In New MFA Wing, Period Rooms Unlock History

By Jared Bowen


Nov. 18, 2010

BOSTON — The Museum of Fine Arts new Art of the America officially opens to the public with a free open house on Saturday. But WGBH's sneak preview continues as Jared Bowen tours the new period rooms that make a visit to the MFA even more engaging.

An opulent Peabody parlor, a seaside Maine mansion and the well-appointed home of a Portsmouth politician.  There are moments now in the Museum of Fine Arts new wing when you can step into history, explains Elliot Bostwick Davis, who heads up the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing.

“People do love that sense of intimacy.  Of going behind the closed doors of someone’s bedroom,” Bostwick Davis said. “I mean, how many people don’t love going on an on line tour of some real estate site, to see what different houses are like?”

Amid the new wing’s 53 galleries, the MFA has created nine period rooms providing visitors a glimpse into the homes of prominent New England families from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s.

Assistant Curator Dennis Carr says the rooms are meant to bring history to life. “It offers a sense of scale, a sense of texture and life brought back to these objects. And you see them brought together again,” Carr said.

In some cases, that’s happening for the first time. There are two rooms from a Dorchester home built in 1840 by a wealthy pewter and silver plate manufacturer. Acquired by the museum in the 1970s, they remained in storage until their reassembly here.

That process, said Carr, required painstaking research, which actually referenced some of the museums other artworks. “We did have period photographs from the late 19th century. We had objects that descended through the family, and other sources for example like mid-19th century paintings that showed how most people lived in that century,” Carr said. “And we used all that evidence together as our guide for refurnishing these rooms.”

The apex of interior design 210 years ago is captured here in three rooms from Oak Hill, a country estate in Peabody. In the bedroom, parlor and dining room, the museum has meticulously reassembled the home, mostly with its original pieces.

Bostwick Davis said the rooms were meant to be seen in once piece. “The carvings on the furniture are empathetic to the over mantels as well as the over cornices and over the doors and those over the windows, so everything works together.”

Displaying the rooms together, Bostwick Davis said, makes for a singular exhibition.  “They comprised probably the greatest group of period rooms from that era in any American museum.”

The earliest period room is the Brown-Pearl House built, around 1704 in West Boxford, Massachusetts. It is in this hall where the home’s inhabitants cooked, ate and slept.

Moving forward a century, a wealthy merchant’s home from Bath Maine features the parlor. Looking at its opulent details, Carr said, like scenic wallpapers showing Paris and Rome, tells you about the fashions of the day. “French scenic wallpaper was all the rage in the 19th century,” Carr explained. “This was a prosperous merchant family, and you can imagine them sitting in their little wooden house in small town Bath Maine and then looking out on the world.”

Adjacent to that room is the 1730 home of a prominent Portsmouth, New Hampshire merchant and politician. The front parlor would have been the family’s main entertaining space – but also a place to conduct business. “And this room is really interesting to us because we’ve got a lot of interesting material. Th e walls are original, the floors are original, the tiles around the fireplace are original,” Carr said.

When the rooms’ original material was not available, it was often the original manufacturers who reproduced wall coverings, rugs and more. Boston glassblowers recreated the chandelier’s globes in the Dorchester house—making these the most authentic homes away from home.


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