoon and then think about the people who made it, that brings a real energy to teaching and learning,” he says. During the renovation, he instead showed slides of harpoons in his classes, so he’s particularly eager for the Hood to reopen.

Two-and-a-half years is a long time for any college to be deprived of a major cornerstone of its academic program. While many lamented the loss of the Hood, others thought that the placeholder that Stomberg and other museum staffers came up with — the Hood Downtown, a temporary gallery on Hanover’s main street — helped kick one common misperception of the Hood to the curb. Some locals who hadn’t been to the Hood for years — who were once dragged inside during elementary school field trips — regarded the place as a dark, dusty collection of bones and daggers. For those who wandered into the former Hood Downtown storefront to kill 10 minutes before hitting a movie at the nearby Nugget Theatre, many were pleasantly surprised at the colorful art and brightly lit multimedia exhibits that spanned video, sound and photography, and took interest of the notices for upcoming workshops and wine receptions.

“With Hood Downtown we could hit a number of different constituencies, the most obvious being the community,” says Stomberg, who adds that being situated right next door to Morano Gelato probably didn’t hurt any. “People would come in with their gelato and hang out, and staff could talk to them and do market research to help determine what would carry over to the new building.”

American art from the Hood’s permanent collection in the new second-floor galleries Photograph by Michael Moran, courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth

As it turned out, one of the groups who visited Hood Downtown most frequently consisted of grad students who’d show up for an opening, artist’s talk or poetry writing session. “We’ve already started talking about how we will program to directly engage students between 21 and 30 who are here studying medicine or engineering,” says Stomberg.

But for students whose main focus is art, the Hood has served as a major influence, both during college as well as after. Megan Fontanella graduated from Dartmouth in 2004 with a BA in art history and worked as a curatorial intern at the Hood in her senior year. That experience carried her forward to today, as she is now the curator for modern art and provenance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She says the time she spent working at the museum was invaluable.

Lilly Martin Spencer, American, 1822 – 1902, “The Jolly Washerwoman,” 1851, oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. (62.2 x 44.5 cm). Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through a gift from Florence B. Moore in memory of her husband, Lansing P. Moore, Class of 1937; P.993.25

“During my time at the Hood, I had great autonomy,” she says. “I could roll up my sleeves and pull out whatever I wanted from the collections and create exhibitions and decide how I wanted to tell a story with just a small group of objects. That carries into my job today, where I look for objects that haven’t been seen in some time and could help tell new stories, as well as those that could spark new conversations among our visitors.”

While some might argue that in this day and age where you can look up anything online, the need for any museum no longer exists. Stomberg, of course, vehemently disagrees. “I think it’s more important than ever to have real, tangible experiences,” he says. “So much of our lives are digitally mediated, and a museum offers authentic experiences that simply aren’t available online. I’ve never met one person who said to me, ‘Oh, I saw it on my phone. I don’t need to see the real thing.’” However, he did discover that digital media served as a boon in at least one fashion: to market Hood Downtown and its programs. “People would read about a new exhibition on their phone and as a result would decide to come see it.”

But it can be a precarious balancing act between satisfying older patrons accustomed to how a traditional museum feels, and millennials, who supposedly have the attention span of a screen swipe.

“Students are starving for real experiences,” says Stomberg, adding that interactivity is one of the keys to creating a meaningful art experience. “While we obviously can’t let people draw on actual paintings, there are other ways to generate that same experience of interactivity.” One method is to more directly involve students in programs and activities at the museum, including internships, during which students can curate full-blown shows of their own where they will make decisions about lighting, wall color, creating a brochure and giving a gallery talk. “It’s an incredible experience for a student to put several pieces of art together and then subject it to the real world of a gallery,” says Stomberg. “A professor might then say that they look terrible together, and the student replies that they make a really good intellectual point. Then his professor gets to explain why there’s much more to an exhibition than making an intellectual point.”

Another recent acquisition — Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Congolese, born 1991, “L’attitude face à la mondialisation (Attitudes towards Globalization),” 2015, acrylic and oil on canvas, 71 x 70 11/16 in. (180.4 x 179.6 cm). Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Purchased through the Contemporary Art Fund and the Alvin and Mary Bert Gutman 1940 Acquisition Fund; 2017.4

For her part, while Professor Coffey is looking forward to the new space and the latest in technological accoutrements, she admits she is somewhat hesitant because no matter how high the resolution, digital enhancements have the tendency to distort art. “In the digital world, it’s impossible to tell if a painting is huge or small or if it’s cracked or if there’s crackling,” she says. “And with virtual exhibitions, students don’t have to think about a painting being 7 feet wide, and can place it next to a tiny photograph, which would never work in a real space.”

But there’s one highly anticipated 21st-century feature of the new Hood that will please everyone, especially the building’s maintenance staff: the radiant heat pipes for the sidewalk outside, making shoveling snow a thing of the past.

In any event, after months of overseeing a museum’s renovation instead of the museum itself, Stomberg, who lives in the Eastman community in Grantham, is looking forward to the grand opening, and in his short time here he’s become an enthusiastic Granite State convert. “Pardon me, but New Hampshire’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s so beautiful, I mean, it’s just nuts. For the first time in my life I live on a lake with loons. In five minutes I can go hike a mountain.”

He was particularly surprised by the cultural vitality of the Upper Valley. “I thought it was going to be sleepy, but instead, on any given night, I’m always missing something, like a major lecture or a movie,” he says. “I do eventually pick one, but inevitably the next morning, everybody’s talking about the other one.”

In the end, Stomberg says that the mission of the Hood is pretty simple: “To put people in front of art,” he says. “I like to think of our museum as a big house with room for many voices. And the best response to one piece of art is another.”

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