Person of the Week
David Rau: Stay Healthy—Visit a Museum
Chester’s David Rau will deliver a talk on the Florence Griswold Museum at the Essex library on Tuesday, Feb. 11. (Photo by Jenny Parsons )
Now here’s a prescription that you can’t fill at the drug store. For reducing stress, encouraging mindfulness and maintaining good health, visit a museum. David DJ Rau, the director of education and outreach at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, points out studies have maintained all those benefits can come from a museum visit.
David will give a talk, The Florence Griswold Museum from A to Z, at the Essex Library on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.
“The place is never the same,” says David, a Chester resident. “The museum has changed around me. The program gives me a chance to talk about what we are doing now.”
David’s likes to put his two middle initials, DJ, together with no punctuation in between, but that doesn’t mean he has a side career as a disc jockey. Growing up in Michigan, he saw a newspaper story about a David D. Rau who had been in a car accident. To distinguish himself, he ultimately decided to use his two middle initials, but unpunctuated.
“I like the balance,” he explains.
When David started at the museum more than 20 years ago, it was in essence the yellow building on Lyme Street where Miss Florence Griswold had once run a boarding house frequented in the summer by artists, who came to paint local scenes outdoors, en plein air as the artists termed it.
Since that time, the museum has expanded to encompass a 12-acre campus with a modern museum building as well as outbuildings for different activities.
Today, David points out that during the summer season, a family can come on a Sunday, put on smocks, get a canvas and a palette of paint, and go outside and paint en plein air just as the artists once did.
“It’s one thing to see paintings in the galleries, another to do them en plein air. It’ not easy—bugs, breezes—it’s quite an experience,” he says.
There’s one more thing that David is very proud of: There is no extra charge for visitors to do the plein air painting. It’s included in the museum’s admission charge.
One of the most difficult times for the museum, according to David, ultimately led to one of its most successful annual exhibits, the Wee Faerie Village. It all started with the precipitous stock market downturn of 2008. Given the financial constraints at the time, the question was what to do that was “exciting, new and low cost,” David recalls.
On a weekend in New Hampshire, David visited what was described as a fairy garden. A friend told him the whole fairy phenomenon was very popular. David decided to try the idea at the museum. He contacted artists to create small, imaginative fairy dwellings and, with some trepidation about whether people would come, he put out a sign that the show was open.
He need not have worried; there were more than 10,000 people who visited the three-week exhibition. The problems the museum had were not of attendance but, “parking, bathrooms, garbage,” David says.
Now the Wee Faerie Village is an annual October event, each year with a different theme from superhero fairy dwellings to Alice in Wonderland-themed creations. As many as 13,000 people have attended the exhibit.
David has through his tenure started many other new programs at the museum. Recently, he expanded the focus of the winter studies program, originally an art-themed series of lectures. Last year a program on presidential portraits brought in history as well as art.
It was so popular that this year the museum will offer a history-based program, Liberty in America, taught by Matthew Warshauer, a professor from Central Connecticut State University.
“It’s an election year, it’s a time people think about liberty, and he’s a very popular professor. He can make history come alive,” David says.
Next fall, David will lead museum-sponsored tour to Spain, including visits to Madrid and Barcelona.
David first thought about a museum career at the University of Michigan where a professor in an architecture class he was taking suggested he might be an art major. When he asked the professor what kind of a job that might lead to, the professor said working in a museum or teaching. David didn’t want to teach, thinking he could never be as good as the professor whose course he was taking, but the professor volunteered to help David get a museum internship.
David earned a master’s degree in art history at the University of Michigan, and progressed from internships to established museum positions. He arrived at the Florence Griswold Museum in 1998.
In addition to his work at the museum, David now teaches a course during the spring semester in museum studies at Connecticut College, coming full circle from the time when he told his professor he didn’t think he could teach.
In 2017, David did something at the Florence Griswold that others have done over the years, but it didn’t have to do with his professional position. He used the museum as the location for a wedding, his own, to Daniel Hansen, a retired educator. He notes that among the couple’s ongoing delights are their two long-haired miniature dachshunds, a male named Icarus and a female, Daphne.
Having lived in Chester since 2003, David, born in the Midwest, now considers New England home. Home also means the Florence Griswold Museum.
“I am here for as long as they want me here,” he says.
“The FGM from A to Z: The History and Future of the Florence Griswold Museum,” a talk by David Rau, is on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Essex Library, 33 West Avenue, Essex. For more information, visit www.youressexlibrary.org.