19th-Century Art

Behind the Scenes Galleries

A planned interactive media installation in the Caring for Works of Art gallery

This drawing shows a planned interactive media installation in the Caring for Works of Art gallery. Visitors will investigate techniques and issues through the lens of two Copley portraits.

The Behind the Scenes Galleries provide visitors with a look at how the Museum and its curators collect, classify, and care for the works in the MFA’s Art of the Americas collections, and how choices are made about what objects to put on view. Two of these galleries are located on Level 1, and two are on Level 2.

The Behind the Scenes Galleries represent one component of the MFA’s multi-layered approach to the interpretation of art. They offer visitors a change of pace and a chance to consider the decisions and activities that lie behind what they see in the Museum. Each of the four galleries focuses on a specific theme.

Caring for Works of Art—Level 1

What factors are considered in determining how a conservator might treat a work of art? Should a missing area be replaced, a darkened varnish removed? How might the answers vary for different works, and how do curators decide? This gallery explores conservation principles and processes through the questions posed by a variety of works of art. A central case features two 18th-century portraits by John Singleton Copley—one painting has been cleaned, while the other has not. The two paintings highlight the issues under consideration, and an interactive table guides visitors through the process that precedes decisions about treatment. Interactive touch screens allow visitors to explore the questions posed by missing areas in a needlework sampler and understand how scientific analysis can expand our knowledge of Maya ceramics.

Collecting—Level 1

One of the Museum’s primary goals is collecting—bringing together prized objects for preservation, study, and exhibition—acquiring them individually or receiving entire collections formed by personal taste or conviction. This gallery reveals the ways in which works of art reach the Museum and what inspired collectors at particular moments in time. Interactive screens allow visitors to design their own plates or textiles based on patterns from Mexican ceramics and metal work, or to hear from curators about changing tastes and collecting patterns. A large-scale video montage shows a hidden side of the Museum, as staff members study works of art in storage, care for them in conservation studios, choose frames, build mounts and display cases, and install the pieces in the Art of the Americas Wing.

Classifying—Level 2

Curators constantly sort, study, and classify works. Over time, major categories may shift and perspectives change. Examples of this are showcased in the gallery: a plaster cast of an ancient Greek sculpture, a Maya ceramic piece, and a late 19th-century sewing machine, prompting the question, “What belongs in the Museum of Fine Arts?” The gallery also features two activity tables where visitors can test their knowledge of changing styles by sorting a sequence of silver teapots or practice curatorial “close looking” with a group of 19th-century glass whisky flasks. Another 21-foot screen displays a video montage of the “hidden” MFA.

Making Choices—Level 2

The role of curator involves making numerous daily decisions, especially about which objects are displayed and how to present them. This gallery allows visitors to consider these choices and make some of their own. Three portraits are the focal point of an interactive wall that encourages visitors to determine which painting should be included in exhibitions highlighting a specific theme. A large case displays two sofas from the 1830s that both have the same frame—one reupholstered in the 1980s, the other yet to be re-covered. Visitors can reference pattern books to research the textiles and upholstery forms used for such pieces in the early 19th century, decide whether they agree with curatorial choices, and consider what would be appropriate for the second sofa. Other cases present choices involving ancient Andean textiles and mid-20th-century radios.