West End Museum Reinventing Space and Permanent Exhibit During Downtime

Instead of letting the pandemic slow them down, the West End Museum is using this year’s downtime to not only reinvent its Lomasney Way space, but also to reimagine “The Last Tenement,” its longtime permanent exhibit.

“We’re totally redesigning the space,” said Sebastian Belfanti, the museum’s director, “and we’re looking at [the renovation work and the installation of the re-conceptualized exhibit] as one thing.”

“The Last Tenement,” which documents the history of the West End during the immigrant era from 1850 to 1958, was originally installed in 1992 at the Old State House by the Bostonian Society through a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities before it was permanently relocated to the West End Museum in 2006.

“The current exhibit served us well for a long time, but it’s starting to feel dated, so we really wanted to bring it into the 21st century,” Belfanti said.  “We wanted to give it a clearer focus and also [look at] the community in the West End changing from 1775 to today…and we want to really emphasize and tell the stories of the super diverse neighborhood that the West End was from 1901 to about 1950.”

 While all the ephemera previously displayed on the walls will be put in storage, some artifacts, like the vintage milk crates and sewing machine, will remain, Belefanti said, and other items, long gathering mothballs, will also return.

As the new exhibit will show, the West End was home to the city’s biggest African American population throughout much of the 19th century.

“It started with them – they were the first really active community in the neighborhood.” Belefanti said. “Then we’ll move onto the immigrant period when we sort of transition into a more stable second-generation neighborhood.”

From African American soldiers in the Continental Army who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill through to the Siege of Yorktown in the Civil War to Annie Londenberry, a Baltic immigrant who grew up in the West End tenements to become regarded as the “world’s first international sports star” after riding her bike around the world, the exhibit will also celebrate some of the neighborhood’s notable but neglected figures.

 “There are so many really fascinating stories of people who’ve historically been ignored,” Belefanti said, “and we want to make sure we’re telling their stories.”

The new exhibit will also dive into how Urban Renewal transformed the West End, Belefanti added, and had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many of the neighborhood’s longtime residents in the late 1950s.

“Since we’re the West End Museum, we’ll look at Urban Renewal and its effects on the neighborhood, and how it shaped the modern city, and, more importantly, how that story is relevant to everyone who comes into the museum today,” Belefanti said.

Besides the revamped main exhibit, the museum will also feature a rotating “Immersion Room,” which will recreate a room or storefront  as it was found in the neighborhood before the 1950s.

First up is a recreation of Joe & Nemo, a no-frills dining spot that opened in the former location of a barbershop on Stoddard Street in 1909, and whose signature hot dogs gained global acclaim: During World War II, U.S. Navy ships would commonly salute each other in Morse code with the message, “how are things in Scollay Square?,” Belefanti said,  in reference to the famous eatery, which served its last hot dog at the Scollay Square location in June of 1963.

Visitors to the new museum will also find a new welcoming center, which encompasses the gift store, Belefanti said, and as they proceed to the introduction area for the “Last Tenement” exhibit, they will then gaze upon a mural that fills an entire wall with individual panels comprising portraits and life stories of some of the West End’s one-time residents, such as Leonard Nimoy, the actor who famously portrayed Mr. Spock on TV’s “Star Trek,” and Charles Bulfinch, widely regarded as the first professional architect in the U.S.

“It’s just to add to museum’s image and be something special that reflects what the place is, and what we’re all about,” Belefanti said of the planned mural, which will also feature a map showing how the shoreline and streets have changed over time.

The current permanent exhibit space is set to become the museum’s Program Gallery, which will accommodate community events and serve as a research area, while temporary walls and removable panels would allow for smaller, rotating exhibits there.

Meanwhile, this ambitious undertaking can ultimately be chalked up to the museum making the most of its time during the ongoing public-health crisis.

“We took the pandemic as an opportunity,” Belefanti said. “We had no rotating exhibits then so it allowed us time to really get this moving. It’s a silver lining in [an unfortunate] situation.”

           The Exhibit Committee, including Belfanti, Board President Duane Lucia, Board member Lois Ascher, and volunteer Philip MacLeod, began meeting weekly last March to develop the plan and the museum’s board approved the initial concept in November.

As it stands, the remodeled West End Museum, along with its revamped “Last Tenement” exhibit, is expected to reopen in early ‘22.

“Obviously, it’s a big project,” Belefanti said. “We’re hoping that I’ll happen probably in about a year, and it’ll happen gradually.”

Visit thewestendmuseum.org to lean more.

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