From Cat in the Hat to contemporary art
SPRINGFIELD -- There aren't many places where you can see dinosaurs, works by Monet, a planetarium, ancient Chinese artifacts and sculptures of Dr. Seuss characters in one day. Within easy reach, only one place may fit that description -- the Springfield Museums, a collection of five separate museums in the heart of downtown Springfield.
Clustered around a central green space holding the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculp ture Garden, each museum offers something different. It's a mini-Smithsonian within 50 miles of the Berskhires.
In many ways, the Michele & Donald D'Amour Fine Arts Mu seum shows the variety that the Springfield Museums strive for. Built in 1934 at the bequest of Mr. and Mrs. James Philip Gray, who donated their estate to the construction of a fine arts museum in the city, the museum's exhibits range from 13th- to 21st-century works of art.
The museum provides a unique experience even before visitors enter the art-deco building made of more than a dozen different types of marble. Outside the museum stands a twisting structure of interconnected branches.
Like a giant and unwieldy birds nest, "Room by Room" is an original work by sculptor Patrick Dougherty, who, along with a host of local volunteers and museum staff, wove together saplings taken from the Smith Vocational Dem onstration Forest in Leeds and a wildlife management area in Phillipston.
It fits in with the traditional structures around it, setting the tone for what's to come inside the museum.
"This is really a unique place that has more than 5,500 objects inside," said Heather Haskell, the director for both fine arts museums on the Springfield campus.
She has worked at the Springfield Museums since 1988, and she said visitors are always taken aback once they enter the building, not expecting the extensive array of collections upon first glance at the museum's two-story exterior.
There are five permanent gallery collections, along with seven permanent displays at the museum.
One of the most impressive gallery spaces is called Blake Court, a large cavernous room directly across from the main entrance. With staircases winding off to the left and right of the gallery's entrance, Black Court consists of 19th-century American paintings, anchored by Erastus Salisbury Field's "The Historical Monument of the American Republic," a work that is roughly 9 by 13 square feet. Chronicling the early history of the United States, the painting shows 10 sky-high marble columns recording aspects of American history. Field first created the painting in 1867, then returned to it in 1888 to add two final columns. Haskell said the painting was found in a barn 30 years ago and is one of the museum's most-visited, iconic displays.
It seems difficult to make that assertion in a museum that houses so many exhibits from so many periods. Running through Oct. 14, in honor of Latino Heritage Month, "Sisterhood: Mixed Media Paintings by Rosa Ibarra," is a collection of paintings by Puerto Rican-born artist Rosa Ibarra, who has ties to the Springfield area.
After earning a degree in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Ibarra eventually came to live in North ampton for a number of years. She spent time raising her family while working on paintings that focus on women and children and use materials like beach-washed glass over pastel colors.
Ibarra, who currently lives outside New Haven, Conn., said she would love to work with the museum again.
"I was blown away by how community-oriented Springfield Museum is," Ibarra said.
For her opening night reception on Sept. 15, Ibarra wanted to make her work free and open to the public, and she was surprised that the museum agreed.
"Art is a way of bringing people together, and they do that in Springfield," Ibarra said.
Walking through the D'Amour Museum feels like going through a time capsule. In one room, rose-red painted walls show 18th century Italian art, and Francesco Guardi's "Portrait of a Boy in Uniform" hangs over an undated walnut drop-leaf table. In another room, a gallery of Impressionistic and Neo-Impressionistic work spans paintings by Renoir and Degas. Discoveries wait around every corner.
"People always ask me to sum up this museum," Haskell said. "I always say that it is simply a real treasure."
What: Michele & Donald D'Amour Fine Arts Museum, Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield Science Museum, Connecticut Valley Historical Museum
Where: 21 Edwards St., Springfield
When: National Museum Day Saturday -- check website for each museum's regular hours
Admission: Free on Saturday with a National Museum Day downloadable ticket
For a free ticket on Saturday: www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday
Information: (413) 263-6800, www.springfieldmuseums.org
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