BOWDOIN – The Bowdoin College Art Museum in the dignified turn-of-the-19th-century brick Walker Building was originally designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, a leading architectural firm of the 1890s.

In 1894, the building opened, with a central staircase leading to the front doors, a wing on each side and a terrace surrounding the front of the building. Everything was balanced and symmetrical.

On Oct. 14, 2007, the museum reopened, this time to reveal a massive $20 million renovation and addition, with Jorge Silvetti of Machado and Silvetti Associates of Boston as the architect.

The architect’s challenge: modernize the museum without destroying its traditional structure.

Historic preservationists wanted the building facade to remain the same. Reopened now for about four months, there are still some issues to be worked out – but the addition is an exciting and uplifting building.

To protect the historic integrity of the McKim building, Silvetti chose to build a separate glass entrance/pavilion in the shape of a cube near one side of the museum. The traditional front door of the original museum building, located between two lion statues that once led to the museum entrance, is no longer in use. (A sign needs to be placed in that area with directions to the new entrance.)

The entrance to the Bowdoin Art Museum is now through a modern geometric glass structure on the lawn next to the stately old museum. It was a challenge for me to find it at first. But then I walked in and down a flight of stairs that opened up into a tiny gift shop at the base of the stairs and an entrance into a labyrinth of underground galleries with magnificent oak floors and spacious walls.

Asked about the modern glass entrance, which has generated some controversy, museum director Katy Kline said, “I couldn’t be more pleased with the glass used as part of the new architecture. I feel the glass entrance pavilion is a visual magnet.”

“It is a metaphor for bringing together the college campus and the rest of the world. The glass entrance provides an invitation to investigate,” she affirmed, noting: “Its height is lined up with the cornice of the original building. Its proportions are the same but in a different medium, glass.”

“We had to provide handicap accessibility and climate control that were creative challenges which the new entrance meets without changing the beauty of the outside architecture of the building,” said Kline, who has been museum director for 10 years.

She described the glass entrance pavilion as a bridge between the old and new that brings the campus into the community and the community onto the campus.

Walking through the building is a breathtaking experience because one enters a maze of unexpected inner galleries.

The back of the building, which now has a glass rather than a brick wall, faces the community of Brunswick, making the museum appear more accessible to residents. It also displays Syrian reliefs that have been crowded in the museum and have, no doubt, been overlooked by visitors at times. Now with ample space and natural light from the floor to ceiling windows, the Syrian reliefs look larger and more exciting.

The second floor of the museum is the original first floor of the old building. (There is an elevator for those who need it.)

The inside of the museum is beautifully renovated. It also offers numerous advantages: state-of-the-art climate control, a video-media room, a classroom that can be converted into gallery space, a graphics gallery that is light sensitive, two elevators, ample storage, extensive office space, many flowing art galleries with oak floors, and more room for the college’s large modern art collection.

Many people are aware that Bowdoin has a fine Federal period art collection and an extensive antiquity collection but don’t know it also has a large and wonderful modern art collection. Renovations created over the past three years will enable the museum to display more of its modern art collection, with the new Bernard and Barbro Osher Art Gallery as a perfect example. It has a huge wall space and spacious vistas, high ceilings and oak floors. (Bernard Osher, Bowdoin class of ’48, is an extraordinary philanthropist who has supported the arts across the state, as well as the nation.)

With the renovations, the museum has reached a new level of sophistication with electronic aids and new display areas. Most of all, it is no longer a college campus museum. It has the atmosphere of a metropolitan museum open to the public.

“It is amazing that we have works from 2500 B.C. to 2006 in one museum,” said Kline. “A lively exhibition program rotating in all mediums is always on view to the students, as well as to the public. We invite the public to come in to see our collection. It is free of charge.” The museum also invites the public to become members. “It is not only a college museum for students and faculty but a community facility. We have a membership program and we welcome the public to join,” said Kline.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; until 8:30 p.m. Thursday night; and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Monday and all holidays. Admission is free. Docents give tours for groups regularly. If interested, call the museum at 725-3276 and ask for Victoria.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.



“It is amazing that we have works from 2500 B.C. to 2006 in one museum. A lively exhibition program rotating in all mediums is always on view to the students, as well as to the public. We invite the public to come in to see our collection. It is free of charge.”

– Katy Kline

Building upon the momentum generated by the reopening of the renovated Walker Building, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has begun offering exhibits that highlight its expansive permanent collection.

For more information on current and upcoming exhibits, log on to www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/ or call 725-3276.


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