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Artist John Bisbee and Bowdoin College Museum

Artist John Bisbee and Bowdoin College Museum
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The big event recently on the Bowdoin campus was the grand reopening of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, following a major renovation of its landmark 1894 Walker Art Building. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, the Bowdoin museum is a veritable treasure chest of art ancient to modern, but it had been in need of major work for more than a decade. The redesign by Boston architect Jorge Silvetti of Machado & Silvetti succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations.

Universal access had long been an issue at the museum, and one of first proposals — to create a ground-level entry by dropping the front door down to the plinth below the historic loggia — met with howls of execration from historic preservationists. Silvetti solved the access problem by creating a separate glass-cube pavilion to the left of the Walker Art Building as the new ground-level main entrance, equipped with both stairs and elevator. The new pavilion defers abstractly to the McKim building just as the Edward Larrabee Barnes Visual Art Center does on the other side.

Silvetti also found a marvelous way of turning the museum around to face the public street, instead of just the Bowdoin Quad. He did this by creating a lighted curtain wall on the street side in which the Bowdoin Museum of Art installed its most valuable works of art — a set of Assyrian bas-reliefs — for all to see 24 hours a day. The huge stone carvings came from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in present-day Iraq, reminding those who consider such things that Iraq was once — and may once again become — a far more civilized place than it is at the moment.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll try to put myself on a ration of 1,000 words if you’ll indulge my wanderings through the art and architecture, design and crafts of New England. They are the cultural bounty that helps make a bleak, beautiful, and cold place hospitable and habitable.

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