News Archive

Project Y: A museum's secret history

Confidential documents reveal museum's secret past

12/20/2002 11:31:54 AM


LYNCHBURG, Va.—Fifty years ago, in the midst of the Korean conflict and escalating Cold War tensions, board members and executives of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. took part in a series of confidential, closed-door discussions to plan emergency measures designed to ensure the safety of the gallery's collections "in view of the present national emergency." Among the measures deemed necessary was Project Y, a plan for the removal and evacuation of the collections to a storage facility of heavily reinforced concrete to be built at an undisclosed location somewhere in Virginia. Today, that facility -- now known as the Maier Museum of Art on the campus of Randolph-Macon Woman's College -- shelters one of the finest college collections of American art in the country.

The contract between the College and the Gallery was signed March 16, 1951, and called upon the parties to provide a shelter and curator's cottage which the trustees of the National Gallery could employ for the emergency storage of the "irreplaceable and invaluable works of art entrusted to them." Construction began in April 1951, with the help of the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, and the building was officially dedicated in December 1952.

Memoranda and letters reveal that periodic inspection visits were made to Lynchburg from the mid 1950s until at least 1967 to ensure that the facilities, and the attendant cottage, were in good repair and that machinery—especially the all-important air conditioning—was functional. In November 1962, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, Gallery officials held an apparent evacuation drill to test the truck drivers' skills and to make sure the trucks fit into the storage facility's loading dock. Even in 1964, Gallery administrators continued to want the storage facility's true purpose kept confidential, writing to Professor Mary Frances Williams about her forthcoming history of the College art collection that they would prefer "as little publicity as practicable."

The National Gallery of Art's active interest in the Lynchburg facility waned in the 1970s, though the museum remained on the Gallery's "go-to" list in the event of catastrophe. The College's unique arrangement with the National Gallery of Art finally expired without fanfare March 16, 2001.

This year, the Maier Museum of Art is celebrating its secret history. A recent exhibition at the museum showcased blueprints, photos, and news clippings outlining the planning and construction of the facility and museum director Karol Lawson has collected hundreds of documents from the National Gallery and other sources that tell the tale of Project Y, the Maier Museum of Art's secret history.

For more information on Project Y or the Maier Museum of Art, visit the museum's web site at anytime. The museum's offices are closed for the holidays between December 20, 2002 and January 1, 2003. If you need assistance during that time, please contact Michael Kiser at 434-851-5439. After January 2, you can contact museum director Karol Lawson directly at 434-947-8136.

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations