Major restoration nearing completion at the Dickinson Museum

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AMHERST – The Emily Dickinson Museum, like much of the world, had to close in March 2020 when COVID-19 arrived. And for more than two years, the home of one of America’s most famous poets has remained closed, even as most other places have reopened.

But the museum is now ready to welcome the public in August, although the exact date is yet to be determined. And when people return, the main attraction, the Dickinson Homestead, will show a different face, much more in keeping with how the house looked when Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry here, especially in the late to mid-1850s. 1860s.

After investing approximately $2.5 million in the effort, the museum completed its largest-ever restoration project in the Homestead, originally built in 1813 and then expanded in the mid-19th century. Working with many specialists, from architects to 19th-century decorative arts experts, museum staff added period-style wallpaper and flooring to the house and also carried out extensive renovations. to recreate the building’s previous interior layout.

The goal, says Jane Wald, executive director of the Dickinson Museum, was to “recreate the environment and setting in which Emily developed her talents and brilliant poetry.”

Doing this, Wald said, “will help us tell a more complete story about Emily and the other members of her family…we can bring more continuity to it.”

As an example, the museum will for the first time open tours to a part of the Homestead known as the North West Room, a room in which Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, spent much of her later life, a time when she struggled with significant health issues.

The room, adjoining Emily’s bedroom by a short passage, has been restored with period-style wallpaper, based on found fragments of the original pattern, and the installation of the mantel and fireplace. origin.

Wald said Emily and her sister, Lavinia, cared for their mother in this room in her final years, and opening the room to visitors “gives us another element to discuss family relationships.” .

Those relationships “were complicated,” Wald said. With a chuckle, she noted that Lavinia had once described the members of the Dickinson family – “I’m paraphrasing here”, Wald added – as “a collection of monarchs, each with their own kingdom”.

During a recent tour of the Homestead, Wald noted that the house had been owned by the same family, the Parkes, for about 50 years during the 20th century before Amherst College purchased it as historic property in 1965. Parkes made some changes to the original setting and decor, such as adding a staircase from the second floor landing to the attic, where the finished pieces were created.

Part of the restoration work was to remove this staircase; museum staff now use an original staircase, located behind a door on the second floor landing, to access the attic, where the space has been restored to its original, more utilitarian form.

Additionally, modern heating and cooling units have been placed in the attic, a system that will provide a much better means of protecting museum collections, Wald notes.

“It all involved quite a bit of work,” she said.

The museum has mined a number of sources to inform this restoration work, from fragments of 19th-century wallpaper and flooring found on site to detailed descriptions that Emily Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, wrote some years after the death of his aunt (1886) on the grounds. of the carpet in the living room of the Homestead, as well as the layout of Emily’s bedroom.

Using this description and further research into 19th century floor coverings, the museum commissioned an English fabric manufacturer to fashion the colorful period-style rug, which features a striking floral pattern, covering now the living room floor. The doors, window frames and floors of the house have also been repainted with period colors.

Wald says the Parkes kept some of the home’s original materials after making changes. many of these elements, such as the staircase balusters, as well as the front door to the Homestead, have been refurbished and put back in place.

“We don’t know why they saved [these materials], whether through the feeling that it’s historic property or just Yankee economics,” Wald said. “Anyway, it was a real plus for the restoration work.

She said the museum has recruited about 15 companies, contractors and other organizations to do this work, from window engravers and engineers to carpenters and fabric makers. Funding for the $2.5 million effort came from several sources, including the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The museum is now turning its attention to restoring and renovating other parts of its property, such as the Evergreens, the neighboring house built in 1856 for Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother, and Austin’s wife, Susan.

Wald notes that interest in Emily Dickinson has grown steadily over the past few years; during the pandemic, the reclusive poetess has been hailed as the ‘original queen of social distancing’. His name continues to surface in pop culture, from Taylor Swift referencing Dickinson on her 2020 album “Evermore” to the hit Apple TV+ series, “Dickinson.”

In fact, the museum helped Apple TV+ research for this show, and the company later donated vintage furniture used in the production to the Homestead, some of which is now on display in the living room.

Wald said the museum has used the downtime during the pandemic to not only deepen its restoration work, but to dramatically expand its online programming, attracting interest from people from nearly 70 countries.

Now, she said, “We’re really looking forward to seeing people in person again.”

For more information about the Emily Dickinson Museum, go to emilydickinsonmuseum.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]

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