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  • Ingalls Library and Museum Archives

History and Hauntings

Spooky tales of the 1916 building galleries
Leslie Cade, Director of Ingalls Library and Museum Archives
August 29, 2023
Room of old statues

The Asian gallery 1977

The CMA, with ghostly sightings and unusual disturbances, has been called one of the most haunted museums in America. Are these events embedded in our history? Sightings are usually associated with spirits who attach themselves to objects or locations due to a strong emotional bond or a tragic demise, and in the museum’s case, both may be true. The land on which the museum sits was reserved by Jeptha Homer Wade (grandfather of our founder) for an educational institute devoted to the study of spiritualism following the untimely death of his son, Randall Palmer Wade. More than one tragic death has occurred on museum grounds, the first of which was a construction worker on the 1916 building who was killed by a live wire. This, and the age of the building, may explain why most paranormal activity is reported here.

Two spaces in particular have a reputation for unexplained phenomena. The French and German decorative art gallery (216) is so haunted that museum staff have hesitated to work there. They have also reported that visiting children become upset at the sight of ghosts. Who are these specters? A Boy in a Red-Lined Cloak (1942.49) has been seen on numerous occasions darting between exhibit cases, and Jean-Gabriel du Theil (1964.89) has appeared in front of his portrait then suddenly vanished back into it. A former watchperson claimed that odd things would happen during his rounds, but he would not talk of the details. When asked to elaborate, he would only shrug and say, “We have an understanding now.” The Wall Mirror (1953.153) is known for reflecting both visitors and specters appearing over their shoulders.

The museum’s auditorium 1916

At the other end of the 1916 building, the Leigh and Mary Carter Gallery (204) was originally the Holden Gallery, designed to exhibit Italian pre-Raphaelite paintings donated to the museum by Mrs. Liberty Holden in 1916. I suspect this is the area where the 1916 construction worker died because staff report that their flashlights malfunction when they enter the room, then resume working when they leave. During the most recent museum renovation, contractors independently reported the same thing; lights on their hard hats went out when they entered the area and resumed working when they left. Activity in this room may also be because it has been dismantled, its former opulence erased. In one instance, a staff member reported that a woman in yellow passed behind them. Knowing there was no exit in the direction the woman was going, the staff member followed her to tell her so, only to have her disappear. Other staff have reported seeing a shadowy figure in the gallery. Could it be Mrs. Holden, haunting her former gallery? Also recently, on more than one occasion, alarms have been triggered by shadowy figures in the armor court after hours. 

On the first floor, what are now the medieval galleries (106–11) were originally offices, lavatories, and study rooms off a long east-west corridor. The director’s office and boardroom were located there. Staff have reported seeing a man wearing a tweed jacket walking through the area with a folder under his arm. He was identified through archival images as director William Milliken who passed away in 1978. Staff have also been locked in the ladies’ room in this area, which has a reputation for unexpected flushing when no one is in the stalls. The museum’s original auditorium occupied two stories with its entrance where the Egyptian gallery (107) is now located. The space was remodeled for the Asian galleries in the 1970s. Previously, people reported foul smells that could not be identified, nor a cause found. During the renovation project, the same occurrence of foul smells was reported and made one contractor so uneasy that they quit the job. 

The Holden Gallery 1916

My own personal ghost story begins with a dream. I woke on the morning of July 10, 2008, having had a vivid dream of attending the funeral of a white-haired man. I knew the man was not my father but could not identify him. The dream bothered me all the way to work. The staff found out later that director Sherman Lee had passed away the day before. I knew immediately that I had dreamt of Dr. Lee. And then the power went out. The entire campus was thrust into darkness, and the staff was dismissed. I believe it was the museum paying homage to our great director.