WHEN I read that the Newark Museum had undergone a major renovation, I was as delighted as if the news had been of a friend's good fortune. I had lived for 20 years within walking distance of the museum and knew its strong points and its drawbacks. The impress upon it of John Cotton Dana, its founder, was, in my estimation, the Newark Museum's strongest point. Dana had been librarian of the Newark Free Library for only one year when, in 1903, he set aside two rooms on the top floor of the library - one for the Art Museum and one for the Science Museum. The art quickly overshadowed the science aspect, although the sciences still have a place in the museum.
Dana had vigorous ideas about the educative function of both his library and his museum. A woman who was briefly one of his assistants told me that when she and her husband planned a trip to Europe, Dana had prepared a questionnaire which she was to present to museums in every city she visited. He wanted to know how the European museums related to their communities and their schoolchildren. The answer was that they didn't. Only in the great museums like the Louvre in Paris where art students came to copy the Old Masters was there anything resembling an educative function. In the others, an awed few tiptoed past the assembled treasures. This was definitely not Dana's idea of a museum.
He quickly established programs which brought schoolchildren to the museum, or special exhibits to the classrooms. A Junior Museum was established as early as 1913. There were also outreach programs for adults.
Dana was also farsighted enough to acquire collections of art which today justifies the current director's, Samuel Miller, opinion that the Newark Museum is an important link in the magnificent chain of American art museums stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C.
The Newark Museum's first major exhibit in 1910 featured - perhaps oddly - a very fine collection of Japanese art and ``Paintings and Bronzes by Contemporary American Artists.'' The latter was very likely the only museum exhibit of American art that year, or one of a very few. Miller affirms, ``What Dana didn't want us to do was to go into the `Old Master' business. He wanted to concentrate on American art and the contribution of American artists.'' Dana must have also realized that Newark could not compete with the well-heeled Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum for the purchase of European art.
His interest in the exotic, however, was strong. It probably stemmed from an insatiable curiosity and a conviction that art does not belong to a designated elite. Another of his brilliant acquisitions was the Tibetan collection. It surely took nerve for a museum director to buy a mass of art and artifacts from a place which must have been almost unknown in the early days of this century. But now the Tibetan collection ranks among the foremost in the world.
WITH this background, I was intensely curious to know what the renovation accomplished. The first museum building was in what the architect on the renovation project, Michael Graves, termed ``Beaux Arts style.'' Behind a sedate, squared-off granite front was a large foyer and an even larger sunken atrium, both of which were great for fund-raising affairs but were not good exhibition spaces. They did not leave space on the main floor, resulting in some exhibitions being cramped and even claustrophobic.
Over the course of years the museum acquired its neighbor, the Ballantine House, a handsome late-Victorian mansion, and a narrow office building running back behind the mansion to the next street. The restoration of the Ballantine House to its Victorian splendor got underway in 1972.
The latest addition to the complex was the museum's neighbor on the other side, the old YWCA building. A gift of the City of Newark, this reactivated a desire on the part of director Miller and the museum trustees to bring the whole thing together. Fortunately they already knew the man to do the job. Michael Graves had previously submitted a plan for the three buildings and the addition of a fourth - the peculiar architectural mix didn't faze him.
Michael Graves is known as a Post-Modern architect and his Portland Building in Portland, Ore., is hailed as a Post-Modern masterpiece. The term Post-Modern in architecture seems to indicate the move away from the shining glass-walled Modernist style with its vast open interior spaces toward a pragmatic approach which considers earlier architectural solutions whenever appropriate.
While the management of the Newark Museum from Dana to Miller has been prudent enough not to have to charge admission, the museum has never had money to fling around on marble and plush elegance. There is a vinyl floor covering designed by Graves with varying patterns in the new wings which is easy to maintain and easy on the museum goers' feet. However, a theater-type auditorium where the ``Y's'' gymnasium was is as comfortable-looking as the former one was uncomfortable.
The architect ignored the exterior disparity of the four buildings except to design a handsome entrance for the new South Wing utilizing great bronze doors and a sweeping staircase, referred to in a news item as ``ceremonial.''
But it is the North Wing, the former storage building for insurance company records, which is the Cinderella of the story and the architect's tour de force. Graves told an interviewer, ``The North Wing makes one think of the Uffizi [Gallery, Florence, Italy] for several reasons. First of all, the light here is wonderful. Second, the name Uffizi comes from the word `office.' It was an office building, just as the North Wing was.... Ours is a sort of `L' and not a square doughnut, but we nevertheless will take a kind of `yellow brick road' through the whole museum, which will be filled with light, filled with major spaces.''
To achieve that light, Graves opened up a three-story atrium which is completely in harmony with the original atrium. It changes the interior so much that strolling from one gallery to another, the viewer has no sense of going through different structures. There are other modifications and unifying ornamentation. The architect also designed the light fixtures. I was told that Graves used some 30 different subtle, neutral shades of paint to enhance the various spaces and the collections.
His aim was to make ``the quite wonderful collections look even better by virtue of their new surroundings.'' Samuel Miller, like Dana, tries to keep the museum appealing to everyone. He has lowered the display cases and even some of the oil paintings so that children will feel as comfortable as adults.
THE educative function which was so dear to Dana has been given high priority. Much of the YWCA building has been given over to bright, spacious workshops and classrooms for children and for adults. The science aspect is also maintained. A small planetarium remains in the original building and its portable version, the Star Lab, still makes the rounds in schools.
The Mini-Zoo of small caged animals which was popular with the children but odorous and untidy also underwent a very aesthetic renovation. Elegant habitats behind glass give beautiful glimpses of some small wildlife. I was entranced to see live (and happy-looking) meerkats about which I had long been curious.
The collections of American art with emphasis on contemporary artists and New Jersey craftspeople are strikingly displayed. The important Tibetan collection will be emphasized by an altar which is being colorfully decorated by a Tibetan artist-in-residence, Phuntsok Dorje. It is the finishing touch on the museum's renovation.
I left the Newark Museum filled with great satisfaction and, indeed, hope that from the seeds of a ``new'' Newark, this problem-ridden, once fair city, might grow from this imaginative renovation.