AMHERST — The Emily Dickinson Museum, like much of the world, had to shut its doors in March 2020 when COVID-19 rolled in. And for over two years, the home of one of America’s most famous poets has remained closed, even as most other places have reopened.
But the museum is now poised to welcome the public back in August, though the exact date is not yet determined. And when people return, the main attraction, the Dickinson Homestead, will be showing a different face, one that’s much more in line with the way the house looked when Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry there, most notably from the late 1850s to the mid-1860s.
After investing about $2.5 million in the effort, the museum has completed its most extensive restoration project ever in the Homestead, originally built in 1813 and then expanded in the mid-19th century. Working with numerous specialists, from architects to 19th-century decorative arts experts, museum staff have added period-style wallpaper and floor coverings to the house and also completed some extensive remodeling to re-create the building’s earlier interior layout.
The goal, says Jane Wald, the Dickinson Museum’s executive director, has been to “re-create the environment and the setting in which Emily developed her talents and her brilliant poetry.”
Doing that, Wald said, “will help us tell a more complete story about Emily and the other members of her family … we can bring more continuity to it.”
As one example, the museum will be opening visitation for the first time to part of the Homestead known as the Northwest Chamber, a room in which Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, spent much of her later life, a time when she struggled with significant health problems.
The room, next to Emily’s bedroom via a short passageway, has been restored with period-style wallpaper, based on fragments found of the original pattern, and the installation of the original mantel and fireplace surround.
Wald said Emily and her sister, Lavinia, took care of their mother in this room in her later years, and that having the room now open to visitors “gives us another piece for discussing family relationships.”
Those relationships “were complicated,” Wald said. With a chuckle, she noted that Lavinia had once described the Dickinson family members — “I’m paraphrasing here,” added Wald — as “a set of monarchs, each with their own kingdom.”
On a recent tour of the Homestead, Wald noted that the house had been owned by the same family, the Parkes, for about 50 years during the 20th century before Amherst College purchased it as a historic property in 1965. The Parkes made some changes to the original setting and decor, such as adding a staircase from the second floor landing to the attic, where finished rooms were created.
Part of the restoration work involved removing that staircase; museum staff now use an original staircase, located behind a door on the second floor landing, to access the attic, where the space has been restored to its original, more utilitarian form.
In addition, modern heating and cooling system units have been placed in the attic, a system that will provide a much better means of protecting the museum’s collections, Wald notes.
“All of that involved quite a bit of work,” she said.
The museum tapped a number of sources for informing this restoration work, from 19th-century wallpaper and floor covering fragments found on site to detailed descriptions that Emily Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, wrote some years after her aunt died (1886) about the pattern of the carpet in the Homestead’s parlor, as well as the layout of Emily’s room.
Using that description and additional research into 19th-century floor coverings, the museum enlisted an English fabric maker to fashion the colorful period-style carpet, which has a noted flower motif, now covering the parlor floor. Doors, window frames, and floorboards in the home have also been repainted with period colors.
Wald says the Parkes saved some of the original materials from the house after they made changes; several of these items, such as stairway balusters, as well as the door to the Homestead’s front entrance, have been refurbished and put back in place.
“We’re not sure why they saved [these materials], whether through some sense of this being an historic property or just Yankee thrift,” Wald said. “Either way, it’s been a real plus for the restoration work.”
She said the museum enlisted about 15 companies, contractors, and other organizations to do that work, from window engravers to engineers to carpenters to fabric makers. Funding for the $2.5 million effort came from a number of sources, including the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The museum is now turning its attention to restoring and refurbishing other parts of its property, such as the Evergreens, the nearby house built in 1856 for Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother, and Austin’s wife, Susan.
Wald notes that interest in Emily Dickinson has continued to grow in the past few years; during the pandemic, the reclusive poet was hailed as the “Original Queen of Social Distancing.” Her name keeps surfacing in pop culture, from Taylor Swift referencing Dickinson on her 2020 album “Evermore” to the Apple TV+ hit series, “Dickinson.”
In fact, the museum helped Apple TV+ with its research for that show, and the company later donated period furniture used in the production to the Homestead, some of which is now displayed in the parlor.
Wald said the museum used downtime during the pandemic not only to dig in on its restoration work but to expand its online programming considerably, attracting interest from people from close to 70 countries.
Now, she said, “We’re really looking forward to having people back in person.”
More information on the Emily Dickinson Museum can be found at emilydickinsonmuseum.org.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected].