Refurbished study room at Yale Center for British Art boasts improved access, better technology

There are plenty of things to celebrate at the reopening of the Yale Center for British Art’s study room, including greater access to the largest collection of British art outside Great Britain, key technology upgrades, and a renovated study space filled with natural light.

There are plenty of things to celebrate at the reopening of the Yale Center for British Art’s study room, including greater access to the largest collection of British art outside Great Britain, key technology upgrades, and a renovated study space filled with natural light.

Designed by Louis Kahn, the center is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful buildings on campus. The space for accessing its vast collection of prints, drawings, rare books, and manuscripts has undergone a major refurbishment, the first since the building opened in 1977.

Last summer the museum partially closed to begin the first phase of a building conservation project. Over the course of 16 weeks, the second-floor study room and related workspaces were restored to their original condition. Worn wool carpet and discolored linen wall coverings were replaced; the finish on white oak cabinets was renewed; offices were reconfigured to accommodate a growing staff; and the storage capacity for works on paper was increased.

One key enhancement — furnishing the two-story study room with white oak paneling — was spurred by a discovery in one of Kahn’s original architectural drawings from 1973.

“It’s wonderful that we were able to go back to Kahn’s original design,” said Scott Wilcox, chief curator of collections and senior curator of prints and drawings. “The refurbishment not only provided us a lot more storage space for objects, but everything has been integrated into the Kahn aesthetic.”

With the opening on Jan. 14, students, scholars, and the general public can once again explore the center’s extensive collections of works on paper, including watercolors by J.M.W. Turner; hand-colored copies of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”; the expedition map used by Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe; and print portfolios by contemporary British artists.

“In a sense, this room is very much an extension of the public gallery space,” said Gillian Forrester, curator of prints and drawings. “We are the only museum study room in the country that is open to the general public without appointment. Anyone can come in and ask to see almost any object in the prints and drawings, and rare books and manuscripts collections,” she added.

The 2013 refurbishment also addressed safety issues, such as fire suppression. In addition, important technology upgrades — including the installment of additional Ethernet connections and power outlets — will directly enhance the visitor experience. Forrester noted that her team was able to revise the center’s guidelines for readers to take into account advances in technology, including cell phone and iPad photography. “We’re now able more than ever to serve our visitors,” she said.

Curators in the Departments of Prints and Drawings and Rare Books and Manuscripts said that during the museum’s closure they were able to make great inroads cataloguing and digitizing their collections, comprising more than 20,000 drawings and watercolors, 30,000 prints, and approximately 35,000 rare books and manuscripts, dating from the 15th century to the present. (The center’s entire collection of 2,000 paintings and 200 sculptures has been available online since 2011.)

Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of rare books and manuscripts, is pleased about the progress her department was able to make cataloguing ephemera, noting that digital images will soon be available on the center’s website. Already, it is assisting in reference queries her department receives. “A woman wrote a couple of weeks ago, asking if we had anything about fashion in the 19th century,” she said. “In addition to fashion magazines, I was able share invoices, fabric swatches, and other things that might help her in her research.”

To celebrate the reopening, the center is hosting two events next month. On Saturday, Feb. 8 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., there will be a Study Room Open House that is free and open to the public. Visitors are invited to explore the restored space, view highlights from the Prints and Drawings and Rare Books and Manuscripts collections, meet curators and staff, and enjoy refreshments in the adjoining library court. Curators will lead informal discussions about the selected works on display at 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m..

Fairman said that the Rare Books and Manuscripts will show visitors how to identify printing techniques used in book illustrations from the 15th to 19th centuries. “We get a lot of questions from the public on how to identify various techniques,” she said. “We thought it would make sense to have a very practical session and use tools and works from Rare Books and Manuscripts, from woodcuts to chromolithographs. We hope it will increase the public’s enjoyment of these objects.”

Her colleagues in Prints and Drawings will display treasures by artists such as George Stubbs, Blake, and Turner. In addition, Forrester will present a selection of contemporary works, including prints by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Lucian Freud, Joscelyn Gardner, Anish Kapoor, Chris Ofili, Grayson Perry, and Carrie Mae Weems. Wilcox will show a small group of objects from the Pre-Raphaelite era focused around a watercolor by Joseph Noel Paton titled “Study from Nature, Inveruglas.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 12 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the center will host a Student Night Out for students at Yale and area colleges. Attendees at the after-hours event will learn how to use the study room for research, view objects from the collections, and hear informal talks from curators and undergraduates in the museum’s Student Guide program, as well as enjoy refreshments and meet fellow students. RSVPs are requested at or 203-432-2840.

“We’re increasingly busy,” said Forrester, “We have had larger numbers of visitors, researchers, and classes in recent years, and anticipate even greater use of the study room after the renovation.”

The center’s study room is free and open to the public. Its hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Records of the collections can be searched via the center’s website. The online catalogue of the Yale libraries, Orbis, also provides access to materials from the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts. In addition, the Yale Finding Aid Database offers detailed descriptions of Rare Books and Manuscripts’ archival collections.

The Yale Center for British Art was the final museum designed by Kahn and is regarded as a masterpiece of modern architecture. In 2005 it won the American Institute of Architects prestigious 25-Year Award, given each year to a single building of architectural significance that has withstood the test of time.

The recent refurbishment was the first major building project to take place at the center since its landmark book “Louis Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art: A Conservation Plan” was published in 2011. The conservation plan — the first of its kind in the United States — was the result of nearly a decade of research and recounts the history of the building’s design and construction, and outlines policies for its future maintenance.

Phase two of the building conservation project is scheduled for 2015 and will address public galleries on the second, third, and fourth floors. Linen and carpet will be replaced, new pogo partition walls will be created, oak millwork will be refurbished, and the mechanical and electrical systems upgraded. When the center reopens in 2016, the permanent collection will be reinstalled completely on all floors, and the lecture hall will be refurbished.

For the 2013 refurbishment, the center worked with conservation architects Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee of Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects, London; Kristina Chmelar and Don Iddings of the Yale Office of Facilities; the staff of Knight Architecture LLC, including principal George Knight ’95 M.Arch. Daphne Kalomiris, and Megan Milawski; and project manager Lisa Mendes, Jessica Roessler, and Mike Diehl of Turner Construction Company. At the center, deputy director Constance Clement oversaw the project, with assistance from operations manager Martin Staffaroni and his team.

According to Wilcox, the final touch in the center’s study room will be to hang some of the museum’s large framed watercolors. “I look forward to seeing works like ‘A Frank Encampment’ integrated into the space again,” he said. “It will complete the project.”

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