Neatly tucked away off Central Street between Summer Street and Highland Avenue, the Somerville Museum may not have the obvious and imposing grandeur of other area museums. It’s not as modern and spacious as the Seaport’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and it’s not nearly as palatial as Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum— where, coincidentally, the Somerville Museum’s Board of Trustees president, Barbara Mangum, once worked as chief conservator.
But those museums, beautiful as they are, house worldly collections geared towards tourists and discerning art historians. The Somerville Museum, founded in 1897 as the Somerville Historical Society, has an entirely different purpose. It’s a mission that shines through its current exhibit, Charan Devereaux’s “Union Square at Work,” and upcoming events, like the always popular “Somerville Open Studios,” headquartered at the museum from April 29 through May 1.
For a long time, the museum ran simply as a historical society, according to Mangum, an art conservator who hails from Alabama. “These were incredible people who wanted to get together and keep the history of Somerville alive as they knew it, because Somerville had undergone such huge change already” by the turn of the 20th century, Mangum says.
Historical Society members wanted to document the history of Somerville’s growth during the second half of the 19th century from a sparsely-populated, almost rural section of Charlestown to one of the most densely populated cities in New England.
“The history is the movement from a rural community to what it is today,” says Michael O’Connell, a former Fort Point painter and the museum’s director of exhibitions.
The Somerville Historical Society officially became the Somerville Museum in 1988. Since then, it has been much more focused on social history, a recounting of the past from the voices of community members rather than elites.
“A new group of people came in and reinvented the society as the Somerville Museum,” O’Connell says.
He points to the 1997 exhibit “Lifting the Veil: Remembering the Burning of the Ursaline Convent” as the major turning point in the museum’s focus and mission. According to O’Connell, organizers Nancy Natale and Nancy Lusignan Schultz decided not only to present the “well-worn” history of the 1834 anti-Catholic attack, but also “to present the story to contemporary Somerville artists and have them respond to it.”
“Lifting the Veil” featured the resulting paintings, sculptures and art installations. O’Connell calls it a “very interesting collision,” one that made him realize that the museum’s purpose should be to create a conversation between past and present through its exhibitions.
“Union Square at Work” (which you can learn more about on p. 26), continues in the same tradition, exploring the history of businesses and nonprofits in one of the city’s oldest commercial districts. The show features photographs of people in their working environments around the square: workshops, bars and restaurants, auto body centers and more.
Devereaux, in her project statement, asks of the planned $1 billion Union Square Revitalization Plan, “Who will gain? And what will be lost? What new opportunities will arrive and which will disappear?”
“We had some great lectures from some of the people that owned these businesses, talking about Somerville then and what they saw for the future,” says Mangum. “We kind of mix and match [visual arts with more traditional history], and the whole thing is really to get a good experience for people, but we don’t want to forget the history, too.”
Indeed, a casual passerby could be fooled by the museum’s modest exterior and residential location. But it’s certainly not without its historic beauty. It was built during the Great Depression specifically to house the Somerville Historical Society, and its high ceilings and large windows allow the space to be flooded with natural light, even on the gloomiest winter afternoon.
The interior contains a split staircase designed in 1792 by Massachusetts State House architect Charles Bulfinch. Not original to the building, the stairs, Mangum says, were built for the mansion of wealthy Somerville shipping merchant Joseph Barrell. The mansion, once located at the current site of the Holiday Inn on Cobble Hill, later became the original site of the McLean Hospital—then known as McLean Asylum for the Insane.
“Somerville had been an oasis of suburbia for Boston, but by the 1870s the railroads had come through and were coming right through their property,” says Mangum, “so the hospital moved to Belmont [in 1895].”
The stairs were donated to the Somerville Historical Society and remain in the museum to this day.
“As far as we know, it’s the only one like this designed for a residence that’s still in existence,” Magnum says proudly.
When people think of Somerville, “a lot of people think of the Civil War or the American Revolution,” says O’Connell. But, “When you look at the history of the 19th and 20th century, what you’re actually looking at is an emblem of a lot of cities in America. The history of Somerville is an example of that.”
The Somerville Museum is located at 1 Westwood Rd. Its regular (Fall through Spring) hours are Thursdays from 2 to 7 p.m., Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m.