BOSTON, MA (March 11, 2015)—Beginning today, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is displaying the contents of the Massachusetts State House time capsule. Originally placed under the State House cornerstone by Governor Samuel Adams, patriot Paul Revere and Colonel William Scollay in 1795, the time capsule (which was unearthed this past December and opened in January) is on view to the public from March 11–April 22, 2015, at the MFA, before being reburied in June. Inside the Box: Massachusetts State House Time Capsule Revealed features 35 objects, including coins, a medal depicting George Washington and a silver plaque believed to be engraved by Paul Revere, as well as the brass box which contained the objects. The exhibition takes place in the Art of the Americas Wing in the Museum’s Kristin and Roger Servison Gallery dedicated to Art of The New Nation (1800-1830). Previously unearthed in 1855, when its contents were documented, cleaned and additional objects were added, the capsule was rediscovered in December 2014. It was then brought to the MFA to be opened and conserved. 

“This MFA exhibition of the State House time capsule contents is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts citizens to witness what Revolutionary heroes Samuel Adams and Paul Revere thought significant to preserve when they placed this box in the State House cornerstone just 20 years after the Declaration of Independence. I urge people to visit the Museum to see this significant fragment of Massachusetts history,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.

The installation at the MFA explores the significance of the objects found in the capsule and the role of the prominent figures involved in both the original burial in 1795, and reburial in 1855. Surrounded by related works of art on view throughout the Art of the Americas Wing, visitors will also see iconic portraits of Samuel Adams (about 1772) and Paul Revere (1768) by John Singleton Copley, the Sons of Liberty Bowl (1768) made by silversmith Paul Revere, coins identical to those in the time capsule, and other historical objects in nearby galleries.

“What better place to show these artistic and historic treasures than the MFA,” said Malcolm Rogers, the Museum’s Ann and Graham Gund Director. “I’m sure the public will be fascinated by the many stories they have to tell.”

Inside the Box

On January 6, the time capsule was opened during a live press conference at the MFA as former Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary Galvin and Rogers looked on. Since opening the capsule, MFA conservators have examined the objects and made a number of new discoveries. Inside the capsule were 24 silver and copper coins dating from 1667 to 1855, each representing an important milestone in the history of Massachusetts and the formation of the United States. The Pine Tree Shilling (ca. 1667–1682), among the earliest coins made in the British North American colonies, symbolizes one of the first acts of rebellion against the English government, when colonial Massachusetts seized upon a legal loophole and established a mint. A New Jersey Cent (1787) represents the first time the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” appeared on a coin, and a George II Half Penny (about 1729–39) is a reminder of an Act of the British Parliament in 1750 that repaid Massachusetts debts incurred during the French and Indian War.This would have been the most commonly used coin during the Revolutionary period.

A small commemorative medal honoring George Washington, President of the United States in 1795, was also included in the original deposit. After careful cleaning, closer inspection of the medal revealed a mysterious inscription around the 2mm-edge: “I. Hull.” Museum staff are investigating the potential origin of the hand-scratched initials, which could refer to Isaac Hull, future Captain of the USS Constitution, whose family lived in Newton and was active in Masonic circles at the time. On view in front of the monumental Thomas Sully painting, The Passage of the Delaware (1819), and the full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait Washington at Dorchester Heights (1806), additional objects from the 1795 deposit include an engraved plaque, probably made by Paul Revere, which commemorates the laying of the State House cornerstone on July 4, 1795— just 20 years after the Declaration of Independence was issued and only seven years after the ratification of the United States Constitution. The inscription reads:

This corner stone of a building
Intended for the use of the Legislative
and Executive Branches of Government
of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,
was laid by
His Excellency Samuel Adams, Esq.
Governor of said Commonwealth,
assisted by the Most Worshipful Paul Revere,
Grand Master,
and the Right Worshipful William Scollay,
Deputy Grand Master,
The Grand Warders and Brethren
of the 4th day of July
An. Dom. 1795
A. L. 5795
Being the 20th Anniversary of American Independence.

In 1855, after the time capsule was uncovered by workmen repairing the foundation of the State House, new objects were added before it was reburied four days later. The contents were rehoused in a new box, which was quickly commissioned from local brass founder Andrew J. Gavett. New discoveries about Gavett have been brought to light over the past few weeks by Patrick McMahon, the MFA’s Director of Exhibitions and Design, who was intrigued by an inscription found in the box. Gavett signed the inside lid by drilling a series of small holes to create the letters—this way, he knew that his name could not be erased with time. Gavett’s well-made box kept the contents safe for nearly 160 years. Objects from 1855 include 12 coins illustrating the range and designs used in the United States at the time; five of the leading Boston newspapers from the day; a title page from Records of The Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (published 1853); a paper impression of the Seal of the Commonwealth; and business cards from two leading Boston architects involved with the expansion of the State House in 1855. Instead of creating a new silver plaque, Massachusetts officials simply engraved the reverse of the original commemorative plaque from 1795

Time Capsule Conservation at the MFA

Prior to unearthing the capsule, the Commonwealth was aware of historic accounts referring to its existence. The location of the box was confirmed by engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH) during a water infiltration project in the summer of 2014 under the management of the State’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM). SGH identified its presence using ground penetrating radar before contacting the MFA in September to discuss its removal and conservation. Walsh Brothers Construction assisted in the removal of the capsule. 

On December 11, 2014, MFA conservator Pam Hatchfield (Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation) spent seven hours excavating the capsule, using a variety of tools for the delicate process. Tools included chisels and hammers similar to those that would have been used to shape the granite cornerstone, as well as modern instruments, including metal probes and a flexible shaft drill with a small circular saw blade and drill bits. Five silver 19th-century coins, ceremonially inserted during the setting of the plaster in 1855, were carefully removed during the process. After excavation, the capsule was transported to the Museum where a team of conservators and engineers began an examination of the box in the MFA’s laboratories. Hatchfield and fellow Museum conservator Gerri Strickler first x-rayed the capsule, revealing coins, a silver plaque and paper inside. MFA researcher Michele Derrick (Schorr Family Associate Research Scientist) performed x-ray fluorescence on the box, determining that it, as well as its eight screws, were brass. Hatchfield then removed additional bulk plaster from the surface of the box before excavating corrosion and plaster from around the screw heads that held the capsule shut. She and MFA Collections Engineer Dante Vallance carefully loosened the screws with a drill press and drops of solvent. Hatchfield later reduced corroded lead solder from around the edges using a fine chisel and hammer. Hatchfield and Annette Manick, the MFA’s Head of Paper Conservation, oversaw the conservation treatment of the objects.

Division of Capital Asset and Management and Maintenance

The Division of Capital Asset and Management Maintenance (DCAMM) is the state agency responsible for the design and construction of major public buildings in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. DCAMM was created by the Legislature in 1980 to ensure the quality of the construction of public buildings. DCAMM is the steward of the state’s capital facilities promoting quality and integrity in management. Through innovated and cost effective maintenance and management strategies, DCAMM’s buildings have achieved some of the highest energy and efficiency ratings in the nation. The agency also manages millions of dollars in annual capital for construction projects, and more than 500 active leases resulting in 7 million square feet of privately-owned lease space housing state offices. For more information, visit www.mass.gov/dcam.

Art of the Americas at the MFA

Since the Museum’s founding in 1870, the MFA has been committed to collecting art from North, Central and South America from all time periods. Its diverse holdings rank among the most significant of the Americas and feature works ranging from masterpieces of the Ancient Americas to one of the finest collections of art of the United States from colonial times through the early 20th century and beyond. More than 5,000 works from the Museum’s collection are on view in the 53 galleries of the Art of the Americas Wing. First floor galleries feature paintings, furniture, silver, textiles and prints from colonial Boston and other regions, as well as art created in the decades after the American Revolution. On view in the Wing are some of the earliest colonial currency (coins), and works related to the Founding Fathers such as John Singleton Copley’s portraits of Samuel Adams (about 1772) and Paul Revere (1768), and the Sons of Liberty Bowl (1768) made by silversmith Paul Revere.

William Francis Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth

Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin directs the Massachusetts Archives which ensures the preservation and accessibility of the Commonwealth’s records. The Archives Building at Columbia Point is the repository of nearly four centuries of Massachusetts history. Its treasures include the royal charters establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, original copies of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which are on permanent display in the Commonwealth Museum there.

Secretary Galvin is also Chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the state historic preservation office which identities, evaluates and protects the Commonwealth’s important historic and archaeological resources. The MHC nominates properties for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Place and decides on locations to be included in the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays. Wednesdays after 4 pm admission, is by voluntary contribution. MFA Members receive free admission. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.

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