The Davis Museum is one of Wellesley College’s great resources, providing for the care and inventive display of distinguished permanent collections of some 11,000 objects and for the presentation of a rich and varied schedule of temporary exhibitions and programs. The study of original art objects has been integral to teaching in the arts and humanities at Wellesley since its founding in 1875, and active collecting in support of the curriculum dates to the 1880s.
In 1993, when the Davis Museum and Cultural Center opened its doors, it was not the first building on campus to house the College’s collections but it was the first and only one designed exclusively as a museum. The Davis also was the first building in North America to have been designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo, whose notion of the museum as a “treasury” or “treasure chamber” informs its design. Adjacent to the Academic Quad and connected by enclosed bridge to the Jewett Arts Center, the Davis is at the heart of the arts on the Wellesley campus. As a resource for academic research and study, and a source of innovative programming, the Davis occupies a prominent space at the center of the intellectual and aesthetic life of the College community.
The mass of the Museum was going to be very simple — much more radical than the delicately crafted mass of the Jewett. The cubic space could be understood as a coffer, presenting all at once the pieces in the collection. The artworks in the collection are like memories of those alumnae who lived here and who thought there could be no better place than Wellesley to which to leave the objects they loved so much. Therefore, I very much wanted the Museum to be understood as a treasury, a treasury that speaks about the lives of those people who received their education here. — Rafael Moneo, May 1993
The Davis’s facilities for the display and study of art include four floors of galleries; a print study room; a seminar room linked by elevator to permanent collection storage areas; collection care areas, staff workspaces and offices. The complex also houses the Collins Cinema, a 168 seat lecture theater fully equipped for presenting film and electronic media, and the Collins Café. Contained within three simple interconnected cubic masses, the structure’s formal language contrasts with the many earlier campus buildings that were rendered in the style known as collegiate gothic. The flat roofs of the lower two blocks of the Davis complex are juxtaposed against the simple, even severe, saw-tooth skylights that define the top of the taller central portion of the complex, flooding the top floor gallery of the Davis with natural light, and providing a signature feature visible from many places on campus.
In his choice of exterior materials for the Davis, architect Rafael Moneo did refer to his predecessors’ work. The building is rendered in a restrained palette of brick and exposed concrete. Several simple metal accents are inserted into the masonry facades of the building. The planar forms of the building’s exterior walls are articulated with unadorned window openings that on the north wall, where they are set in deep reveals, mark the levels of the three main gallery floors of the building above grade. Elsewhere windows signal the locations of entrances to the museum and the cinema, the lobby, and office spaces.
Moneo also used concrete inside the Davis. The material is found at one side of the entrance and lobby in a row of columns and the sofit they support, and is left exposed as flooring on the top level and in the staircase that connects the four floors of gallery spaces. This stair is one of two major vertical elements of the design of the interior and, as it rises through all five floors of public space, provides a point of reference to visitors as they walk through the Davis. Through most of its length, the staircase is a contained volume, its sides defined by maple paneling. Where the paneling is interrupted at landings it is possible to view the gallery spaces above and below. Between the second and third floors of these galleries, the walls that define the staircase are transformed into parapets, opening the last two flights of stairs to the natural light from the skylight above.
On each floor, galleries are arranged around the staircase and the skylit void which brings natural light down into the building. The galleries are rectangular spaces of deceptive simplicity that provide neutral settings for the installation of the Davis collections. Their carefully studied proportions are ample but not overwhelming and transitions are subtly marked — that between floor and wall, for example, by a thin metal strip at the edge of a reveal. Balconies on the upper two floors of galleries and at staircase landings offer views into the three-story volume rising up to the skylight. Natural light from the skylight also flows down light wells at the east and west sides of the top floor to the second level of galleries, and through large north facing windows into a smaller gallery on each floor.
A visit to the Davis might start at the top: take the elevator up to the unique architectural spaces of floor 5; walk down through the permanent collections galleries, on floors 4 and 2; stop to see what’s new in the Study Gallery and take in the temporary exhibitions on 2; and don’t miss the Lower Level galleries!