At the new Art of the Americas wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, four floors of galleries tell the story of American art in a new expansion designed by architect Norman Foster. The expansion marks a big moment for the MFA, whose collection of American art (particularly colonial North American) is unparalleled. The new galleries showcase everything from Aztec and Mayan art to colonial silver craft, 19th century aristocratic portraiture, and modern art. One particular space in the bottom floor, featuring an installation of the beams from a late 17th century North American house, makes a spectacular impact, both in terms of the art viewing experience and innovative gallery installation.
Surrounding and subsuming an installation of silver house ware set in vitrines, this colonial American gallery is occupied by the ghostly wooden beams removed from the Manning House, a 1692 structure built in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to the north of Boston. Removed from the second floor of the house, the beams have a massive presence; the largest is a staggering 50 feet long. The whole space has the feeling of a contemporary art installation rather than a historical, didactic exhibition; it feels fresh, interesting and a little shocking to be able to occupy the space earlier occupied by the home’s original tenants.
Submerged in the basement level, the Manning House gallery is cut off from the outside world, a position that has an oddly displacing effect on viewers. Separated in such a way, unlike most of the other, more open Americas wing galleries, we are free to wander both physically and mentally through history. The sparse installation of silver pieces, portraiture and home furniture leaves room for the beams of the home to breathe and assert their presence. Rather than a crowded, dense installation of artifacts, this is more life as it was lived: un-ostentatiously, quietly. An encyclopedic display, or one overly interrupted by explanatory texts or re-creations wouldn’t do the house frame or the history justice. Somehow, this installation does, by hinting instead of preaching.
On a side wall, another display catches the eye immediately. Two large gravestones, actually a headstone and footstone made for early Harvard graduate John Foster, take up residence in a glass case framed by the structure of the Manning House beams. Intricate reliefs are picked out on the headstone’s upper register, an image of “Father Time staying the hand of a skeletal Grim Reaper,” according the work’s wall text. It’s a harrowing image, especially given the short lifespans and rough lives of early settlers, something Foster’s success seems to have flouted. The gallery as a whole shares this sense of toughness, a resilient minimalism that’s more instructive than any amount of curatorial text.
The Art of the Americas wing is a fantastic addition to a museum that needed to focus more on what it does well. In particular, the MFA has curated the colonial American galleries with a phenomenally light touch that illuminates rather than explains. The installations are evocative and instructive, and other historically-leaning museums would do well to take note.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is located at 465 Huntington Ave and is open daily.