Colonialism

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is committed to conducting thorough provenance research on its collection and being transparent about the results of that research. This process, which has been ongoing for years, has revealed that many objects today at the MFA left their places of origin under inequitable conditions. Some objects were taken as spoils of war by imperialist forces. Other works of art were removed during periods of formal (often, though not exclusively, European) colonial rule by administrative officials, missionaries, scientists, and private collectors. Many archeological objects were scientifically excavated and exported with permission of colonial governments. Other works of art were made by indigenous artists specifically for trade or sale. For many other objects, how and when they left their place of origin is unknown: we may have very few indications of their previous owners, movements across borders, or even places of creation. Gaps in an object’s recorded provenance are common, and do not necessarily signal breaks in the chain of ownership; we do, however, welcome new information about the history of these works of art.

The MFA acknowledges that the life stories of many of the objects in its collection are inextricable from imperialism, colonialism, and racism. We also recognize that today people may disagree about the ethics that surround the display and interpretation of such objects. Yet with the privilege of being stewards of these works of art comes the responsibility of sharing their stories broadly. All available provenance information for objects in the Museum’s collection can be accessed through the MFA’s Collections Search. In cases where we know when and how an object left its place of origin, that information is included in the provenance text. These records are under continual review, and we update them as new information becomes available.