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Preserving History Chronicles The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Since Its Founding in 1870
Visitors explore the new building’s Egyptian Galleries, 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON.- A special installation that tells the story of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), from its founding in 1870 to the present—with a look toward the future—will go on view today in the Stamas and Vrachos Hemicycle Gallery in celebration of the opening of the Museum’s State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance. Preserving History, Making History: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston chronicles the development of the Museum—from its modest beginnings to its current place as one of the world’s leading art institutions. Rare archival photographs, documents, selected artwork, as well as architectural elements and renderings, are included in the installation.

“Visitors will have the unique opportunity to step back in time and explore the long and distinguished history of the Museum,” said Maureen Melton, the MFA’s Susan Morse Hilles Director of Libraries and Archives and Museum Historian, who curated the exhibition. “From vintage photos of school boys in knee pants, to colorful drawings of the new American Wing, this exhibition traces the important role the Museum has played in the cultural life of Boston.”

Since its founding, the Museum has marked many milestones, and Preserving History, Making History: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston provides an overview of significant moments in its history, as well as its commitment to the community. It also looks to the future as the Museum undergoes a transformative building project, designed by architects Foster + Partners (London), which will result in a 50,000-square-foot American Wing and the expansion and enhancement of Museum spaces. Preserving History, Making History is divided into several topical sections:

The Museum of Fine Arts in Copley Square, 1876–1909
In 1869, a handwritten draft of the incorporation document for the Museum of Fine Arts set in motion the creation of the Museum on February 4, 1870. A facsimile of the document is included in the installation, as are photographs of the Gothic revival building in Copley Square, the MFA’s first home, which opened to the public with great fanfare on the nation’s centennial, July 4, 1876. A large and richly colored image of the red brick and terracotta building, designed by Sturgis and Brigham, also shows Trinity Church, designed by H.H. Richardson, flanking the Museum on the left, with the Boston Public Library, designed by Charles McKim on the right. Terracotta decorative elements from the Copley Square building’s façade are included in the installation. Also featured are two paintings by Enrico Meneghelli (1853–after 1912), which give a sense of the MFA’s original galleries at Copley Place—The Picture Gallery in the Old Museum (1879, MFA) and View of a Gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts, Copley Square (1877, MFA). The Copley Square building was torn down after the MFA moved to Huntington Avenue in 1909 and in its place the Copley Plaza Hotel (now the Fairmont Copley Plaza) opened in 1912.

The Move to Huntington Avenue, 1909
As the MFA grew in popularity, its collection expanded as well. Under the direction of General Charles Greely Loring (1828–1902)—who served as the Museum’s first curator, then its director—donations of works of art from the community proved so generous that the MFA outgrew the Copley Square building, even after two expansions. Land was purchased on Huntington Avenue in 1899 in anticipation of a new home for the Museum, and a master plan was developed by architect Guy Lowell in 1907. Archival photographs depict the 12-acre site as it was used—for traveling circuses and rodeos—before construction of a new building began in 1907. Images also document the great exodus of 110,000 objects from Copley Square to the new Huntington Avenue location, accomplished using only two horse-drawn wagons traveling over rutted roads. One photograph shows the first section of the new building on Huntington Avenue, which opened to the public on November 9, 1909, with a series of festive events attended by thousands. Something is noticeably absent from the picture, and as the commentary next to the image notes, Cyrus Dallin’s famed monument Appeal to the Great Spirit was later installed in the forecourt of the Museum in 1913.

The Evans Wing, 1915
In anticipation of space issues brought about by an ever-growing collection, the MFA master plan allowed for the Museum to be built in stages, beginning with the main structure on Huntington Avenue, then expanded as space was needed and funds became available. February 3, 1915, marked the opening of the MFA’s first addition, the Robert Dawson Evans Wing, as well as a grand gala. That night, Mrs. Evans hoped to personally greet each visitor who arrived at the wing she had donated in her husband’s memory, but when more than 6,000 people arrived for the opening, formalities were put aside. Crowds gathered to admire the wing’s new galleries for paintings, and newspapers praised all aspects of its design. Particular attention was paid to the expansive portico and dramatic entrance into the Evans Wing from the Fenway—the same entrance that is celebrated today with its reopening as the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance. “Facing the Fens…the museum rises in a splendid front which, with its sheer beauty of simplicity and dignity, might have been brought from Greece in the days of her glory…Ionic columns form a façade which is not surpassed by any modern construction. Within the structure is a series of galleries which are probably not excelled anywhere in the world” (Boston Post, February 3, 1915). Photographs in the exhibition document the wing’s beautiful new galleries, and a 1927 bust by Philip S. Sears captures the likeness of master plan architect Guy Lowell.

Always Part of the Community
Opening doors to the community has always been integral to the Museum’s mission. Equally important is education, and vintage photographs illustrate the key role the Museum has played in providing educational outreach to school groups for more than a century. In 1955, the MFA broadened its educational reach when it began production, with WGBH-TV, of wide-ranging, innovative programming broadcast live from the Museum’s galleries. The MFA was the first museum in the world to be wired for television. As can be seen in vintage photographs, the richness of the Museum’s collection offered a remarkable new resource for television viewers. Since its founding, the MFA has welcomed nearly 70 million visitors from across the nation and around the world. Approximately one million visitors come to the Museum each year, and nearly 250,000 people participate in educational programs, films, concerts, and lectures. Recent photographs highlight many examples of how the Museum brings art to the community.

The West Wing, 1981
Designed by architect I.M. Pei, the West Wing opened in July 1981, providing the MFA with an additional 80,000 square feet of space, including the Gund Gallery for rotating exhibitions, the Remis Auditorium, MFA Bookstore and Shop, three dining venues, additional galleries, conservation facilities, and visitor amenities. Photographs, as well as commentary by architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who said, “The West Wing will surely be one of Boston’s most attractive and inviting places to go” (New York Times, July 12, 1981), celebrate the Museum’s contemporary wing.

The Current Building Project
The MFA broke ground on November 14, 2005, for its building project, which marked the beginning of an ambitious plan that will enrich the ways in which visitors encounter the Museum’s great works of art, improve navigation through its galleries, as well as enhance and increase space for the MFA’s encyclopedic collection, educational programs, conservation facilities, and special exhibitions. Central to this plan is the creation of a new American Wing to house the Museum’s Art of the Americas collection, the glass-enclosed Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, and the expansion of space for contemporary art. Designed by Foster + Partners, the building project is documented in the installation by architectural renderings, construction photos, and historic images of the Evans Wing’s Fenway entrance, one of two grand entrances originally conceived by architect Guy Lowell in his 1907 master plan. This entrance, which overlooks the Back Bay Fens section of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, has been renamed the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance.

Future Directions
As the Museum looks to the future and its role in the revitalization of the Fenway, it is exploring ways to transform its recent purchase of the adjacent Forsyth Institute building into a vital part of the MFA. With the addition of the Forsyth building and grounds, seen in photographs in the installation, the Museum campus (including the School of the Museum of Fine Arts) now encompasses more than 2,000 feet, making it the longest stretch of property along the Fenway.

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