The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston boasts a collection that covers every continent, spanning over nearly three thousand years. It’s an impressive feat for a museum that only covers three floors yet still manages to cover every discipline in the fine arts.
The MFA also do free entry on some Fridays as part of the ‘Free Fun Friday’ program, which means you have no excuse for not popping in for a quick visit. Whereas the Victoria and Albert museum might take you several lifetimes to see all of it, you can see all of the MFA in a few hours so it really is a breakneck speed tour through civilisation.
It would be remiss of me to travel anywhere and not bring you back some textile eye-candy and there was plenty on offer at the MFA. One of my favourite collections was a series of American period rooms, known as the Oak Hill rooms from the country house of Elizabeth Derby West and Nathaniel West. Elizabeth Derby West was the daughter of a wealthy Salem merchant who became the source of much controversy when she attempted to divorce her husband for adultery.
Oak Hill is full of brilliant wallpapers and sumptuous fabrics. The four-poster bed is nothing short of extravagant and the highly floral fabrics look almost gaudy against the painted wallpapers. The furniture is mostly mahogany and birch, designed by Samuel McIntire, an American craftsmen. Much of it has been carefully upholstered to fit with the theme of far more pink than any human can reasonably enjoy.
It was interesting because the furniture immediately reminded of the ‘English-style’ furniture you see in so many English stately homes but one of McIntire’s big influences was actually the style of George Hepplewhite, a famous 18th century English furniture maker. I still find it amazing that, even in the days where travel was significantly more restricted than it is now, how widely many design ideas and concepts propagated.
A rapid jump through time deposits you in the ‘Art of the Ancient World’ exhibition, which has a seriously impressive Ancient Egyptian collection. As well as the obligatory sarcophagi and canopic jars, there was also some incredibly interesting beadwork as well.
I suspect this net dress would qualify as a little too risqué today by itself but it’s an incredible piece of net beadwork. It is thought that dresses of this type were either constructed by sewing them into the linen of a dress or were worked as a net and worn over a dress. I do wonder how heavy all the ceramic beads must have been for an item of clothing this size.
As well as some very impressive Egyptian gold jewellery, there was some more modern bling, designed by Bulgari. Bulgari are an Italian luxury brand still going today but their jewellery design is still just as bold now. They describe their piece as ‘sublime works of art’ and it’s hard not to agree when you look at the attention to detail in the metalwork. Sadly, they do come with a suitably bold price tag but at least window shopping is free.
A more modest leap in time takes you to the contemporary exhibitions. There was one textiles and photography exhibit, focusing on pieces that had been made by local artists working in the local area. I enjoyed the colours of the quilts but not sure they’d quite live up to the exacting standards for display at the New England Quilt Museum.
My next stop was to the ‘Megacities’ exhibition, looking at art about some of the largest cities in the world. Some of the installations were truly ambitious in their scale and you could climb into and walk around them but in all honesty, I think this exhibition was a little too modern for me. There was one piece though that caught my eye just for the most fantastic use of colour and as it was over 3 m tall, there was very little chance to miss it.
Finally, it was off to the future with the ‘Techstyle’ exhibit, focusing on using cutting-edge technologies to produce weird and wacky fabrics. For many of us, the techniques we use in crafting are relatively unchanged by hundreds of years of technological development but this was all about creating on the opposite end of that spectrum.
Whether the style appeals or not, there are some interesting applications of some of the technologies being developed. Industrial dyeing is responsible for a horrendous amount of environmental damage, particularly in the form of water contamination. Indigo dyeing, responsible for the beautiful characteristic blue of shibori and jeans, normally involves the use of chromium or aluminium as mordants. These are often washed straight into rivers where they wreak havoc on ecosystems.
It’s hard to think of a beloved hobby being one of the most wasteful and inefficient processes on the planet but this is the sad truth. However, with a view to creating more sustainable fabrics, still available in the colours we love, several designs are looking at things like using nanoparticles, which have no run-off after rinsing and require fewer chemicals in the dyebath, or lasers to pattern fabrics.
3D printing is also opening the doors for ever more ambitious garment construction and fabric. While a lot of the garments look utterly bizarre, 3D printing means you can produce garments from a much wider range of materials and print them ‘ready to wear’. Trying to recreate some of these shapes would also prove very challenging in traditional media. Although the aesthetics of a lot of the exhibit didn’t really appeal, and I still can’t get excited by people just putting LEDs in clothes, it was a really fascinating insight into some of the links between science and fashion.
The MFA offers the chance to see the world in an afternoon and is well worth a visit if you get the opportunity.