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The historic Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester re-opened Tuesday after a 10-month, $3.5 million facelift.
When it was founded in 1873, the future museum was known as the Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association. And while the name eventually changed, the organization’s mission remains the same: to collect and showcase art and artifacts that tell the story of the North Shore.
Director Ronda Faloon said the extensive renovations will enhance the Cape Ann Museum’s ability to do its job in a more informative, nuanced and beautiful way.
“That is really the important thing about our museum,” she said, “it’s the topography, it’s the light, it’s the geography, and it’s the people that inspired so much of the work that was created here.”
The museum’s size hasn’t changed — it still occupies 44,000 square feet in two historic homes. And the new heating and ventilation systems are invisible, sort of unsexy upgrades. But for Faloon, the improved lighting, rejuvenated lobby and re-designed gallery spaces promise to be transformative for the somewhat sleepy museum — about 20,000 people visit each year.
The narrative Faloon hopes to deliver places Cape Ann in a more relevant national context. The area has a long, complex history as a hub of the granite and fishing industries, and one of the country’s earliest art colonies sprung up there.
"We really do tell the story of America in our very small space,” Faloon said, laughing.
Countless artists have flocked to Gloucester, including painters Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer and native Fitz Henry Lane. They were attracted to its watery vistas, but also to the famous, almost glowing natural light.
The museum holds the world’s largest collection of paintings and drawings by Lane. He was born in Gloucester and was the son of a sail-maker, but went on to become an artist because of a disability he suffered as a child.
Lane threw himself into illustration, lithography and ultimately maritime painting. His works on canvas are highly detailed, and consistently inspired by his home town. Faloon said Lane’s life story can now be told — and illuminated — more fully in the museum’s renewed gallery.
“The visitor is guided through Lane’s early biography, and the paintings look like no one has ever seen them before because of this amazing upgrade in lighting we’ve done,” she explained.
Then there are the artifacts. There are a lot of them — thousands. But an eye-popping standout is a giant lens that once flashed warnings to sailors and fishermen approaching Thatcher Island off Rockport.
From 1861 to 1980, the 155-year-old first order Fresnel lens beamed its visual messages from one of the two lighthouses there. Now it’s on permanent loan to the Cape Ann Museum from the U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London, Connecticut. Experts reassembled and restored the 6-foot tall, 2,000-pound antique, and now the lens — which is made up of more than 1,000 glass prisms — is on display with other pieces from the museum’s extensive maritime collection.
To celebrate its re-opening, the Cape Ann Museum is offering free admission this weekend, “for those who haven’t visited us since they were in third grade,” Faloon mused about the popular school field trip destination. She hopes her updated institution will entice more people to seek it out because, Faloon said, even small museums can play a big role in our communities.