Years ago, I interned at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for a short time. At that time, the American Wing expansion plans were in an early stage, and a major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art was likewise in the very first planning stages. So, visiting the MFA a few weeks ago to see both the Chinese contemporary exhibition “Fresh Ink” and the newly completed and opened American wing was a visit a long time in the making, so to speak, and one I very much looked forward to. (Sadly, in the end, I did not give myself enough time to take my time and take it all in properly.)
It’s not just a new wing — really, this comes as the cornerstone or culmination of a major overhaul and redesign of the museum. Some very significant portion of the museum (75%?) remains more or less untouched, but the entrances and general expected visitor path through the museum have changed completely, and that makes all the difference. The West Wing entrance, through the parking lot, which was the main entrance for years, as long as I can remember, is now blocked off. I think it may be still used for school groups and the like, but where there used to be the main box office, a large coat room, and the like, is now a more or less empty foyer with nearly blank white walls, feeling, along with the café, museum shop, and auditorium which it connects to, like a distant corner of the museum, considerably isolated from the center of the action.
The front entrance in the center of the Neo-Classical facade, facing the street, long quite secondary, is now the primary entrance, with a brand new box office to the right, where one of the main galleries of Egyptian artifacts was. To the left of this front entrance, the South Asian galleries have been shrunken and relocated to make room for a gift shop, and the corridor leading into the otherwise largely unchanged Asian Arts section has been given new glass doors and otherwise been dressed up.
The new courtyard, looking back towards the new visitors’ center. (No shots of the visitors’ center itself; sorry.)
A large room at the center of the museum has been converted into a major visitors’ center, with a large, flashy information desk, and a number of tables and seats for relaxing, meeting up, or planning your next steps. This has been there since at least a year and a half ago (Summer 2009), if not earlier… except that now it looks out onto the brand-new Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Courtyard, a glorious glass-walled, large, airy courtyard filled with natural light and an expensive-looking café.
In my courses at UH, we have discussed the discursive implications of museum layouts, and how even today, many museums’ layouts can still be interpreted to subtly imply or reflect Orientalist or Euro-centric (American-centric) attitudes. Think about your local museum, or any major museum you’ve been to. Which cultures’ art is displayed in the greatest places of honor? Which galleries are most immediately available and visible upon entering the museum, and which ones are hidden away in basements, in the far back corner, or in otherwise removed and distant parts of the museum?
The MFA, like the Honolulu Academy of Arts, has long addressed this problem by attempting to balance the Asian and Western wings on opposite sides of the main front entrance. Walk in the main front entrance, and it used to be that India was on your left, followed by China and Japan as you moved deeper into the museum in that direction; Egypt was on the right of the entrance, followed by Greece and Rome. This is of course hardly a perfect solution, as this still implies a rather elitist and old-school view of the hierarchy of cultures and arts, barely changed from the Victorian ideas which served as the foundations of the first museums. In fact, I would argue quite strongly that there can never be a perfect solution, and that no matter what the arrangement / layout may be, it will always be interpretable as perpetuating this or that discriminatory or otherwise politically incorrect discourse. It’s just an ineviability – we try, we do what we can, but such discourses are by their very nature unavoidable and ever-present.
The stairs and glass windows of the new Arts of the Americas galleries. Paul Revere welcomes you on the ground floor, to exhibits on colonial New England, while a contemporary sculpture in steel(?), visible from here in the courtyard, marks the modern/contemporary section. Native arts are in the basement, out of sight from here.
That said, it is hard to ignore the fact that, while this balanced East/West dichotomy may remain at the entrance to the museum, standing in the new courtyard, the new center of the museum, all the art overseen by the “Arts of Asia, Oceania, and Africa” department, or, as one friend put it, “the department of the art of non-whites,” is off in an other part of the museum, the older part, a part that feels distant and removed from this bright, shiny, new, exciting expansion.
Imagine you’re the stereotypical museum visitor. You’ve just arrived and, as the designers/planners intended, you go straight to the new visitors’ center, pick up a map and talk to the staff about what’s going on today and what’s to see. You’re beyond that balanced East/West entranceway now, and are starting your exploration of the museum facing the new courtyard. Ancient Egypt is to your left; the Arts of Europe to your right. And, straight ahead, stretching up four floors, in grand style, as if it were the culmination of all arts of humankind, is the Arts of America Wing.
(Though, I will certainly grant them major brownie points for having the big temporary exhibits gallery, below this main courtyard, be a Chinese art show at the moment, and not one of Western art.)
The Native North American Arts gallery
Yes, granted, the MFA received lots of positive press for its revolutionary idea to incorporate Native American, Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Caribbean, and Central and South American arts into an integrated “Arts of the Americas” Wing, something that I gather no major museum has ever done before. But, even so, the Native American arts are still in the basement, the contemporary American artworks up on the fourth floor, reaching up towards the sky. My father made the excellent observation that objectively, scientifically, none of this really necessarily means anything; but, nevertheless, it is widely accepted among art historians and others specializing in theory and discourse of this sort that these kinds of things do have certain discursive implications. Yes, sure, it makes sense to do things chronologically, from pre-Columbian to post-contact, to Colonial, to 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. But in the process of doing so, I am sorry to say, you are reproducing hints or implications of the same discourses of indigenous peoples being frozen in the past, or lacking in history, that are at the center of the colonialistic/Orientalist attitudes that have been attracting criticism for decades now…
I felt terribly rushed, unfortunately, in my visit, as I didn’t make it out to the museum until 1pm or so, and they decided to close early, around 4pm, on account of the Snowpocalypse. So, I really did not get to explore and investigate and engage with the new galleries as I would have liked to, but really only managed to touch the surface, run around and get a glimpse, a taste.
After a few hours in the Chinese galleries, I entered the Arts of the Americas Wing in the basement. Presumably, you’re meant to enter at the ground floor, where Paul Revere welcomes you to the section for the arts of colonial New England, but nevertheless, there was an entrance there in the basement, and a rather prominent one; it’s not like I came in through a weird back side secondary entrance – I just want to be clear about that, so you understand the context of my next statement.
Upon entering this brand new, much lauded American Art Wing, my first impression should have been “impressive.” But it was not. It was “confusion.” I appreciate the discursive and political desire to blur or eliminate the boundary between “American Art” and “Art of the Americas,” by juxtaposing, for example, the Native American gallery with the maritime art (read: model ships and paintings of ships) gallery, but really, more than anything it just feels disjointed and confusing. Sure, there is a logic to that juxtaposition – these are the ships of exploration, the ships of colonization and conquest that chronologically and thematically mark the end of the Pre-Columbian Era and the Pre-Columbian civilizations. But, while the Native American gallery may itself be organized logically into sections for Plains Indians, the American Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, etc., the juxtaposition of this with “Embroidery of Colonial Boston” just does not seem to work.
Say what you want about the value of discursive thematics – such as the juxtaposition of colonial and colonized – but as a museum visitor, trying to find my way to certain works or certain periods by looking at hints in certain rooms (similar, or dissimilar? too early, or too late?), I feel totally lost.
If you’re going to shove all the Arts of the Americas all together, why not shove all the Arts of Asia together? Does that really make less sense?
The desire to include contemporary works mixed in with traditional ones in the Native American gallery is an interesting one. It is certainly something we have discussed ad nauseum in my excessively indigenous-cultures-oriented Museum Studies course in Hawaii – the desire to combat Orientalist discourses by showing indigenous peoples as not frozen in the past, and as possessing a vital, active, contemporary presence and membership in fully modern society. Yet, I could not help but feel that their inclusion shifted the feel of the entire exhibit such that it felt like it was entirely an exhibit about contemporary culture, and how contemporary Native life today relates to or engages with history and tradition. This sets it apart sharply from the rest of the American Art (that is to say, the colonial and US art), which is more explicitly historical.
Right: “Raven Steals the Moon”. 2002. Preston Singletary (b. 1963, American – Tlingit). 19.5 x 6 in. Blown glass & sandblasted design.
Looking at the contemporary pieces more closely, I find one that I quite like. “Raven Steals the Moon” is a fine example of a contemporary piece that fits right in, feeling right at home among more traditional artifacts. It reflects that traditions, or at least some knowledge and appreciation of traditions, is still alive. It feels to me precisely like the Pacific Northwest Native American equivalent of Nihonga or Neo-Nihonga paintings in Japan – assuredly modern, but at the same time very much reflecting an awareness of, a knowledge of, an appreciation for, and a continuation from, historical traditional art forms.
By contrast, abstract oil paintings that refer more to contemporary politics, to suffering under colonialism, imperialism, conquest, etc etc seem terribly out of place to me – confrontational and accusatory. As politically incorrect as it may be for me to say it, I cannot help but to look at these stereotypical images (horses, buffalo) and wonder just how much true connection they have to these native cultures, and how much they are simply being used, deployed, employed, appropriated for political purposes. It feels cheesy and forced, like you’re trying to claim a heritage already lost. Unlike Singletary’s piece, which seems to reflect genuine knowledge and genuine tradition, these appropriate Orientalist stereotypes as if they were the real thing, the real Native American identity, worn proudly though it is hardly the real thing.
But enough about discursive matters, politics and Orientalism, post-colonial theory and all that. Running out of time, I flitted through two more floors (missing the topmost contemporary art floor entirely), and have only a few more things to say. Number one, simply an observation that the doors to the new wing click when opened, like they’re not just hanging there but have an actual fully closed position. It seems a longshot as I sit here typing it, but at the time it seemed to me quite logical to infer that perhaps this was part of an improved conservation system – the doors close completely, for climate control. Or maybe they don’t. It was just a thought.
Video screens and a few vitrines at the Behind the Scenes exhibit. The screens face out towards a huge bank of windows looking out over the Fenway, and a couch is provided for you to sit and relax, look out the windows, and take a break. All of this is around the corner and on the opposite side of thick walls from the main American Art exhibits – a quiet spot to get away from the crowds and the lights for a moment.
Also, hiding around a corner, facing out the windows, away from the main exhibits, is a small set of exhibits entitled “Behind the Scenes.” You cannot imagine how excited I was to discover this. Firstly, it’s just a wonderful, brilliant design decision, creating this very cozy, quiet space where one can study, or just sit and talk, get away from the crowds for a minute, and stare out the window, mere feet away from the gallery but totally removed from it.
And I *love* the idea of a behind the scenes gallery at a museum. Maybe I’m in the minority, maybe it’s my interest in museums to begin with that makes me hardly the typical visitor. But I am fascinated by the idea of them sharing how the museum staff decide what to collect and to obtain (i.e. what to accession), sharing how the new galleries were installed (beautiful photos and videos relate this on a series of video screens), and granting the visitor a glimpse of conservation issues, problems, decisions, policies, and processes. What to do with a chair that was nearly destroyed in a house fire but which would otherwise have been a fantastic artifact of 18th century New England colonial furniture styles? Is it fit for display? Do we risk risky conservation efforts? What do we do with a painting that was restored, with 20th century museum staff “correcting” or “fixing” details such as a hand by painting over it? Do we un-restore it back to a more original form that betrays the poor condition of the work but reveals more of the original forms and shapes?
I had hoped to return to the MFA the following day, to more thoroughly, slowly, engage with the gallery, explore it and give more thought to it and to other exhibits, but I was ruined by the Snowmageddon which struck the Northeast that night (Sunday 12/26 into Monday 12/27). I look forward to going back in the summer, though the Chinese exhibit “Fresh Ink” will be long gone by then…
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe has put up a beautiful mini-site full of graphics and short articles about the planning and creation of this new wing. It does, apparently, though, require registration to the website, which should be free. I am hoping to at some point go through these materials and put together a more serious and organized blog post about the expansion, since there really is so much material to work from here; but, I’m already behind on things I want to post about, so we’ll see…
All photos taken myself, at the Museum. With the exception of the photo of “Raven Steals the Moon,” from the MFA’s online catalog.
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