J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Common-place at the Museum of Fine Arts

The new issue of the Common-place online magazine includes David Jaffee’s review of the Museum of Fine Arts’s new American wing:
I applaud the "en suite" installations where paintings stand before furniture, needlework beside silver: the fine and decorative arts are no longer consigned to different spaces. While the museum had done this mixing before in its American galleries, the results here are quite striking.

Most dramatically as you enter on the first level from the courtyard, you see the museum's perhaps most iconic object, the John Singleton Copley portrait of Paul Revere but standing before, in a vitrine, is the Sons of Liberty Bowl (1768). The silver bowl can be seen as a political declaration on its own from its inscription and iconography.

Further on in this gallery of Revolutionary Boston [shown above] is displayed the clothespress owned by Gilbert DeBlois, a wealthy merchant and prominent loyalist. The history of this object facilitates a discussion of the trade and consumption of textiles and the important story of loyalists in Revolutionary Boston.
And in the early federal period, with its emphasis on neo-Classicism:
I applaud the clever idea to lay out the gallery as a gendered space—after entering and seeing the initial display of the gallery on "Neoclassical Dining," you must go either to the left of the display or the right.

If you choose the left, you have a series of objects interpreted as "Men in the New Nation" with Duncan Phyfe furniture and portraits of elite men. If you go to the right, you encounter a display of domesticity and "Women in the New Nation" with a lady's writing desk and a piano on view. This approach is subtle but effective as a way to lead the visitors to view the spaces as separate spheres.
However, Jaffee thinks the curators missed an opportunity by putting rural, vernacular, and folk art in separate galleries—indeed, on separate floors, instead of showing some of those examples alongside the expensive art for the urbane elite. And in separating the products of British North America from those of Latin America and the Native nations. But of course that’s what British North Americans tried their best to do. “Separate spheres” indeed.

Jaffee adds:
I found the "Behind the Scenes Galleries" to be most innovative in their compelling focus on questions of collecting and conservation, classification and curatorial choice. The ample space devoted to these areas is located literally behind the galleries, and that means that they receive a lot less visitation; however, those who do notice and venture over to the galleries are rewarded by some striking media walls with images from many aspects of museum work.
I agree. While those spaces are situated “behind the scenes,” they’re well worth looking for and spending time in. Sometimes one can even see the museum staff at work restoring or studying art.

(ADDENDUM: Soon after posting this, I got a reminder that David Jaffee is speaking on “Learning to Look at Early American Material Culture” at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester on Thursday, 3 November, at 7:30. Free and open to the public.)

1 comment:

DebbieLynne said...

I love this new wing. No matter what exhibits I go to see, I can't leave without "visiting" Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and (my favorite) John Adams. After reading this post, I'm ready to go again!