PILGRIM HALL MUSEUM: Museum readies exhibit hall for massive restoration project

OLD COLONY MEMORIAL – The restoration of a historic painting at Pilgrim Hall Museum is having unexpected benefits for visitors to the museum.

To make room for the work on the massive “Landing of the Pilgrims,” the staff has cleared most of the main exhibit hall. Pilgrim exhibits, including the museum’s Bradford and Carver chairs along with several statues and a chunk of Plymouth Rock, have been moved into the museum’s adjacent library until the project is completed in June.

The move gives visitors an opportunity to visit the library, which for years had also served as the office of the museum director and was generally off-limits, except to scholars.

Patrick Browne, the museum’s current director, has moved into offices in a building beside the museum to free space for the exhibits during the restoration. Browne said he intends to stay in his new offices and leave the library open to visitors after the restoration work is done.

The library contains hundreds of books and manuscripts pertaining to the Pilgrims, chronicling their lives from their early days in England and Holland to their settlement in Plymouth. The books will remain accessible only to researchers and scholars, but their bindings, the locked floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that hold them and the interior of the library, itself, are worth a look.

The main exhibit hall has been cleared of all but a few mannequins that display Pilgrim clothing and the pictures hanging on the walls.

The main attraction for the next three months will be Henry Sargent’s massive landscape depicting the Pilgrims as they stepped ashore in the New World.

Sargent, a Boston artist best known for his portraits and depictions of early 19th century high society, painted the work in the early 1800s. It has hung in the hall since the museum opened nearly two centuries ago.

A $215,000 state grant has enabled Pilgrim Hall Museum to hire a restoration crew to clean away the many years of dirt and grime that have collected on the painting.

A small test patch restored on the lower corner of the painting shows how dramatically brighter the painting will be once the process in finished.

Browne and other museum officials cannot wait.

“We’ll actually have blue water,” Browne said, noting the black and gray portion of the painting depicting Plymouth Harbor.

Work begins this weekend with the removal of the painting from the hall’s east wall and the dismantling of its gilt frame. Once the painting is off the wall, it will be shipped to Virginia, where its back will be lined with new canvas to give the painting strength and stability.

The painting is due to return to Pilgrim Hall Museum by the beginning of May. Workers for Olin Conservation Inc. will then begin the painstaking task of cleaning the painting one-square-inch at a time.

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by Rich Harbert