One of my favorite places in Town has always been the Bruce Museum. When I first came here in 1976, I was intrigued by the nature dioramas. Loved to take my family there. I even volunteered one time to escort my daughter's class to the museum ("Not cool, Dad!" my daughter told me!) For this particular historical blog, I thought I'd research the museum's origin.
When banker, cotton broker, and Greenwich resident Robert Bruce died in 1909, he surprisingly bequeathed his house and $50,000 to the Town of Greenwich for a museum that would highlight natural history, historical items and art. The house had originally been built by Reverend Francis L. Hawks, and coincidentally was known as "Hawk's Nest" because of its location on a hill. ( It was noted that a lot of hawks congregated in the area.)
The Town held onto the Bruce money for several years until they could figure out how to start a museum. An article was printed in the newspaper describing the bequest, and asking for help with creating a museum. Local resident Dr. Edward Bigelow answered the call. He lived in Old Greenwich, was the publisher of a small magazine called the "Guide To Nature", and ran a nature summer camp for girls. He had been on an expedition with the New York Zoological Society's Dr. William BeeBee, and was considered a notable naturalist. Bigelow wrote many articles on natural science. The Town made him the museum's first Curator.
Dr. Bigelow was Curator from 1912 to 1936. On his watch, the Museum was renovated and a caretaker's cottage was completed in 1918. He also added many art exhibits. (Bigelow noticed that whenever they had special events or exhibits, attendance increased dramatically.) He loved to lecture on science, and is credited with expanding the Museum's programs.
Initially, his budget was very meager - only $5,000 per year from the BET. His salary was only $100 per month. Fortunately, he had other resources to fall back on - money from writing and lecturing. Bigelow spent his own money on specimens for the Museum. Not only did he travel to Arizona and New Mexico to collect specimens, but he also traveled to South America, the West Indies, Panama and Dominica. He added live sloths, squirrels, snakes, parrots, mice and monkeys. When a baby monkey was born, attendance increased exponentially!
In addition to the specimens he was able to collect on his expeditions, Bigelow received minerals from a sculpture supply company. The Smithsonian Institute donated a collection of shells and mollusks. Individuals, as well as the National Academy of Design, donated paintings. Indian (Native-American) ephemera was collected, but the collection was so big that much of it had to be placed in storage. A small collection of Indian jewelry was exhibited. For a time, the Greenwich Society of Art held its annual show at the museum. Dr. Bigelow had a case built to honor Ernest Thompson Seton, who started Seton's Indians. Dr. Bigelow even arranged to lend out movies of his expeditions around the world.
OLD ENTRANCE CIRCA 1967
COURTESY OF THE ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Because there was no money for coal, the museum closed to the public during the winter months. He couldn't even leave specimens in jars filled with formaldehyde in the building because they would crack in the cold. The staff still worked in the building, but had to contend with the cold. There wasn't a lot of money available originally. A lot of school groups and camp groups came to the museum regularly, but families and individuals were only attracted by special events.
Before long, Dr. Bigelow realized the public was keenly interested in new exhibits and programs. Like any good business man, he knew repeat business was the key to success. The more attendance, the more money was generated. He started to collect unusual specimens. These included a two-headed calf, a two-bodied rabbit and a snake with two heads! These only lasted a while, but drew a lot of attention. They were eventually removed.
The Museum also served as a trout hatchery. Egg sacks were placed in a series of trays and cold water poured over them to facilitate hatching. A micro-projection apparatus (arc light) was set up to project and magnify the egg sacks. The state hatchery provided the eggs, and these were eventually let loose in the water.
All the changes in exhibits and programs eventually helped the museum's bottom line. Attendance began to increase. Dr. Bigelow retired in 1937 and passed away in 1938. Curator Paul Griswold Howes took over the helm.
Paul Howes was born in Stamford in 1892. He studied at Heidelberg and Harvard, and had traveled six times to Europe to study. In 1913, a very young Howes went on an expedition to the Andes with the American Museum of Natural History, and helped establish the first South American research field station. By 1918, be was the Curator at Bruce Museum under Dr. Bigelow. When Bigelow retired, Howes became Director. He ended up authoring 8 books and numerous magazine articles. Paul Howes continued improving Bruce Museum. He was responsible for adding many exhibits. Many items were taken from his own, private collection. Since he was proficient in taxidermy, he was able to collect and stuff many animals to add to the natural scenes. He also took many photos and created many films. As luck would have it, the museum received a windfall for some damage caused by the construction of I-95 in the mid-1950s. This was used to build an art gallery wing on the back of the main building in 1959. Another patron donated $1000, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Howes stayed until 1966 when he retired.
A direct descendant of Kit Carson, Ray Owen, took over after Howes in 1967 and remained until 1978. There were only 6 people on staff, and he brought in volunteers to help run the museum. He also helped start the Museum Shop. Exhibits were added, and lectures were presented. A Junior Art Show was added. Owen improved the programming, and brought in many special exhibits from around the world. In terms of physical plant improvements, he improved the lighting, installed alarms and closed-circuit television, added a public address system, and added air conditioning. He even organized the Associates (Friends) of Bruce Museum.
John B. Clark was Director from 1979 to 1992. He'd worked at the Morris Museum of Modern Art and Science in Morristown NJ and the Stamford Museum. Clark was the Curator of the geology and mineralogy collection. When he came to Bruce Museum, he thought it was very small, with very little storage space. Most everything was out on loan as exhibits. He had a large sign erected so that commuters could see it from the train. This drew people's attention to the museum.
Clark discovered that the old building was in need of repair. It was not attractive. The floor was covered with a black and white checkerboard tile. The gallery rooms were all painted a different color - pink, candy yellow, robin egg blue, and lavender. The windows were boarded up with wood and painted a battleship grey! Clark wanted to remodel the space, but he needed to come up with a vision. Would the Bruce be a children's , art, science or family museum? Would the emphasis be on programs or exhibits? After much consideration, he decided it should be a family museum.
John Clark managed to get assistance from two prominent women in the community. Anne von Stuelnagel from the Board of the Greenwich Arts Society offered her assistance. Sharon Feissel (from the Junior Women's Club) also helped with the Museum Shop. The Town increased its funding to $140,000. Clark decided to increase the number of supporters and the Bruce Museum Association was formed. Even though the museum only had $15,000 in assets, its financial position was about to improve!
TYPICAL DIORAMA ABOUT LOCAL SIWANOY INDIANS
COURTESY OF THE ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The first step in remodeling the Bruce Museum involved transforming one of the galleries into the museum shop. Clark used some of the existing cabinets to build new ones. Henry Chitwood, Chairman of the Board of Bruce Library, lent the museum $3,000 for renovation. As more and more people came to see the exhibits, more money was raised and the loan was paid off. The Connecticut Commission on the Arts also gave the Museum several grants.
In 1981, Joseph and Olga Hirschhorn opened a National Tour of their (world renowned) scuptures at the Bruce. This was the first time a professionally mounted exhibit was sponsored by the museum. The main event was a benefit for the museum which included a progressive dinner, and wine, dessert and dancing at the Bruce. Hirshhorn had some of the old tile replaced with carpet. This is not the last time the Hirschhorns would help out the museum. The collection was eventually relocated to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.
One program that really put the museum on the map was the Dinosaur Exhibit. Jim Gray (1939 - 2006), an African-American artist from New Jersey, had sculpted large dinosaurs from automobile parts. People came to view the art by the thousands. Another popular program was a Ukranian Egg Exhibit, which was shown around Easter time. People could come in and learn how to "blow out" eggs. Public interest was piqued, and the institution established itself as a real family museum.
As time went on, Clark felt it was time to re-design the building. When Clark approached the BET for funding, he was told to seek private funding. This freed him to undertake a large capital campaign. The Greenwich community answered the call. An architectural firm was hired to come up with a functional design. Ground was broken by the Pavarini Company in December 1992. Since the head of the company was a Greenwich resident, he took a keen interest in the project. The museum had to be emptied, and all items stored away for a year-and-a-half. It took 30 truckloads to remove all the items. A red brick building on Elm Street offered by Fleet Bank provided 7,000 square feet of storage. The Museum only had to pay $1000 per month for utilities. Fleet Bank also donated $50,000 in furniture to the museum. Bruce Museum was closed for a year-and-a-half.
The project was not without its problems. First of all, there were no blueprints for the building, which had been built in 1853. There was no solid footing under one section since it was built on clay. During construction, asbestos was found in the walls. The building had to be made ADA compliant. Photographs were taken to document the old building. Once everything was removed, the museum staff and Board held a construction party. Construction was completed in June 1993, and the museum officially opened in September 1993. The cost was about $7-million.
One objective was to increase office space, which they did. In effect, the Museum doubled its size to 16,000 square feet. The Museum was redesigned to have an Animal Hall, a Geology Hall and a Fossil Room. There were not as many dioramas, the Museum gift shop was expanded and more space for paintings was created. More programs were offered, including an art bizarre of sorts. Once a year artists set up booths and sell their creations on the Museum site during the Outdoor Arts Festival.
From 1995 to 2000, Hollister Sturges III served as Director of the Bruce. Sturges was the first art professional to be employed as Director. His main achievement was to develop the museum's art collection, and obtain accreditation for the museum. It became the second most visited art museum in Connecticut. Noted experts on art came to lecture, which attracted many people. A dinner lecture series was even created. The Renaissance Ball was started as a major fund raiser. The goal was to create a larger space for art, science and the permanent collection. Much of the collection was still in storage.
NEW ENTRANCE TO BRUCE MUSEUM CIRCA 1993
COURTESY OF THE ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
As the museum improved its facilities, it became a venue for more important art exhibitions. Bruce Museum was chosen for a Japanese exhibit (2002), an African art exhibit, and loans from the National Gallery in Washington DC and the National Museum of American Art. In the late 1990s, it hosted the Linda McCartney photo exhibit. An internship program was started for young scholars, who were interested in a museum career.
Hollister Sturges was dismissed in April 2000 under controversial circumstances. Homer McK Rees was retired from the financial world, and was approached to serve as Interim Director. He later served on the Board of the Bruce Museum and served as the Treasurer. In April 2000, he took over the helm.
Rees was all business. He reduced the size of the unwieldy Board of Directors, and streamlined their duties. It became less of a management board, and more of a governing board - the way it was meant to operate. He reviewed the performance of the staff, and had their salaries increased. Rees was able to apply his business expertise and philosophy to improve operations.
Homer McK Rees stayed for about a year-and-a-half until Peter Sutton was hired. Sutton graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard, and earned an MBA and PhD at Yale. Job experience included work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. He brought a strong art background to the job, and worked hard to promote the art collection. (Greenwich has a high concentration of art collectors due to its proximity to New York City.)
Sutton had to restore confidence in the museum, and guide the museum after the reorganization of the Board. He had to reclaim his role as manager, specifically hiring and firing, managing the budget and administering policy. Private fund raising had to be increased to meet the demand, especially through endowments. Sutton also expanded other programs in the museum, especially science. He utilized the Brucemobile and Seaside Museum to reach out to young students. The Museum Council - volunteers who help with the art collection - worked with the Director to keep it relevant.
Peter Sutton has been a real "hands-on" manager. He has been actively involved in long-term planning. This involves looking at renovation and expansion, as well as the use of multiple sites. He has managed to increase attendance tremendously. And his enthusiasm has been contagious!
Bruce Museum has come a long way since the Curator had to collect items for exhibits and personally build display cases. Individuals donate money, as well as their personal items, to underwrite exhibits. Volunteers serve as docents and help with programs. The general populace has embraced the Museum, and many people have given their time, wealth and talent to preserving this wonderful educational and cultural institution. The future looks very bright!
Clark, J.: The Bruce Museum; Greenwich Library Oral History Project, Greenwich CT: 1955
Howes, P.: The Bruce Museum: The First Fifty Years: Greenwich Library Oral History Project, Greenwich CT 1978
Mortimer, H et al: The Bruce Museum: A Century of Change; Greenwich Library Oral History Project, Greenwich CT, 2007.