Although all major construction on the Walker Art Building has been completed since May, no one has yet to walk through the doors of the transparent glass pavilion that will now serve as the main entrance to the building, save for a handful of workmen.
Tonight, that will all change. After a champagne toast on the Quad, 400 distinguished guests and friends of the College will be the first to officially enter the modern glass structure and descend the two converging steel stairways into the underground galleries below.
There, they will find visitor services including a bookstore and computerized catalogues that evoke the lobby of any state-of-the-art museum.
"People keep saying this is like a 'grown-up museum' now," said Director of the Museum of Art Katy Kline.
If the new see-through structure jutting out of the historic 1894 building or the subterranean foyer seems foreign to tonight's guests, at least the first exhibit will make them feel at home. All pieces of art on display in the front exhibition are on loan from Bowdoin alumni, representing classes from 1932 to 2000.
"We wanted to make this a kind of Bowdoin-centric opening," Kline said.
Tonight's festivities are exclusively for Trustees, donors, and special guests; however, students, alumni, and other members of the Bowdoin community will get a sneak peak at the newly renovated building on Saturday, before the community ribbon-cutting on Sunday afternoon.
The three-day long celebration marks the end of a two-and-a-half year renovation that began in the summer of 2005. The decision to renovate was three-fold: to increase gallery and storage space, enhance handicapped accessibility, and install a new climate control system.
According to Associate Professor of Classics and Associate Curator for the Ancient Collection in the Museum of Art James Higginbotham, the College could have taken a minimalist approach and only fixed the museum's failing air control system, but instead, saw the renovation as an opportunity to improve all aspects of the building.
"They took an ambitious approach and made it a much more active and accessible place at the College," he said.
Assistant Professor of Art Steve Perkinson agreed.
"It's spectacular. It's legitimately spectacular," he said. "The spaces compare favorably to any major metropolitan art museum."
"It's a collection that any college would envy, and finally that collection has a building that is again worthy of it. It's going to be a transformative moment for the College, because these are facilities that very, very few colleges and universities have, and Bowdoin now has them. It's going to create a kind of cultural energy on campus that benefits everyone," Perkinson said.
Three first-year classes have matriculated at Bowdoin since the museum closed its doors to visitors after the 2004-2005 academic year, meaning that seniors are the only students on campus to have ever set foot in the building. Although some pieces of the museum's permanent collection were kept on site in Banister Hall during the $20.8 million renovation, the majority of the College's art was in storage or on display off-site.
For senior Sarah Stern, the experience of studying art history without access to the museum was a challenging one.
"Academically, it's been somewhat frustrating," she said.
"I have taken many classes where the professor has made comments alluding to the fact that our museum holds pieces that are relevant to the course, but because of the construction and renovation work, we have been unable to see them," she said.
Junior Hannah Howe, a declared Art History major, said that despite the museum being closed during her entire career as a Bowdoin student, her professors worked diligently with the curators to bring many of the remaining pieces of the collection into the classroom. When the original works of art were unavailable, professors turned to slides instead.
"Needless to say, we are all very excited to finally have the museum open and available for projects, class discussion, and visual research," Howe wrote in an e-mail to the Orient. "Now that the museum is open, I expect that professors will conduct specific lectures using artwork to replace slides and digital images."
Even though the museum does not officially open until this weekend, Higginbotham is teaching his archeology classes in the museum's new classroom space this semester, leading his students in through the back entrance and not through the glass pavilion.
"Being able to work with the real artifacts makes a big difference," he said.
While the walk from the back entrance where he meets his class at the start of the period to the classroom inside is usually a straight shot, Higginbotham said that he and his students had to one day take a roundabout path to the classroom to avoid a group of workmen. The detour took them through a number of finished galleries where art had already been hung.
"When I got to the classroom, I turned around and I had lost my class," Higginbotham said?every student had stopped along the way to admire the completed galleries.
In addition to the alumni collection of contemporary art that adorns the museum's front gallery space, other exhibits include a selection from the museum's collection of prints and drawings from 1470 to 1970, a solo exhibition honoring renowned painter Stephen Hannock '74, and a display confronting the issues of gender identity among female artists curated in conjunction with the advanced student seminar Women and Art.
Another gallery highlights the artistic traditions of China by combining both ancient and contemporary folk art, landscapes, and calligraphy.
"You might not know it, but the museum has the most extensive collection of Asian art in the state of Maine, and I can't wait to send my students over to see first-hand the Chinese painting, calligraphy, and more conceptual pieces on view now," said Assistant Professor of Art and Asian Studies De-nin Lee.
The remodeled museum also boasts a new media gallery that will display video and digital works of art that before had no gallery space in the museum.
"We're bringing the old and the new together," Kline said. "This will keep us on our toes because we'll have to keep programming it in certain ways."
The upstairs exhibits focus more on the museum's permanent holdings, including a sculpture gallery in the rotunda honoring the human form, two ancient art exhibits curated by Higginbotham on cultural responses to death and immortality and ancient pastimes, and selections from the museum's collections of European and early-American art.
The museum's most prized exhibition, a series of six 9th century B.C. Assyrian relief sculptures, are now visible from Maine Street in the museum's new, glass-walled gallery.
Although the museum staff might have hoped to put a more colorful display in the only exhibit visible from outside of the building, the reliefs are the only pieces in the collection that "could stand up against all of the sunlight," Kline said.
The glass backside of the museum, like the glass pavilion that will tonight be inaugurated as the museum's permanent entranceway, is meant to represent the accessibility of the museum to the greater Brunswick community, according to Kline.
"The transparency deliberately symbolizes an openness about the museum that we didn't have before," she said. The glass structures "provide an indication of what kind of institution we are?we are a public institution."