Two students assess items in the WCMA collection.
By Tomas Weber Photo by Rebecca Dravis

The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is home to an astounding number of objects—15,000—that many people have never seen. Most of the encyclopedic collection, which had its beginnings in the 19th century, is in storage. And the museum has never had the opportunity to perform a comprehensive review of its holdings—until now.

WCMA is conducting its first-ever collection assessment in preparation for a move to a new building on the site of the former Williams Inn. Currently in the design phase, led by the architecture firm SO-IL, the $175 million building is due to open in 2027 to mark the start of WCMA’s second century. It will be the first space purposefully built to house the museum, as its current home in Lawrence Hall was originally a library.

The move offers WCMA’s curatorial team an opportunity to bring fresh eyes to the collection and to consider how a new environment might encourage new ways of displaying the objects. It’s also a chance to check up on the many thousands of works in WCMA’s five on-site and off-site storage facilities.

With the help of several student interns, the staff began a deep dive last spring. The interns comb through the museum’s database, flagging notes about each work’s condition, attribution and how often it has been used in teaching—the core of WCMA’s mission. During the 2022-23 academic year, faculty from 27 departments taught with WCMA’s collection in 130 different courses. Between the Object Lab, which is a hybrid gallery-classroom space where professors investigate key concepts through art objects, and Williams’ robust art history program, more than half of students engage meaningfully with the museum by the time they graduate.

Kevin Murphy, WCMA’s Eugénie Prendergast senior curator of American and European art, and his colleagues have begun making daily trips to the storage areas to examine everything from Ancient Egyptian artifacts dating from the 4th millennium B.C.E. to trailblazing contemporary works by artists like Julie Mehretu and Kehinde Wiley. As of October, the group had assessed 2,000 objects.

“I’ve learned stories about objects I never knew existed,” Murphy says. “As a curator, you rarely get to play with the entire collection of your museum. It’s incredibly exciting.” For WCMA’s interns, the assessment project offers a uniquely broad and immersive learning experience.

“You’re hit with a sense of awe when you realize just how much is below the museum,” says curatorial intern Julia Clark ’25. “Every day we see something new.”

Some objects, like a selection from WCMA’s South Asian collection, are sent to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for treatment. In November, scholar Dan Ehnbom met with WCMA and conservation center staff and art professor Murad Mumtaz to examine the delicate paintings and help improve cataloging information.

Restoration processes can reveal thrilling surprises, as was the case with a portrait by the colonial American painter John Singleton Copley of a Revolutionary War-era Boston pastor.

“We’d always heard rumors that the painting had been slashed with a British bayonet during the Revolution,” Murphy says. Yet no scar was visible on the painting, and the tale remained a bit of WCMA lore. When Murphy visited the newly cleaned painting at the conservation center in October, evidence of a cut was visible over the pastor’s heart.

WCMA staff and interns are also examining the historical and cultural contexts of each work, with the goal of highlighting connections across cultures in the new building.

In October, scholar Christa Clarke spent a week analyzing around 250 works in WCMA’s African art collection. She provided background on each, including whether the works were produced for the Western market or made for the artists’ own communities. She also discussed ethical stewardship.

“The works prompted interesting questions,” says Clarke, including “a lot of possible ways to present the collection across cultures, geographies and chronologies.”

As WCMA staff deepen their knowledge about each object, they are also making decisions about what to display in the new building, what to store and what they might consider deaccessioning to make space for new works.

Among the museum’s priorities for new acquisitions is deepening its African American and Asian American art collections, says Lisa Dorin, deputy director for curatorial engagement. The acquisition of the painting Women Off Color by the Chinese American artist Hung Liu was timed perfectly with the launch of Williams’ Asian American studies program in the fall. And in October, Greg Avis ’80 and Anne Avis ’81 gifted an awe-inspiring, large-scale painting titled Democratic Intuition, Lex I, by the Botswana-born, U.S.-based painter Meleko Mokgosi ’07.

In “identifying what we have that fits our acquisition plan and what we don’t have that we could acquire,” Dorin says, the collection assessment and future planning “are working hand in glove.”

Tomas Weber is a London-based writer whose work has been published in The Economist’s “1843 magazine,” WIRED, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian, Artforum, ArtReview and Frieze.