Despite the long-standing tag line that Virginia is for lovers, our area is certainly a place of excellent museums. We have visited three this month; each one has a different focus and wonderful things.
The Hermitage was the Norfolk home of Florence and William Sloan, a wealthy couple who built an extensive home, developed gardens around it, and collected art. We visited to do some birdwatching in the gardens and were captivated by the collections in the Sloane’s former home. Florence must have been quite a character, or strong-willed, or perhaps merely with more money than sense. Who else would decide to have a large, custom made and installed living room disassembled and rotated 90o to make room for a different room–on a 12 acre property?
L-R: Chinese ceramic camel; female sculpture; snuff bottles; kingfisher feather boxes.
Like many collections assembled in the early 20th century, it’s a sampling of global history and prehistory. There are beautiful ceramics, boxes made of exotic materials, and interesting statuary, much of it created by female sculptors who Florence admired.
The gardens around the house face the broad bay of the Elizabeth River, just down the shore from the Virginia Port Authority and the Port of Norfolk. After we finished looking at the collections we walked along the shore and around the grounds. Despite the proximity to a huge industrial port area, the Hermitage property is quiet, and the birds visit. I could live quite happily in the studio/boat shed that sits near the shore. It even has a tower, the former water tower.
One of the nice things about Norfolk is that the Elizabeth River runs through the city. Upstream from the Hermitage, and across the city just off the river is the Chrysler Museum, another collection amassed by a wealthy family and donated to the city. Walter Chrysler, son of the founder of the Chrysler car company, collected art from all over the world. When he and his wife donated their collection, the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences founded in 1933 became the Chrysler Museum (1971). Not only did the Chryslers donate European and American art by a panorama of famous artists (Tintoretto, Manet, Monet, the Hudson River School), there are antiquities from around the world. Some of the pieces are so exquisite (Maya painted vases, Costa Rican sculptures, Aztec vessels) that I wonder if they are fakes.
And there’s more. Somewhere along the line, the Chryslers excellent collection of glass was enhanced by the construction of a glass studio. Not only did we spend an entire day looking at the collection of glass made by everyone from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary artists (a sample of their ancient glass is at the head of this post), we watched a demonstration by glass blowers who created a multicolored glass vase as we watched. They pulled clear glass from a furnace, shaped it, blew air into it, colored and shaped it further, completing the project in an annealing oven. It was impressive. I returned the next week to take a Saturday workshop and learned how to make glass beads.
We returned to the Chrysler Museum to see the current exhibit on M. C. Escher, an extensive collection of his works from early in his career through his most famous tesselated images of birds morphing into fish and back again, and stairs and ladders to nowhere. The exhibit included a lot of works, all from a Greek private collection. I didn’t know that Escher made quite a few woodcuts of the Amalfi coast, as well as lots of work that was not strictly tesselated patterns. We enjoyed the size and breadth of the exhibit, stayed twice as long as we had planned, and agreed that if we lived in this area, we’d become members of the Chrysler. It’s quite a remarkable place.
Last but not least, was our day at Colonial Williamsburg. Known for the costumed docents who practice a wide range of professions from colonial times, we enjoyed the art museum as much or perhaps more than the reenactors we saw along the streets. Called the art museum(s), all the collections are now housed in a single structure. The folk art collection must be among the finest anywhere. We were bowled over by the shop signs, weathervanes, decoys, naïve paintings, kitchen utensils, porcelain, and glass. Every piece was among the finest of its kind. We could imagine individuals with unusually fine examples of American folk art wanting to see their item in the collection. The creativity on display was awe-inspiring.
We took a break from folk art overload and ate lunch in the cafe at the museum, then set out to visit some of the workshops manned by modern day craftspeople. We stopped in to see what the archaeologists were up to in two different places, the Custis home site, and the site of a Baptist church. After that we strolled the main street and saw engravers, printers, blacksmiths, weavers and dyers, fiddlers, and fifers. On other days, and with more time and energy we might also see founders pouring molten metal into molds, barrel makers, candle makers, an apothecary mixing remedies, a muster of the regiment, and I have surely forgotten someone. By mid-afternoon, the main street begins to resemble an old settlement, as tourists fill the streets, and costumed interpreters stand in each doorway inviting visitors in. It made an interesting, if exhausting day.
Williamsburg requires a greater effort to visit than other places. Where the Hermitage Museum and Gardens and Chrysler Museum are free of charge and provide parking, tickets to Colonial Williamsburg start at $46.50 (+tax) per person. Lots of add-ons are available, like a carriage ride ($40-65), an evening ghost walk ($19), even the opportunity to fire a musket ($95). Multiply some of these additional activities by two persons, or four, add a hotel and meals if you plan to take the ghost walk, and you are looking at as much as $200 a person before food and lodging. That’s a pretty special day or two or three. We were fine with our one day visit.
These three museums in the greater Norfolk area (we include Williamsburg), each made a wonderful day. We enjoyed the folk art, the glass and ceramics, and the incredible creativity shown by everyone from the glassblowers and M. C. Escher all the way back to the Assyrians. Our visits were only the tiniest tip of the iceberg, too. For anyone interested in American history, the region is peppered with historic sites, battlefields, naval, and military museums. Every community has some special theme to contribute. I could spend years finding all the possible places there are to investigate. So many museums, so little time.