I have now been to the American Wing at the MFA twice. Once was during their special “member’s preview week” which since I go to Boston University and it buys a membership for all its students I was able to go to. (I greatly support universities buying memberships for museums as I can see it opens up museum patronage for students who would not usually go to them)
My first impression is on the size of the wing; it is 4 stories while the rest of the museum is only 2 stories. I can only imagine the difficulty in making all these acquisitions for the museum. By far my favorite feature of this new wing is the gargantuan indoor courtyard with beautiful natural light. My first critique is the difficulty in choosing where to start- as the natural place would normally be the 1st floor but when doing that you miss the basement level, the ancient Americas.
It is in this basement level, the Ancient Americas, where the majority of my criticisms lie. As my life focus is on archaeology I tend to care about ancient history more than newer forms like painting, a necessary bias to express. Entering the basement I was stuck at the limited size of ancient art; the ancient materials are only the middle corridor of a three corridor arrangement. Puzzingly, the surrounding corridors are colonial era materials and art with no relation the the “ancient” American Indian art. I do not know if they were unable to acquire enough to fill the floor, which seems unlikely, or if it was a deliberate decision from the beginning, which in itself is also troubling.
The quality of the artifacts they do have is quite impressive- I am not that knowledgeable on South and North American cultures but the artifacts I saw were of beautiful quality. Reading the cards of information for the artifacts there were facts that reminded me of the information I learned in my Intro to Archaeology class. The Maya, Aztec, Inca, Nazca and nearby cultures’ artifacts were great, but moving into North America room I was surprised to find that many of these pieces of art were not artifacts but instead modern artists creating ceramics in the style of the culture. For one, I felt deceived as it was not made clear these were not “ancient” artifacts, as well as it not seeming true to the exhibit. Again, it felt that this area had been skimped on, either through deliberate action or difficulty in acquisition.
Given the plethora of incredible ancient material in the MFA — Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Near Eastern and Asian — the tiny ancient Americas section was striking. Without being too scathing, it seems to reflect the antiquated ideas of the focus on the “Old World” as even the United States art derives from Europe. The wing as a whole had incredible pieces of art from America but the ancients were given the short end of the stick. I hope this is not a trend in museums, especially given the bounty of ancient artifacts the MFA does have. Not to say the least of the missed opportunity for public outreach- say the debunking of Maya 2012 conspiracies?…