Innovation at the Museum of Fine Arts

“Triumph of the Winter Queen” at the MFA

A thoughtful friend gave a Christmas gift of a membership at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and two weeks ago, during February school vacation, we drove to Huntington Avenue to make use of it. Art museums were never high on my “to do” list until I had a chance to travel around the country and the world. When you find yourself in Paris or Amsterdam or Chicago or New York, the iconic art museum of each city is always on the Top Ten list and so you pay a visit, knowing you are supposed to enjoy the experience but not really understanding why. Of course you do enjoy it. Very much. Even more so if you understand the backstory behind the paintings and sculpture and other items that you observe.

That’s why I really enjoyed a special exhibit at the MFA of the “Triumph of the Winter Queen” a 1636 painting by Gerrit van Honthorst depicting Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (ancestor of the present ruling family of England). The painting was well done but had it been positioned in a typical gallery amidst a half dozen others, I wouldn’t have paid it much attention. But the MFA placed it by itself in a separate space, flanked it by a couple of video screens, placed extensive historic timelines on both walls, and dropped two couches in front of it. Every 30 minutes a film explaining the painting, its historical context, and the symbolism within it, played for anyone wishing to partake. It was fascinating; like a graduate level history course without any homework assignments. I write about this now because today’s Globe has a big story about how innovative this MFA exhibit is, and how it might be a way for museums to draw in bigger, more diverse crowds.

If you’ve never been to the Museum of Fine Arts, make plans to go. A couple of hours spent wandering around will disclose something that fits every taste and background. And if you’re from Lowell, you can take a bit of local pride when you walk through the George D. and Margo Behrakis “Art of the Ancient World Wing” which was the gift of Lowell’s own Behrakis family.