A Renaissance For The Renaissance Room

 Thom Gentle.

Thom Gentle.

One of the most beloved exhibits from the Speed Art Museum’s earlier incarnation is the English Renaissance Room. The room was installed to fit the available space in the museum in 1943 and consequently became a favorite location for families to visit for generations. In an effort to revitalize this important piece of the Speed’s history, the staff has undergone the unenviable task of attempting to restore the room to its original dimensions and construction while also successfully updating it for a slew of generations to come.

“Museums all over the country are trying to rethink their period rooms, and when I say period room, I’m talking about a room trying to look like a particular era or evoke a different time or place,” says Miranda Lash, the Speed’s curator for contemporary art. “The problem is that’s always a fantasy. No place, even in the past, is frozen in time.” In an attempt to solve this situation, the Speed is collaborating with Brian Knep, an artist who works in technology and new media.

Conservator Eva Burnhan works on the room's original door.

Conservator Eva Burnhan works on the room’s original door.

Inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” – also the source material for some of the original woodwork in the room – Knep decided to capitalize on the transitory and transformative nature of time. The theme of the “Metamorphoses,” as one might guess, is transformation and features such events as Daphne turning into a tree and Jupiter’s turning his lover, Io, into a cow. To align with those themes of change, Knep’s software, in tandem with a series of sophisticated cameras and projectors, will take a patron’s image and transform it. In the fireplace hearth and in the window of the room, visitors will see themselves reappear with exaggerated or stylized features. The software will also store this image to be put on display in the room so that every time patrons walk in, they will be greeted by earlier visitors of the room. They may even meet themselves.

As fascinating as the technological marvels and updates to the room are, another herculean effort is simultaneously underway: the restoration of the room itself.

SpeedMuseumEnglishRenaissanceRoom26BWOriginally constructed by Sir Thomas Drewe in 1619, the room now at the Speed was part of his country home in southwest England. In the style and employing the readily-available resources of the time, every inch of the room – from floor to ceiling – is covered in extensive wood carvings. While the carvings are detailed and certainly unique to the period in which they were carved, it is worth noting that the restoration work is actually made all the more challenging because the original construction was not performed by the most highly trained artisans of the time. “This would’ve been carved by provincial English artisans, and the quality of work – I mean, it’s beautiful – but it’s a cut below what they were doing in London, two or three what they were doing in France. It’s very vernacular,” says Scott Erbes, the Speed’s chief curator.

Thom Gentle is the man in charge of the room’s conservation, and it seems that the Speed could not have brought in someone better suited for the task. A furniture and wood restoration specialist as well as a member of the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA), an organization aimed at providing skilled conservators to museums that may not have someone of such skill in-house, Gentle lives up to his name through meticulous and chary work. He’s even worked in this room several times before, during similar restoration projects in a relationship with the Speed that dates back to 1978, further cementing his position as the perfect man for the job.

Some of the tools used by Eva Burnham and Thom Gentle to restore and conserve most of the wood materials in the Speed's Renaissance Room.

Some of the tools used by Eva Burnham and Thom Gentle to restore and conserve most of the wood materials in the Speed’s Renaissance Room.

Throughout the course of a conversation with Gentle, one realizes that he can make even the most fastidious work needed for this restoration sound simple: “You see these basket shaped elements here? So many were missing. What we did then was take a mold, using an industrial molding compound of silicon rubber, and then made a cast, and it’s really nigh impossible to tell the difference. It’s quite durable stuff indeed.”

With the project in such good hands, Erbes has no doubt that the new Renaissance Room will become a community favorite once again. “I think it’s the atmosphere of it. It’s the quality of it. It’s unlike anything else you’ll see in the United States,” explains Erbes. And when one looks at the painstaking attention to detail, coupled with the innovative art technology being put in place, it’s hard not to get too excited. A true renaissance for the Renaissance Room indeed. VT

Photos by BILL WINE