Lightner’s new director brings historic perspective

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The Lightner Museum’s new executive director will bring extensive knowledge of the Gilded Age with him when he takes over operations on Sept. 8.

Following a nationwide search, the museum’s board of directors selected David Bagnall to oversee one of the pre-eminent collections of historic artifacts and curiosities in the Nation’s Oldest City.

“I’m excited about the rich set of narratives that the Lightner Museum has to explore,” Bagnall said. “You’ve got this incredible building, which was originally the Alcazar Hotel — built in 1888 and designed by one of the leading architectural firms of the time, Carrere and Hastings. You’ve got the story of Henry Flagler and the development of Florida’s Atlantic Coast in the Gilded Age. And you’ve got this diverse collection.”

In a news release, board chair Teresa Radzinski cited Bagnall’s “comprehensive curatorial, architectural, operating and fundraising experience” and called him “the right person at the right time to take us to the next level.”

A native of the U.K., Bagnall studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where he earned his master’s degree. He moved to the United States in 2002 and Chicago two years later.

There, he worked on a project to restore an 1883 mansion and convert it into The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Like the Lightner, the Dreihaus Museum features Gilded Age treasures.

After a stint there as executive director, Bagnall joined the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in 2011. The nonprofit preserves and interprets a network of Wright sites around Chicago. Though Wright is known as a modernist, these buildings were from his early career and drew upon the work of his Gilded Age forebears.

“A lot of what I worked on was sort of interpreting him, separating man from myth, placing him within the context of his time, providing a more accurate interpretation of Wright,” Bagnall said.

Bagnall said the Gilded Age interests him as it is a period where America began to define itself.

“It’s a time of great energy and the idea that we can accomplish anything,” he said. “I think that’s really an inspiring thing to take away from this period.”

He cited the “can-do spirit that, I think, is still very important in America today.”

Even as the museum contends with the challenges posed by COVID-19, it continues to connect with the public.

A new exhibit featuring 13 pieces of the Lightner’s stained-glass collection will open in September. Also in the works: a virtual gallery that will allow participants to design their own Gilded Age mansion using some of the most popular pieces in the museum’s collection.

For Bagnall, the new position offers an opportunity to further engage with the era to which he has devoted so much of his career.

“I’m excited to explore the collection, not just as objects of esthetic beauty, but in relation to the arts, industry and commerce from the Gilded Age,” he said.

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