Part One: the New Library Museum.
One of the unusual features of the Woburn Public Library has always been the Library’s Museum. Few public libraries today have a museum the size and scope of Woburn’s. The Museum, located on the Library’s third floor, was open for many years for special tours by school groups and individuals. Visitors would ascend the iron spiral staircase at the front of the Study Hall, climb up two flights of stairs to reach the Archives office, and then climb another set of stairs to reach the garret-style attic space where the Museum was situated. Upon entering the room, one would see rows of large museum cabinets made of a beautiful butternut wood, full of artifacts, lined back-to-back across the center of the room and along the wall on the right. Arranged around the perimeter of the room were spinning wheels, a loom, chairs, tables and a number of other large and somewhat mysterious objects. A guide, often the Library Director, would give a tour of the exhibits and entertain visitors with stories about the many remarkable objects from Woburn’s past on display.
The Museum’s exhibits were arranged in the style of a Victorian cabinet museum, with the objects grouped in the cases by topic, but with minimal interpretation, except for worn and often illegible identification tags. A guide was a requirement for understanding the significance of the objects. In many ways the Museum, while full of wonders, was itself a relic, a glimpse back into the Woburn of over one-hundred years ago when this exhibition space was created. With time though comes change, and due to our Library Building project, the attic space, which is not ADA compliant, will be used for the HVAC system and will no longer be accessible to the public. The Museum though will be returning, reimagined and in a new location that will pay homage to its past.
The question of what to do with the Museum in our new building was carefully considered by the Library’s Trustees before our building project began. Due to the accessibility issue the attic space could no longer be used, and there was little space in the new building for housing a museum. There was a strong desire though to find a way to display these objects that have such great historical significance for the residents of Woburn. A decision was made to reinstall the existing museum cabinets in their original location in the Octagon Room to create a new exhibition space. The old butternut cabinets are being retrofitted; the original glass and the cabinet exteriors will be retained, but the sloped wooden shelves are being replaced with glass shelving and interior cabinet lighting is being installed. Oversized objects, too large to fit into the cabinets, have been transferred to area institutions such as the Woburn Historical Society, to be exhibited there.
Creating this new exhibition space has given us an opportunity to rethink the exhibits. We are adding interpretive labels to identify the objects and are incorporating photographs, illustrations and manuscripts from our Archives collections to add context. We plan to highlight some of the truly amazing examples of material culture from Woburn’s past and to tell the stories behind these objects. Once we return to 45 Pleasant Street the Museum will be open for weekly guided tours. The new exhibition will be organized around important topics in Woburn’s history including the early settlement of the town, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Middlesex Canal, the Fire Department, local industry and people. There will also be a cabinet dedicated to early artifacts from the Library’s Colonial Kitchen, which was the genesis of the Museum; a history I will elaborate on in the next blog post of this weekly six-part series.