Here is how I explain the layout of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to visitors in a hurry: “It’s separated by area of the world.” Except, it is not. “The Ancient World” suggests a time period rather than a place. Greek and Roman art is ancient, but it’s also European. There’s Renaissance alongside the Museum’s displays of ancient art. The Asian art galleries have a lot of ancient art, too. Ancient Egyptian and Nubian art is separated from the rest of the African art. And Contemporary art is an entirely different conversation. It’s hard to fit all those nuances into quick directions, though.
The Museum’s Art of the Americas Wing is a little easier to explain: “It goes from oldest on the lowest level to newest on the third floor.” But that’s also not quite right. Though most objects on the lower level were made before the 1700s, some of them are quite modern.
As a lover of ancient cultures (my area of study, actually), I often wander into the wing's lower level to enjoy the pre-Columbian artwork—Mayan, Olmec, and the like. Tucked in the very back is the Native North American Art Gallery. It houses mostly older artifacts, as I expected from the layout, but also many works from around 1920 to 1950. Until recently, the newest object in the gallery dated to 2002 (though that does feel like an ancient era now).
Raven Steals the Moon (2002) by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary (b. 1963) is a sculpture of a raven’s head, holding a clear disk representing the moon in its beak. I was first drawn to its form, which is smooth, curving, and bold, and then its colors, red and black and translucent white. It’s made of glass, a fascinating medium because of its delicate nature, difficulty in handling, and the way it conducts light. It’s entirely sandblasted, so it gathers light in a unique way. It appears to have a soft visual texture, which contrasts with its brilliant lines and colors.
The sculpture represents a Tlingit creation myth. There are many different tellings, all important, but most seem to agree that Raven, a supernatural being, decides to set out and steal the sun, moon, and stars from a powerful man who kept them in boxes as treasures. In certain versions, Raven sneaks in as a pine needle; in some he is nearly caught; in some he is punished; but in most he is swallowed by the man’s daughter and birthed as a human. Eventually he opens the boxes and releases the sun, moon, and stars into the sky, bringing light to a world that was previously dark.
Acquired by the MFA in 2003, Raven Steals the Moon is part of the Art of the Americas department’s initiative to collect more Native art—and contemporary Native works in particular. But displaying it in an area of the Museum that consists of mostly ancient artifacts raises questions. Should Raven Steals the Moon stay in the Native North American Art Gallery with other Native art? Should it move to Level 3, with modern and contemporary art from all over the Americas? Should it be in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art?
As I write this, Raven Steals the Moon is being moved to the third floor of the Art of the Americas Wing, where I’ve always felt it belongs. But Raven Steals the Moon is just one piece of a larger, nationwide discussion among museum staff, Native communities, historians, and visitors about where Native art should be displayed in museums, and there’s not necessarily a correct answer.
Part of any art museum’s mission is to do its collection justice—to preserve it, present it, explain it, and share it. Simply by displaying Raven Steals the Moon in an area often referred to as “ancient,” the MFA has perpetuated the myth of Native Americans as a “vanishing race” that is oh-so-common in American history classes and pilgrim fairy tales. The Tlingit and other Native groups did not disappear after European settlers colonized the Americas. The people and the cultures are very much alive and active. Indigenous folks will tell you so.
The MFA is imperfect, as most museums are, and the collection will never be organized perfectly, but Singletary’s sculpture deserves to be considered and enjoyed outside of the harmful stereotypes that have been unconsciously perpetuated for years—in this case, by something as mundane as gallery layouts.
Raven Steals the Moon can teach us that Native art is beautiful and valued both because it is art and because it is Native. Through it and the myth it represents, we come in contact with a message of perseverance, action, and finding light in the dark, which will always be relevant across time periods and cultures. The sculpture also encourages us to explore and learn about cultures that are not our own, and their ways of viewing the world. It certainly has for me. Raven Steals the Moon is a beautiful piece of humanity. I may know my way around the MFA, but don’t just listen to me; stop by and see Raven Steals the Moon for yourself in “Stories Artists Tell: Art of the Americas, the 20th Century.”
Read more essays by MFA Ambassadors responding to works in the collection.