Home > Features > New Museum Wing Weaves Together History and Art

New Museum Wing Weaves Together History and Art

By: Scott Flaherty

March 1, 2011

A lone fisherman, miles off the coast of New England, is rowing a small boat toward a larger ship.  Night is falling, and the stern of the rowboat is full with hundreds of pounds of freshly caught fish.  The boat’s bow points toward the sky as the fisherman propels himself over head-high swells.  The wind carries the sound of a distant horn.  He turns his bearded face and looks over his left shoulder.  He sees something that could prevent him from ever reaching the mother ship—a thick fog rolling in.

This is the scene depicted in Winslow Homer’s 1885 painting, “The Fog Warning,” now on display at the recently opened “Art of the Americas” wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Last Monday, tour guide Christine Wasson passed on the story of Homer’s work to a group of 10 people in an afternoon walk-through of the new wing.  She said that in one image, Homer’s painting captures a much larger story of America’s maritime history and the lives of people who created that past.

In much the same way, the museum’s new wing is designed to weave a historical narrative around works of art from different periods in history.  In a welcome video on the museum’s website, the museum director, Malcolm Rogers, said, “One of the magical things about the museum is that you can come here and meet some of the great figures of American history.”

The museum has a history of its own.  It opened in 1876 in a building in Boston’s Copley Square, and moved to its current spot on Huntington Avenue in 1909.  According to its website, the museum is now one of the largest in the world, with nearly 450,000 works of art and more than a million visitors every year.

The Art of the Americas Wing opened in November of last year, after about 10 years of planning and with the help of $504 million raised.  A glassed-in courtyard, with 63-foot-high ceilings, connects the four floors of galleries in the new wing to galleries in the older parts of the museum.  The courtyard also contains the museum’s “New American Café,” which offers visitors sit-down meals.

The wing is set up so that each floor of galleries spans a specific time period.  On the tour, Wasson first took the group to the Mesoamerica gallery on the wing’s ground floor, which is dedicated to art created before the 17th century.  The first piece she showed was a gray mask made by the Olmecs, of present-day Mexico, carved in jadeite stone and dated somewhere between 1150 and 550 B.C.

From there, the tour moved to the Native American gallery, also on the ground floor.  Unlike most of the galleries in the new wing, this room broke from the chronological arrangement and had works of art, mostly textiles and pottery, spanning several thousand years.

Before the new wing came in, Wasson said, the museum’s Native American collection was relegated to one case, maybe ten feet wide.

“There was one little case in a back hall near an elevator,” she said, after the tour ended.

Now, she said, “The museum is making a very concerted effort to expand this gallery.”

For Wasson, this ties in with one of the most exciting parts of having the new wing—there’s much more space.  Before, she explained, all of the American art was contained in one gallery, although it was one of the larger ones in the museum.  By way of comparison, the new wing has 53 galleries, meaning that much of the art that used to be stuck in off-site storage can now be hung on the walls and appreciated by visitors.

And visitors are taking advantage of it, in droves.  Wasson said that she and the other guides give up to four tours each day of the new wing and, on the weekends, she’s had groups with as many as 30 people.  Then, there are also people who browse the galleries on their own.

“It’s been wild,” Wasson said.  “Thousands of people come through.”

Marcia Patten, who works at an art museum in Worcester, Mass., came through Monday afternoon.  The tour with Wasson was her first visit to the new wing and Patten said she was impressed with the sheer amount of artwork on display.

She explained that the Worcester museum has been sending the students in its docent program to Boston to view the new wing.  But, almost all of them are going to have to come back, she said.

“There’s just so much to see.”

The tour group saw only a fraction of the more than 5,000 works in the new wing.  In about an hour, Wasson led the group to about a dozen galleries, usually focusing her explanations on one piece of art in each.

On level one, she showed the visitors a gallery dedicated to the work of John Singleton Copley, who was, according to Wasson, one of the most sought-after portrait painters in Boston.  This gallery has the famed portrait of Paul Revere sitting at his silversmith’s table, holding a teapot in one hand and resting his chin on the other.  The painting was displayed near a glass case with one of Revere’s most famous silver works, the “Sons of Liberty Bowl,” a simple work inscribed with the names of 13 of the Sons of Liberty, commemorating their activities in the run up to the American Revolution.

The tour concluded on level two of the new wing, dedicated to 19th and early-20th century art.  The last stop was Winslow Homer’s “The Fog Warning.”  Before the new wing opened, Wasson said, there were only a few of Homer’s paintings on display.

Now, visitors can walk around the Homer gallery and read about the changes he underwent throughout his career.  They can see his early landscapes and water colors, and the work he did later on, when he lived in Maine.

But, they’ll still never know if the fisherman made it through the fog.

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