In 1884 William Albert Slater, the son of a wealthy Norwich industrialist, offered to memorialize his father, John Fox Slater, with a new building at the Norwich Free Academy. He chose noted Worcester, Massachusetts architect, Stephen C. Earle, to create a distinctive design. To many, the Slater Memorial was, and remains, Earle’s finest work. Its design is Romanesque Revival in what has become known as the Richardsonian Romanesque after another noted 19th century American architect, Henry Hobson Richardson.
Scion of the same Slater family noted for industry in Rhode Island, William A. Slater was educated and successful. He appreciated travel, theater, music and art and during frequent visits to France with his wife Ellen, purchased contemporary art. He sponsored the construction of Norwich’s “Broadway Theater” and numerous performances in it. At the same time, his philanthropy provided for the expansion of educational opportunities and affordable access to the arts for Norwich’s citizens. His generosity touched every resident of the city in someway.
By 1888, recently appointed Norwich Free Academy Principal Robert Porter Keep convinced Slater to add to his gift of the building with funding adequate to acquire 227 plaster casts of classical and renaissance sculpture. Keep was a noted classics scholar who had lived in Greece. Almost 600 photographs of the great works of European and ancient art and architecture were then added to the plan to create a museum that would serve the students of the Norwich Free Academy and the community by exposing them to cultures and aesthetics otherwise outside their reach. The approach common for major museums in 19th century Western academic institutions, but unheard of in a small American city on the campus of a secondary school.William A. Slater (detail), oil on canvas
Dr. Keep appointed Henry Watson Kent to be the museum’s first curator and engaged Edward Robinson, curator of antiquities at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, to select the casts, and plasterer Giovanni “Cico” Luchini to assemble the plaster parts into replicas of the great masterworks. To anyone else, the dismembered parts would have posed a puzzle of insurmountable proportions, but Luchini clearly assembled them accurately. He was also charged with fitting the casts with fig leaves upon their arrival, a practice employed in England as well.
Kent was the perfect choice to lead the museum, and utilized methods still seen as valid today to engage the public in repeated visits. He organized changing exhibits and took advantage of the availability of private collections such as William and Ellen Slater’s when mounting temporary exhibits. The Slaters’ collection drew 3,000 visitors. The museum continued to collect, often purchasing from living artists as the result of temporary exhibitions and accepting gifts from generous Norwich citizens and Norwich Free Academy alumni. Thus, the museum’s holding’s grew to include a diverse array of fine and decorative art, historical artifacts and ethnographic material from five continents and 35 centuries.
Over the course of more than a century, the museum has remained true to its mission as an educational resource for the Academy and the community. Successors to Mr. Kent continued to enlarge and improve the collections through purchases and donations. Its space was expanded in 1906 through a gift from Charles A. Converse for the addition of a new building with a large, airy gallery, making changing exhibits more feasible. The Slater Memorial Museum’s relationship with the Norwich Art School has, over the years, maximized the Norwich Free Academy’s ability to train young artists for professional study, while contributing to the cultural life of the greater community.