The MFA collections encompass about 500,000 works of art. This guide is to help you find what you’re looking for—whether a specific artwork or a selection for browsing.
The effort to enhance our online collections database with scholarly context for each object and improve the accuracy of the records is ongoing. We hope the tips provided here will aid in your search.
Start Your Search
There are two ways to search for object records: Quick Search and Advanced Search. Both searches look for a term entered in one or more data fields, such as artist name, medium, and title of work.
Enter a term in the “Search the collections” box at the top of the page. The results of Quick Search will contain the search term in any of the object’s data fields. When multiple terms are specified in Quick Search, the result of the search will only be object records containing all the terms.
Use Advanced Search (link at the top of the page) to look for an individual artwork or more specific results. It can be very useful—don’t be afraid to use it! It can search for a term within one specific data field. To search within a field that is not available in Advanced Search (like “catalogue raisonné”), use Quick Search.
Try searching Sphinx in Quick Search and compare with the same search in the Title field of Advanced Search. You will get wider results with Quick Search than with Advanced Search.
Search for a term across all data fields with Quick Search, or specify which data field to search with Advanced Search. The list of data fields within Advanced Search are defined below.
Data Fields for Object Searches
The name of the work of art given by the artist or a short description of the object (e.g., covered bowl, writing desk, or Torah finial).
The individual or entity responsible for or associated with the creation of the work of art, including painters, designers, sculptors, publishers, fashion houses, workshops, factories, and artist collectives.
The unique identification number assigned to each work of art. They often start with the year in which the object entered the collection. Note that prior to 1970, the year is represented by only two digits.
The social group (i.e., language groups, tribes, and peoples) to which the work of art belongs or of which it is representative.
Note: culture information is sometimes not recorded for an artwork with a known artist/maker because its culture is likely that of the artist/maker, so searching in Culture looks in both the Culture of the object and the Nationality of the artist/maker at the same time.
The year or years that the work of art was created. There are two fields to enter for beginning and end of range.
To search for one specific year, enter the same year in both boxes. For objects created before the common era (BC or BCE), use negative numbers (e.g. -100 for 100 BCE). For a range, -1500 to -1000 searches the 500 years between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE.
The material and/or technique used in the creation of the work of art (e.g., “Carved and painted wood; tempera and oil on panel,” “Stoneware with iron glaze,” and “Japanese cypress with polychrome and gold; joined woodblock construction”). Some common terms you might use are oil on canvas, ink on paper, copper, glass, woodblock, or embroidered.
An account of how the work of art entered the collection (i.e., through a purchase, bequest, or gift), often including the name of the donor or the donor of purchase funds.
The history of ownership and chain of custody before and including acquisition by the Museum, chronicling how (i.e., sale, inheritance, or donation) and when the work of art passed from one owner to the next.
A description of the physical characteristics and imagery of the artwork.
Data Fields for People Searches
A People Search is similar to using the Artist/Maker data field in Advanced Search, except it returns a list of artists/makers first, rather than objects. Clicking “View All Works” in the results will bring up the associated artworks. The People Search may be useful when you are not sure about the full name of an artist/maker and want to see the possible options first.
For example, searching Velde in the Name field will allow you to choose from a list that includes van Velde, van de Velde, van den Velde, and van der Velde.
Search Term Tips
Using quotation marks with your search terms changes how the terms are searched. For example, surrounding a multiple-word term in quotes treats the term as one term.
a search for this exact phrase, as one term, in any of the object’s data fields.
a broader search for objects that contain both terms, not necessarily consecutively, in the same field.
an even broader search that looks for both terms, regardless of which field each might appear.
Note that quotes are not recognized in Advanced Search because the search looks for all entered terms within the same field.
The asterisk wildcard, which stands in for other undefined characters in a term, can be used to broaden the search further.
For example, horse* would also find “horseback,” *horse would call up records with “racehorse,” and a search for *horse* would yield both together.
The asterisk wildcard is recognized in both Quick and Advanced Search.
The Sort function can assist in organizing the search results so that a particular object can be identified more readily.
However, because Quick Search tends to return a large number of objects, it may be useful to first refine the search results with Filters (see below).
Results from both Quick Search and Advanced Search can be refined by filtering. The object search filters are defined below.
Results can be also be refined to a more manageable number by using the Advanced Search dropdown to add more conditions.
For example, try searching Hercules lion (without quotes) in the Title Field of Advanced Search. Using the Advanced Search dropdown, enter chiaroscuro in the Medium/Technique field to the previous Title search for Hercules lion.
Results found with Quick Search can also be refined using Advanced Search through the same dropdown, but objects found with an Advanced Search cannot be refined with Quick Search.
Object Search Filters
The collecting area to which the work of art belongs.
Note that the Collection terms mirror the Museum’s curatorial departments, and many artworks belong to multiple Collections since the terms are not parallel to each other, with some based on geography, some on object type, and others on time period.
The term, often based on type, material, or use of the object, that best describes the work of art.
Because the Museum holds an encyclopedic collection encompassing fine arts, decorative arts, as well as ethnographic, architectural, and archaeological objects, Classification terms provide only a broad framework for indexing and cataloguing the collections.
The gallery location if the artwork is on view.
Note that the location of a work on loan to another institution is shown on the object page, but is not searchable.
Using Filters with Advanced Search
This method allows a more targeted search, and multiple conditions can be defined for a single search. Note that a search with multiple filters selected will find only works that have all the terms selected. Selecting more than one location will yield no results, because an object cannot be in two locations; but objects can belong to two collection areas (e.g., an Indonesian flute, which is in both the Asia and Musical Instruments collections).
Frequently Asked Questions
If you know what type of object it is (e.g., model, vessel, drawing), try searching in Advanced Search on Classification. If you know the material used to create the work (e.g., limestone, gypsum, copper wire), search on Medium/Technique in Advanced Search. If you know what was depicted or the imagery used in the artwork, a search for a keyword (e.g., rain, geometric, acorns) in Quick Search or in the Description field in Advanced Search may yield results. Remember that multiple conditions can be specified in Advanced Search at the same time, and both the Advanced Search dropdown and the Filter functions can refine search results.
Try entering just one part of the artist name in the People Search, or verify the correct spelling of the artist name.
The MFA map does not currently include location numbers for external locations, but in Advanced Search on Location(s), they all have a prefix of “Exterior” in their names with a description of the location for some.
There may be bugs in the functionality of the platform, records that lack data in some fields (either because cataloguing is ongoing or because the field is not used for that particular object type), and discrepancies in the terminology applied, any of which can contribute to incomplete results. Rest assured, we are working to improve the accuracy of the data and address malfunctions in the system!
How do I find all the objects made by a particular culture or group, like everything by Latin American artists?
Generally speaking, this is not possible in the current iteration of the database. You may have luck searching for a cultural group in the Culture field in Advanced Search (which simultaneously searches Nationality of the artist/maker), but for Latin American objects, the Culture/Nationality likely contains a specific narrower term (e.g., Guatemalan, Peruvian, Puerto Rican) and it’s not possible to search for all of the terms together (because it’s not practical to list all applicable terms in one search and because even if multiple terms were listed, there are no objects labeled with all of the terms). An initiative is underway to identify the cultural group of artists/makers and objects, and we hope the effort will allow this type of search to be possible in the future.
Generally speaking, this is not possible in the current iteration of the database. You may have luck searching for an art movement through a combination of the Culture and Date Range fields in Advanced Search.
Exhibitions often feature artworks on loan from other institutions or private lenders, and with a few exceptions, only objects owned by the Museum are searchable on the website. The fastest way to find the MFA objects included in an exhibition might be to first find the exhibition on the On View page. The page also highlights galleries displaying collection objects. Most exhibition and gallery pages indicate the location name and number, and you can then search by the same gallery number in Advanced Search. (Note that exhibitions can be on view across multiple locations.) You may also prefer to first find all the objects that are marked “On View” in Advanced Search, then use the Filter function for Location to narrow to one gallery. (See the map of the MFA.)
I want to browse all the “Books and manuscripts” and “Illustrated books” together, but an advanced search for both classifications finds nothing.
Unfortunately, calling up both groups together is not possible; it finds nothing because there are no artworks labeled with both classifications. The Collection and Location filters will similarly find only works that have all the terms selected. A search for multiple collections may yield results because objects can have more than one assigned (for example, a French bracelet is in both the Europe and Jewelry collections), but no object is in multiple locations at the same time.
I can’t find an object I know is on view, even though I’m sure I searched using the correct artist name and title.
It’s likely the object is on loan to the MFA. With a few exceptions, only objects that are currently owned by the Museum appear on the website. There are also a small number of objects that are formerly owned by the Museum on the website.
There are nearly 440,000 object records on the website. Simply enter an asterisk into the Quick Search to find them all. If you’re interested in browsing a specific category, use the Filter function to refine the search.