Boston boasts many famous museums, but some of their collections and exhibits tend to slip under the radar. This is the Daily’s guide to halls and wings of Boston’s art museums you don’t want to miss.
The Museum of Fine Arts: The “Art of the Ancient World” wing
The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston has some great exhibits open in May, including the“Klimt and Schiele: Drawn” exhibit, highly recommended by the Daily Arts Section. But besides the ever-changing exhibits and the recently added “Art of the Americas” wing, the MFA also boasts the greatest collection of ancient art in Boston. That means sarcophagi and mummies, Ancient Nubian jewelry, Roman statues and stunning Greek pottery. A unique but valuable curatorial choice is organizing many Greek vases by topic; visitors can walk through all 10 years of the mythic Trojan War and the following 10 of Homer’s Odyssey through art, see how the Olympic Games were originally performed, learn about the lives of women and children and compare and contrast Ancient Greek drinking culture with that of ‘Greek life’ today. The “Art of the Ancient World” collection also includes videos of the painstaking process of jewelry-making and carving tiny gems, and open glass doors through which to see the museum’s restoration process of paintings and mosaics. Take it from a Classics major: This ancient collection is a must-see.
Pro Tip: A Tufts ID wins you free entrance in the MFA and a discount in their gift shop! In addition, take advantage of the Insta-worthy picnic chairs on the outside lawn and go for a post-visit sunbathe.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A blend of old and modern
The Isabella Stewart Gardner is a unique museum; it is located in the grand Venetian Palazzo-style mansion of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy art collector in the 19th and early 20th centuries who adorned her massive home with works from all over, from Chinese vases to sarcophagi to Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings. She opened her home as a museum during her lifetime and left it after her death under one condition: None of the art in it could be changed or rearranged. While her permanent collection is spectacular and definitely worth seeing, the museum has also made the effort to include other changing exhibits in its modern wings.
Pro Tip: The Gardner museum famously gives free admission to anyone with the first or middle name “Isabella,” but you also get a discount when you show up in Red Sox gear. Root, root, root for the home team!
The Peabody Essex Museum: All-American Art
Salem, Mass. is known for its rich history in colonial America and is a favorite site for American history enthusiasts, so it’s no surprise that its museum has an impressive collection of American art as well. With over 1,000 paintings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (possibly Salem’s most famous native), folk art and colonial dresses and shoes for the fashion enthusiasts, early American history buffs will have a lot to see. Now as we all know, not all American art is of European origin, and the Peabody Essex museum also boasts an exceptionally large collection of Native American art. This includes a long-term exhibit of Pacific Northwestern art, which features ceremonial regalia, trading goods and contemporary art; the three themes of the exhibit are “Living Stories,” “Family Connections” and “Market Innovations.” The Peabody Essex Museum is also carrying the exhibit “T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America,” featuring the art of contemporary Native artist T.C. Cannon. The Daily Arts Section also highly recommends this gorgeous, thought-provoking exhibit.
Pro Tip: The Peabody Essex Museum may not be the biggest museum on this list, but it has the single nicest gift shop in the entire Greater Boston area.
The Museum of African American History
Tucked into the beloved Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston is the Museum of African American History, a must-see for history buffs who are planning on walking the nearby Freedom Trail. This tiny museum is a historical site in its own right, since the building was originally a public school educating black children in the early 1800s and remains a testament to the northern abolitionist movement. Today it houses historic African American art, in particular a fascinating exhibit of the photography portraits of Frederick Douglass. Although Boston has been a historically segregated city — and remains so today — its museums and landmarks show many overlooked aspects of African-American history in the city.
Pro Tip: Ask the museum staff about seeing the adjacent African American Meeting House, a beautifully restored chapel called “the heart of Boston’s 19th century free black community” as well as the founding site of the New England Anti-Slavery Society under William Lloyd Garrison.