Museum Impressions



Reflections on democratic, interactive, and immersive art at the MFA.

Courtesy of the MFA
Courtesy of the MFA

It was a sunny and breezy afternoon. I took the Green Line to Copley and came out against a gust of wind. Trying to get my bearings, I strolled past the Boston Public Library, not realizing that was the opposite direction of the one I wanted. Once back in the station, I inserted a twenty-dollar bill to boost my Charlie Card, obtaining to my great pleasure, ten dollars worth of change in gold coins. Carrying this abundance of pocket change and a university ID worthy of free admission, I entered the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Situated at 465 Huntington Avenue off the Museum of Fine Arts stop on the Green Line, the MFA houses close to half-a-million works of art spanning all six inhabited continents. The building is architecturally a sight to behold, and its collection is multifaceted, including paintings, sculptures, dinnerware, clothing, and artifacts encompassing almost any historical era you could imagine. World religions have the privilege of being shown through decorated hallways and ornate chambers, such as the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths or those originating from the Indian subcontinent. Majestic busts of Greco-Roman generals adorn stairwells, while Imperial Chinese vases outline the entryways to different exhibits. Each of the three levels mirror each other in layout, offering a sense that if one stayed in the Art of the Americas Wing, heading up and down the stairs would offer a walkthrough of America’s history from its founding to the twenty-first century. With such a diverse collection covering the minutiae of daily life during the Ancient World to the minimalism of the postmodern, the museum and its exquisite design is a matryoshka doll of art within art.

On the day I arrived, the MFA featured a main exhibition on Impressionism, as well as others on contemporary Latin American art, modern Japanese design, 20th century American photography, Renaissance prints, Baroque musical instruments, Abstract Expressionist painting, and the color pink in fashion. Having witnessed Impressionist masterpieces at the Musée d’Orsay on the banks of the Seine in Paris, I was intrigued to see which artists and works the MFA chose to unveil. Interestingly enough, the exhibition, Boston Loves Impressionism, was created by the public who voted for the top thirty selections out of the MFA’s Impressionist collection to be put on display. The winner was Vincent van Gogh’s Houses at Auvers (1890) followed by Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1907) and Edgar Degas’ Little Fourteen-Year Old Dancer (original model 1878-81, cast after 1921), as the only sculpture to earn a spot. Visitors could also vote and share their favorites on the social media network Pinterest. In the back of mind, I guessed this type of pubic involvement in a museum’s exhibitions would not be something Parisian curators would venture to pursue. In the spirit of Boston and its inclusion of “the people” starting in the glory days of the American Revolution, I found this democratic showing of Impressionist works to be unique and refreshing. It’s not often that during a trip to a renowned museum, the visitor feels he or she has impacted what was put on display. Certainly the museum curators hold the experience, knowledge, and direction of the museum’s collections, but a passion for art can be found in admirers and experts alike. The MFA took a bold step in setting aside three months to parade a people’s choice awards of Impressionist paintings, but I believe they did it in a most welcoming way for the viewers to appreciate.

Wandering through the rest of the museum, I found myself fascinated by the presentation on classical instruments. As someone who once fiddled with the violin but gave up due to an absolute lack of talent, it was a much better experience watching one of the curators give a live demonstration of how a virtuoso might have performed on an English double bass or an Indian sitar. This interactive exposition was a breakaway from the tradition of listening to a recorded voice narrating a piece via headphones or one of those black rectangular bricks that look like a prototype cellphone from the early nineties. I always thought that by this day and age, anyone could whip out a smartphone and Google the history and significance of anything anywhere, so seeing a silver-bearded, bespectacled curator who could’ve passed for a retired mall Santa explaining the physics behind the harpsichord while performing a rendition of Bach was worthwhile for the free music history lesson. Again, the MFA did the people right by providing this connection between its staff and its audience. It’s always nice to feel included, and in a museum setting, any sort of transition from just browsing priceless pieces of art to being part of a holistic showcase is one that appeals to both the heart and mind.
Walking from musical instruments to Islamic calligraphy to the pink suit worn in The Great Gatsby (2013) may be an odd changeover, but that is the exact, distinct attitude of the MFA. A taste of everything under one roof could be overwhelming for some or a delight for others. In any case, I had the freedom to go about my own way like a Fleetwood Mac song that could’ve been the soundtrack to the film pieces evoking 1970s protest individualism in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. When I enrolled in a private college in Cambridge, people always advised to go out and explore Boston. I was on the verge of doing that until I found myself immersed for hours in the MFA’s collection of art in mediums appealing to sight, sound, and even touch in the case of Daniel Chester French’s famed bronze miniature Abraham Lincoln (1920). As for smell, most museumgoers have experienced that aroma of something so old it has to be valuable. And if that odor is unappealing, it can be chased away with tastes from the three cafes serving casual sandwiches to candlelight. Of course, the forty-minute T ride might be a turn off, but in case you were as lonely and bored as I was during spring break on campus, then feel free to procrastinate for any other assignments by taking a trip to the MFA. You won’t regret it, and I sure won’t, because that means my writing persuaded you to do something. It’s really a win-win.

Michael Luo ’16 ([email protected]) advises against museum cafeteria food.