Impressions from the MFA: How to (Re)Present the Americas

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.

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3 Responses to Impressions from the MFA: How to (Re)Present the Americas

  1. Jane Kamensky says:

    So much to chew on, here, Haram. And I think consideration the below-ground galleries in the wing, where all the indigenous arts are housed, out of time, from contact through the c21, would only amplify your points. How far did the curator’s sensible assertion that museums can only present what they have go to allay your concern? If the galleries were realigned thematically, as you suggest, would the hyperdominance of the US be more or less glaring? And if the MFA’s goal is to build collection strength in new areas, what might be most appealing to donors who would need to see as well as read/ hear about the priorities you describe? A thoughtful post that raises important questions for representing revolutions, and revolutions in practices of presentation….

  2. Cassandra Berman says:

    Haram, your thoughts on alternative approaches to presenting the material that the MFA does already have – rather than just pointing out what’s missing – are very insightful and have encouraged me to think again about our visit as well as my visits to other historically-oriented museum exhibits. We spoke about this in our student meeting, but it does seem to me that more nuanced captioning of items could also go a long way to shifting the focus and especially the geographies and labors represented in each of the galleries. I think it would also be beneficial for museums to reevaluate those items that they DO have already, but have never put on display. I remember touring the collections of the Smithsonian American History Museum and being blown away by their holdings regarding human reproduction and their holdings on slavery. Much to the curator’s chagrin, many of the items had been deemed by museum administration to be too politically divisive to display – but to me they seemed so vitally important to American history (a history which is, of course, in many ways defined by its divisiveness). The MFA curators mentioned their small collection of Haitian coins to us – perhaps not on display for aesthetic (rather than political) reasons, but still potentially exciting materials that could go far in broadening the scope of representation. I would be so interested to know what else makes up the behind-the-scenes collections. And what might not have interested museum-goers in the past (and thus been relegated to archival storage) may in fact fascinate visitors now.

  3. g271187 says:

    Haram, your comment on how the MFA could have emphasized the central role that “race” played in the Age of Revolution more raises important questions, not only for historians, but also for Americans in general. Bringing “revolutions” out of the seminar and going to the center of Boston, in a place where the American revolution is on display to the public, made me think about how to talk about history, and in particular American history, in all its complexity.
    We have been discussing the Age of Revolution for several months now, and yet, every time after hearing our guests, we keep being astonished at how complex and messy revolutions were/are. In our seminar, we have heard about revolutionaries becoming counter-revolutionaries, about revolutionary changes that wrought both positive and negative transformations for women, about a revolution that gave former slaves citizenship and yet did not quite bring with it individual liberties… All the scholars that we have heard in our seminar have done a wonderful job complicating the (meta)narratives of revolutions and have made us question many of our assumptions and methods for approaching the Age of Revolution.
    But, complicating pre-existing narratives requires time and thinking, and well, not everyone has the privilege to think about revolutions as much as we do! So, how do we nuance the narrative of the American revolution in particular and take into account its messiness, while providing a framework for understanding American history that is accessible to people of varied educational backgrounds and generations? Cassandra, your comment that the administration of the Smithsonian American History Museum decided to avoid displaying “politically divisive” items really highlights the stakes of changing the narrative of Revolution… And the stakes are high: rethinking the American Revolution means not only rethinking a linear narrative of freedom (by complicating the meanings of “liberty” and emphasizing the non-ideological aspects of revolutions), but also rethinking the legacies of the revolution, in particular in regards to race. I wonder about what would be the most productive ways to talk about race and slavery in the context of the Age of Revolution, in schools and museums. The challenge, it seems, is to find the right balance between complicating our narratives, while maintaining intelligibility- and I would be curious to hear about your ideas for doing so!

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