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Getting Lost at the Museum of Fine Arts

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Events of March 24, 2012

It's probably no secret to anybody who's been reading my blog for a while, but I love museums. This is almost certainly a product of the fact that my mother -- then the curator of the Guild Hall art museum -- took me to work with her when I was little and encouraged me to look at the paintings and sculptures. My first two real summer jobs involved working in museums, and being a docent is still my favorite form of volunteering. When my high school Latin class went to Venice in junior year, I chose to spend my free sightseeing hour in the Museo Acheologico in St. Mark's Square instead of going shopping with my friends.

As a little kid, I loved the Sesame Street special Don't Eat the Pictures, in which Big Bird discovers that a museum is "where yesterday meets today." And that's what I love about museums -- every artwork or display is a window into another place, another time or another way of thinking. In the past year, I've been lucky enough to visit some really cool museums -- the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the MIT Museum (holograms!), the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (handwritten speech notes!), the Boston Museum of Science (lightning!), the Intrepid, the Cradle of Aviation and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (mummies!).

However, because my mom, as is to be expected, is just as big a fan of museums as I am, I had decided to hold off on visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) near the Boston University campus until my mom could come and visit for a weekend. But then I saw a flyer in the archeology department announcing an "Afternoon at the Museum" event at the MFA on an upcoming Saturday afternoon. Professor David Carballo, my Introduction to Archeology professor last semester, would start off by giving a tour of the Mesoamerican room, followed by a tour of the colonial galleries by Boston University graduate student Travis Parno.

Since I knew that it's impossible to see everything in a museum in one visit and that I wouldn't get an opportunity to have an archeologist-led gallery tour again for quite a while, I signed up for the trip. I'd probably even find some things I wanted to revisit when I came back with my mom.

I took a cab to the MFA and got there a little bit early. The rest of the group soon arrived. Professor Carballo led us down several corridors to the Shapiro Family Courtyard. I caught glimpses of some really interesting-looking artwork, but I kept my eyes on the rest of the group -- I didn't have a map, and it would be really easy to get lost. In the courtyard, I checked out Dale Chihuly's "Lime Green Icicle Tower" sculpture while the professor made sure everyone was there. (It's a 42-foot-tall glass sculpture that looks exactly like the name implies.)

Following that head count, Professor Carballo led us into the Mesoamerican room, his area of archeological study. On an incense burner that depicted an Aztec god, he pointed out details of the god's armor and how they matched actual armor worn by Aztec warriors. Several students from other schools were also in the gallery, sketching the artifacts. (They were way more talented than I am!) I was fascinated by clay pots showing scenes from the story of the Maya Hero Twins, two mythological brothers who had passed many difficult tests to defeat the evil Lords of the Underworld. (There were also decorated cups designed to serve the beverage that was one of the Maya's greatest gifts to humanity -- hot chocolate!)

After the Mesoamerican room, we passed into the South American room, where we saw some beautiful Andean gold figurines and some fancy earspools. My favorite thing there, though, were the small clay models of animals like lizards, birds and sharks. Since we'd learned about the potlatch tradition of the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, it was very cool to see wooden statues from the area that represented visitors bringing gifts for a potlatch.

Travis Parno then led us all into an exhibit about Colonial New England, where furniture, metalwork and other objects from the period were all on display. As a historical archeologist, Mr. Parno's current area of study is the Fairbanks House in Denham, Massachusetts, built in 1641, so he was familiar with the types of artifacts in the exhibit. I was particularly excited to find the tombstone of John Foster, an astronomer whose observations had contributed to Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. A trip up the stairs brought us to the American Revolution, where original portraits of revolutionary Bostonians like Paul Revere, Mercy Otis Warren and Samuel Adams were on display.

Now that both members of the faculty had finished with the rooms devoted to their areas of expertise, Professor Carballo let us wander the first floor of the Arts of the Americas wing, which featured 18th and 19th century art. We had some time before our group was due to have lunch in the museum café in the courtyard downstairs, so we all just wandered around. I have a real love of 19th century landscapes capturing places the artists traveled to, because the detail really makes you feel as if you're there. The MFA has a great collection, showing lots of beautiful sites in the western United States, as well as ruins in Greece and Rome. They also had one of my other artistic loves, Louis Comfort Tiffany's stained glass, with lights behind the panes to allow the color of the windows to be fully seen.

I wandered from room to room, looking at everything, and, pretty soon, I realized I wasn't with anyone else from the group. I wasn't worried about being lost, like I'd been before, because the gallery space was self-contained and there was no way to leave it without going down the stairs to the courtyard, so I mostly kept browsing. (John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark is very well-done. Even if the shark's facial anatomy isn't quite accurate, it still looks scary!) But I kept an eye out for Professor Carballo, because I knew he'd made reservations for our group at the café and we wouldn't be able to eat there unless we were with the group. After I found him, I kept admiring the art, but paused periodically to make sure we were still in the same room.

After some more browsing, Professor Carballo and Mr. Parno gathered everyone together again, and we headed downstairs to eat. I ended up sitting next to Mr. Parno and another graduate student. They talked about the excavations they'd been on as we waited for our food. While I knew I had to go home after lunch (that darn homework!) I felt that I couldn't wait to visit the MFA again. I'd discovered it was a lot of fun to explore -- and to get lost in!