Last Thursday’s visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was a precious experience. It was one of our ‘laboratory’ sessions of the Sawyer seminar, and we spent most of our time seeing the “Art of Americas” wing, which displayed the artworks in the U.S. and other parts of North and South America. Not only the wing’s size but the beauty of its collection impressed me very much. And, above all, I admired the concept and organization of the wing itself. As the curators told us, the ‘Americas’ wing aimed to present the arts of both Americas in such a way to fully represent the U.S. history in the broader context of the Atlantic world. If the MFA had been oriented toward Boston and New England, they explained, it was making effort to be both more national and international by means of acquisition and rearrangement of artworks in the wing. The MFA’s ambition to represent the Americas in the plural, rather than ‘America’ (equated with the U.S.) alone, was what made our experience of artworks exciting, though it did not always achieve its ambitious goal.
One of my favorite works in the wing was the chairs, as they seemed to best exemplify the wing’s achievement. On the first floor of the wing, there was a row of the eighteenth-century chairs, which came from all over the U.S. and Barbados. If I had seen each of them by itself, I wouldn’t have been impressed as I was. There was something deeply instructive about the way in which the chairs were placed and presented. The presentation enabled me to compare different styles at a quick glance. Moreover, it stimulated my curiosity about the social and cultural contexts that underlied such a variety of style. I came to ask myself the questions concerning the relationship between the furniture’s appearances (shape, size, and color) and the regional peculiarities (such as climate, material wealth, social stability, and so on). For example, finding the chair from Barbados to be bigger than others, I wondered if its size would tell something of the opulence of the colony and perhaps of the need for magnificence in life style on white settlers’ part. In short, the display of the chairs was instructive in the best sense: thought-provoking.
Yet some parts of the Americas wing did not achieve this level of consistency in presentation. And the focus on geography, in particular, made it somewhat difficult for the artworks to be representative of the Americas. It was unfortunate that this innovative wing resorted to conventional ways of presenting arts by sticking to geography especially when it comes to South America. The ‘South America’ section on the first floor (Gallery 135, whose official name was “New Spain and the Spanish Tradition”) would be a case in point. It was the only gallery on the first floor that was devoted to the arts of South America, being surrounded by the galleries that featured those of colonial New England and the newly made United States. I believe I wasn’t the only one who could not quite understand the connection between the South America gallery and the adjacent ones. Nor could I get over the sense that various paintings, ornaments, and furniture were lumped together in this gallery just for the reason they came from South America, from Mexico, Cuba, and so on.
All of these impressions, then, point toward the fact that the theme-based, rather than the geography-oriented, organization of the wing would have been much more effective in representing the Americas. Some might object that all the museums have limited resources and, therefore, have the limits in achieving its mission statement. But I doubt that this is the case of the MFA. In my view, it is less a matter of the collection or acquisition than a matter of display and conceptualization. Suppose the MFA would create a gallery that is centered around the slavery and/or slave trade in the Atlantic world. The Cuban chest in the South America gallery, the grandeur of which we admired very much, then, will be placed in this new gallery, testifying the luxury based on the exploitation of slave labor. There, it won’t sit alone but will find a good company in a British plantation owner, William Beckford’s exquisite chest, which we actually found in the European arts wing. Furthermore, what if they would spare a room for ‘race’? It surely would provide the audience with good insights on the issue, demonstrating the diverse ways of representing races in North and South America. Do they have enough works for this gallery? What immediately comes to my mind are the costume paintings, again, in the South America gallery (but, alas, they are on loan), which portray a variety of racial types in the colonial society in South America. These paintings would go very well along with other American paintings on African or Native Americans around the same period. If it would take too much effort to adjust the organization of the permanent collection, a temporary exhibition would suffice for the time being to make the “Art of Americas” wing more representative and instructive.