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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Boston Trip Day 2

Day 2, like day one featured an ambitious schedule: a morning meeting in the hotel’s conference room, then to The Harrison Gray Otis House (10:00), Paul Revere House (11:30), followed by lunch and the recently reinstalled Art of the America’s Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (2:00).

The Otis House is wonderful and maddening: wonderful because the architect was Bullfinch and maddening because they won’t allow photography in the interior.  It’s also wonderful because they make you wear shoe covers so there is no mistaking the fact you are in an important space that requires special considerations. 

The Paul Revere House has a much different style of interpretation than the Gray House, preferring a more generalized period approach to a time specific one.  I got the impression that this difference was less a failure on their part than something ingrained in their mission.  

The house is small, but charming.  

Here we are lined up to go in, enjoying a respite from the sun 

Unlike the Otis House, where the primary emphasis is on the art and architectural setting, at Paul Revere’s house it is the man himself that is the draw for most of their crowds. Instead of using the house to explain the aesthetics of the period, the house becomes a tool by which to understand the man.  Most people who walk through—or at least those that did when we were there—do not seem to mind the jumble of styles evident in some of the displays and did not notice the varied states of condition and restoration on the objects.  In many ways, theses details get lost under a veil of acceptance of “Colonial Style” and are never questioned.  It’s unfortunate in some ways though, since it would seem relatively easy to teach the staff about the objects in the rooms, and a better consistency of styles might help educate the public subtly (through visual cues) and allow for multiple ways to interpret the space.

The Art of the Americas wing was the highlight of the day for a number of reasons.  First, Gerry Ward the curator of Decorative Arts kindly took us through the galleries, discussing both the objects in the rooms and the types of decisions made regarding the installation and audience engagement.  

Secondly, it has been a tough few years for American Paintings since the Metropolitan Museum is renovating, as is the New York Historical Society.  To be able to see a critical mass of early American Works is a treat, and the Museum’s collection is exceptional.  I also liked the building much more than I imagined I would.  To be certain there were quirks—connecting passages that don’t exactly form a coherent or welcoming transition between disparate galleries—but the building really works.  It let the galleries and the artworks shine, rather than the architect in charge.  It was a nice display of restraint to create something so practical and elegant that allowed the collection to shine.

Looking at furniture in the galleries

Efforts were made throughout the wing to provide context for viewing objects

Throughout the galleries, there were times in different states (some opened, some closed) which I found useful.  Small touches like this made the objects seem less like sculpture and gave a better context to these objects' functions and allowed for different levels of engagement with the material.

Object study and seeing works in person is a crucial part of our educational philosophy.  In hindsight, I am surprised at how little engagement with objects my own education had.  The static nature of slides, and their tendency to make everything seem similarly sized and scaled, presents problems that aren't easily remedied.  While slides are great for plotting the narrative of history, they seem a woefully inadequate substitute for seeing objects up close and being to move around them.  

Gerry Ward was generous with his time and knowledge, making the visit truly exceptional

The museum's holding of Copley's works is particularly impressive.

I also thought that the arrangement of the galleries (essentially a chronological walk through time) worked well.  One might complain that it lacked excitement, or wasn’t original, but it seems to me that this is a perfectly fine approach and one that helps reinforce the museum’s educational mission by providing an accessible narrative to follow.  I particularly liked the use of wallpaper and curators’ efforts to provide context for viewing objects.

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