As February’s polar weather plunged Denver into freezing temperatures, the staff of the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art got a warning that no museum ever wants to hear.
The chilly temperatures caused the museum’s pipes to burst, flooding each of the building’s three floors, including their gallery space and storage area.
It would be a disastrous situation for any cultural institution, but the museum’s associate director Renée Albiston said her staff acted quickly, rescuing items before damage set in.
“We had an alarm, and we looked at the cameras remotely and saw water coming down,” she said. “Our senior team came right into the building, opened the doors, saw water pouring down and just started running around the museum, pulling pieces, getting them to dry spots.”
Albiston said the staff saved pieces for about eight hours the first day. Some items did need conservation work, especially the pieces that got particularly wet, but most of the serious damage was limited to the building itself. To make matters worse, the pandemic, which closed the museum for part of 2020, continues to affect the museum’s supply chain and labor — they faced a shortage.
The museum team did not anticipate the delays to add up to a half-year closure, but that’s how long it took to replace all of the wood floors in the gallery, much of the ceiling on different floors, and any lighting, speakers, audio-visual equipment and alarm systems damaged by the water.
“Now, I know more about electrical outlets than I ever thought I would as an art historian,” Albiston joked.
Many repairs later, the Kirkland Museum reopened on Aug. 27, with a new exhibit on a British designer. With "Truth, Beauty and Power: Christopher Dresser and the Aesthetic Movement," the Kirkland Museum is changing up how they usually present their exhibits.
“Our typical display style is salon-style, which has paintings and sculpture mixed together with decorative art,” Albiston said. “That's not very typical that you see in most institutions, and this particular exhibition really deviated from that. We did a single object focus, just to provide a little bit of a different experience when you come visit here.”
The exhibit breaks down Dresser’s style into four thematic groups, then contrasts one of the objects on display with another item that was popular at its time. It illustrates the out-of-the-box thinking Dresser employed in his work, including the exhibit’s centerpiece item, a five-legged chair, which the museum collaborated with other scholars and institutions to attribute to Dresser for the first time.
“We're really excited to educate the public on this sort of lesser-known movement as well as really be able to give a drill down, focus on some of these really lovely and beautiful objects that are in our collection,” Albiston said.
The exhibit, which will run through the end of the year, is just one reason the Kirkland staff is looking forward to opening its doors once again.
“I can't even describe how excited we are and we just can't wait to see visitors back in our building,” Albiston said. “It's been a little bit of an emotional ride for our staff between last year's pandemic and then this year's flood. All of us on staff are so connected to this institution and this collection, and we have such ownership over it and so much pride in what visitors see here. We just can't wait to share that again.”
"Truth, Beauty and Power: Christopher Dresser and the Aesthetic Movement" at the Kirkland Museum opened Friday, Aug. 27, and runs until Jan. 2, 2022.
Editor's note: This article and its headline were updated on Nov. 17 to reflect that the museum has reopened.
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