Rediscovering the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Date: 4/16/2015

BOSTON – We went to see the contents of the Statehouse time capsule, but stayed for so much more.

My family’s recent Sunday morning visit to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) was my first in more than 30 years, and the breadth of the exhibits in the newly expanded galleries turned what was to be an hour-or-so stop into day of discovery and wonder.

Limited time for a rare find

Our initial goal was to see the items discovered when Walsh Brothers Construction unearthed a long-buried time capsule in a cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse last December, and we headed straight from the Huntington Avenue foyer toward the new Art of the Americas wing.

I’ll admit it was hard not to stop and admire the John Singer Sargent fresco that adorns the dome of the main building, but we moved on through the Visitor’s Center past the towering, leafy glass structure in the indoor courtyard toward the Revolutionary Boston and the New Nation galleries where the temporary time capsule exhibit is on display until April 22.

Even before we reached the capsule gallery, I was impressed. It’s easy to think of our country’s founding fathers of our country as less sophisticated than we are – after all life at the time lacked central heating, indoor plumbing and the benefits of modern medicine (not to mention easy communication). A quick glance at the exquisitely handcrafted furnishings, finely wrought silver serving pieces and jewelry – many crafted by Paul Revere himself – and handsome portraits displayed on the first floor of that wing were a fresh reminder of just how comfortable life actually was for the elite of Boston at the time of the American Revolution.

The glass cases housing the contents of the time capsule had already drawn quite a crowd when we arrived. A docent managing the line of visitors snaking through the galleries, informing me the wait that morning was running about 45 minutes.

If we had arrived later in the day, I was told, we might have to stand in line for more than two hours.

To me, a chance to glimpse the contents of the modest cases – which included items hand-selected by then-Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere when the initial capsule was buried on July 4, 1795 – was worth the wait.

From the Pine Tree shilling, among the first money minted in the colonies, to the New Jersey Cent, the first American coin to carry “E Pluribus Unum” and the 1795 medal commemorating George Washington’s presidency, the carefully selected artifacts – and small silver plaque engraved by Paul Revere for the internment ceremony – were a tangible connection to a part of our country’s history we so often take for granted. Additional items – including five Boston newspapers and a selection of the coins circulating when the original capsule was unearthed and reburied during Statehouse renovations in 1855 – were an interesting addendum to Boston’s legacy.

I would have liked more time to read the descriptions of each small treasure, but the growing line behind us made dawdling feel self-indulgent. We moved on to explore some of the exhibits we had previously hurried past.

So many galleries, so little time

With six wings, three floors and more than 140 distinct galleries, we knew there was more to see in the museum than we could absorb in one day. Consulting a map, the three of us each chose an area to explore, and we set off.

My husband had spotted the Art of Europe wing on our way to the Americas wing, and, as it was the closest stop, we headed there to tour the three floors of paintings by Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Renoir, as well as period ceramics, artifacts and furnishings.

Among the exhibits we found most interesting was a display of World War I recruiting posters from England, the U, S., France and Russia lining the second floor hallways, and the restoration-in-process of a three-paneled medieval altar wall similar to something we had seen depicted as recovered from Nazis thieves in the movie, “The Monuments Men.”

From there we headed back though the visitor’s center and rotunda to my choice – the wing displaying art and artifacts from the ancient world.

I remembered seeing the statues, hieroglyphic – covered burial vault walls and sarcophaguses unearthed during the museum’s 1929 Egyptian exhibition during a previous visit. The updated displays, which included archival photos of how and where each item was found, gave the exhibit a frozen-in-time aura.  Here, I was most impressed by the display of an intricately beaded Egyptian women’s overdress, painstakingly restrung based on a fragment of pattern found clinging to a burial shroud that had been photographed during its discovery.

We didn’t spend much time in the Greek and Roman galleries, but we did find the Roman mosaic of what most likely was the floor of an ancient bar amusing. My son was captivated by the opportunity to design a virtual ancient Roman coin – one of the few interactive exhibits on the second floor of that wing.

An American history buff, my son had seen his fill in the Art of the Americas wing while we waited to view the time capsule, but he did take us through the small gallery housing a display of beautifully crafted – and often exotic – musical instruments, and together we all breezed through two floors of the Contemporary Art wing.

A reasonably priced late lunch at the family-friendly Garden Cafeteria – which features a salad bar, hamburgers, hot dots, premade sandwiches and a hot entrée selection each day – ended our tour.

Though we took an eclectic approach to our visit, the MFA does offer several preselected mobile tour packages, including a 12 highlights package designed for visitors pressed for time, for a minimal charge, plus a schedule of timed docent –led tours and special kids activities daily.

The MFA Boston is open Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and Wednesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

The museum is closed on Patriot’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission is  $25 per person for adults; children 17 years of age and younger admitted free. Admission is by free-will donation after 4 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Limited parking is available in lots near the museum; on-street parking (also limited) is free on Sundays. For more information visit www.mfa.org.