A Year at the Museum

I’ve been an active museumgoer for many years, but in 2015 I hit critical mass.  If my ticket stubs can be trusted, I have frequented some 30 museums and galleries since the first of the year, eight of which I had never visited before.

What singular pleasures did these institutions bring?  I’m glad you asked.

In no particular order, and with apologizes to those who reside well outside the Northeast Corridor:

The Worcester Art Museum—50 miles west of Boston—recently acquired a warehouse full of armor and armaments—including a line of samurai swords—from the defunct Higgins Armory across town, which are on view in a now-ongoing exhibit, simply titled, “Knights!”

In the town of Lincoln, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum—just down the road from Walden Pond—put on a group show, “Walden:  Revisited,” with local artists’ interpretations of Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 novel about living for two years in a small, remote wooden cabin “to front only the essential facts of life.”

In Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, the Concord Museum organized “The Art of Baseball,” guest-curated by Doris Kearns Goodwin, featuring everything from baseball-themed paintings and sculpture to Carlton Fisk’s catcher’s mask and a set of World Series rings.

Boston’s Museum of Science mounted a spring exhibition, “Maya:  Hidden Worlds Revealed,” with a bustling collection of artifacts and reproductions from the storied Mayan civilization that thrived across Central America throughout the first millennium of the Common Era.

Also in Boston, the Massachusetts Historical Society presented “God Save the People!  From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill,” which used primary documents to chart how the idea of the American Revolution came to be, long before independence was formally secured on the field of battle.

In the same vein, the Boston Public Library hosted “We Are One:  Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence.”  Meanwhile, in the library’s Levanthal Map Center, there was “Literary Landscapes:  Maps from Fiction,” which included blueprints of such places as Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts and the Hundred Acre Wood.

A few miles north in Cambridge, the newly-reopened Harvard Art Museums is in the final days of “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop,” showcasing a lifetime’s worth of output from the nun-turned-artist most famous for sprucing up a giant gas tank along Route 93 in Dorchester.

Up in Salem—site of the witch trials and the Halloween capital of the world—the Peabody Essex Museum gave us “American Epics:  Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” covering multiple facets of the prolific artist’s oeuvre, including children’s book illustrations, Hollywood movie posters and large-scale murals depicting scenes from American history.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which commissions dozens of special exhibits every year, hit the jackpot with “Class Distinctions:  Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer,” whose 75 pieces—most on loan from other institutions—are as majestic and absorbing as any of their kind that you’ll see in one place.  The show runs through January 18.

Until January 10, at Philips Academy in Andover—alma mater of both Presidents Bush—the Addison Gallery of American Art has “Converging Lines:  Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt,” demonstrating the friendship and creative influence—in multiple media—between those two innovators throughout their respective careers.

Boston College’s McMullen Museum presented “John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred,” implicitly arguing that the late 19th century painter and stained glass designer has been criminally underappreciated in the American art canon.

In Framingham, the Danforth Museum held the “New England Photography Biennial,” featuring the most arresting work—of every genre—by photographers all over the region.  Around the same time, the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester crowned the winners of an annual juried competition of its own.

Out in the Berkshires, the Clark Art Institute organized “Van Gogh and Nature,” a sumptuous collection of landscapes spanning the entire (albeit tragically short) career of America’s favorite Dutch Impressionist.

In the nearby town of North Adams, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—Mass MoCA to you—granted considerable space for “Jim Shaw:  Entertaining Doubts,” a multimedia extravaganza that riffs on everything from the death of Superman to the life of Dan Quayle.  It continues through January 31.

Outside of New England, the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Manhattan’s Battery Park chronicles “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945,” pointing out that Jews were not the only group who suffered systematic discrimination and mass murder under the Third Reich.  The presentation was set to close in January, but has been extended to February 29, due to popular demand.

Farther south, until Saturday, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., presents “The Civil Rights Act of 1964:  A Long Struggle for Freedom,” a frightfully timely journey through the whole history of the fight for racial justice, which, as we are reminded, began more or less exactly when the words “all men are created equal” were put to paper in 1776.

A few blocks west, the National Museum of American History just opened a new wing devoted to American innovation, covering everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs.

And through January 24 in the middle of nowhere (actually, Hartford, Connecticut), the recently renovated Wadsworth Atheneum—the oldest continuously operating public art museum in America—has “Warhol & Mapplethorpe:  Guise & Dolls,” considering the relationship and thematic overlap between those two gender-bending renegades of photography and pop art.

That’s a sample of the delights and curiosities I encountered over the past 12 months, but it is by no means comprehensive.  Indeed, with all the temporary exhibits, I haven’t even mentioned the colossal works that these institutions house year-round—the permanent collections that can take a full day to see and a lifetime to appreciate.

For me, going to museums is a meandering search for transcendence—a reminder that the universe existed before I was born and that society extends well beyond the boundaries of my own hometown.  In this way, museums are humbling and inspiring at the same time, showing you that your own greatest accomplishments are peanuts compared to those of centuries past, but also affirming that, when all is said and done, the world is a pretty beautiful place.

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