Arts, Off Campus, Column

Kase: MFA Exhibit Finds Joy in the Ordinary, and So Should We

Can our favorite parts of childhood remain with us into adolescence and adulthood? The current Tiny Treasures: The Magic of Miniatures exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) answers this question. The exhibit shows viewers the possibilities of maintaining a childlike perspective when viewing everyday objects, even in a busy world where simplicity can seem impossible.

Upon entering the exhibit, I immediately gasped with delight. Cheerful pastel walls and large block prints detailing the pieces in the exhibit greeted me. The aesthetic of the exhibition room was much smaller and more tailored to the collection than the permanent museum collections.

It brought me back to childhood memories of playing in my light blue bedroom, eyes wide with joy at the sight of a new doll house. From the beginning, the exhibit made evident that even a prestigious museum like the MFA, most well known for traditionally serious pieces, understands the importance of taking some time out of life to be playful. 

The keystone piece of the exhibit, displayed right at the entrance, was a bicycle brooch, potentially made by Streeter & Co. Ltd. in the mid-1890s, according to the exhibition. The museum purchased the brooch for the collection and it is composed of real gold, diamonds, and rubies. 

The piece’s juxtaposition of a formal accessory with a childhood pastime added to its appeal. I was shocked by the intricacy of the piece given its seemingly youthful subject matter. Who would take the time to craft a brooch, a stately and uncommon accessory, into a bicycle? 

At the time the brooch was created, buying a bicycle was relatively novel. If you could afford or had occasions to wear a diamond-encrusted brooch, you could probably afford a car or carriage. The brooch’s owner probably wouldn’t have ridden a bicycle, just worn one for the aesthetic.

Although the piece brought an unexpected childlike twist to an otherwise serious accessory, not all fashion trends succeed at this. The brooch glamorizes the ordinary, similar to the semi-controversial brand Golden Goose, which is known for its trademark style of beat-up, scuffed shoes at a price point of over $500. This type of glamorization is currently a trend in Hollywood and the lifestyles of the ultra-wealthy. 

Celebrities idealize everyday objects ordinary people use simply out of necessity. Actress Zoë Kravitz is consistently photographed wearing worn, wired earbuds for the aesthetic, even when people know she could afford better quality. 

Nicola Peltz Beckham, an heiress to a multi-billion dollar fortune, wrote and starred in her own movie, casting herself as a struggling addict. Somewhat humorously, her mother-in-law—model and singer Victoria Beckham—once claimed she grew up in a working-class family when in reality she was driven to high school in a Rolls-Royce.

The brooch highlights the trend of the wealthy wishing to appear less so has lingered for centuries, not just since the invention of pre-distressed jeans. The brooch also shows accessories have been playful and fun for this long, which also influences styles today. 

A personal favorite jewelry brand of mine, Susan Alexandra, has taken the opposite side of the brooch’s history by creating a line of accessories in a more childlike and fun manner. They carry a “Tiny Joys” jewelry line, which allows the wearer to customize bracelets, necklaces, and earrings with bronze and enamel charms. This line encourages shoppers to purchase items that have connections to their childhood and that will serve as a reminder of memories they will cherish forever. 

While designers can take glamorizing everyday or childhood products to the extreme, the exhibit did so in a way that gave viewers a joyful experience without having to buy a product.

While at the exhibit, I made sure to attentively observe the experiences and reactions of others, in order to answer my questions regarding whether or not we still obtain joy from what we loved in our childhoods. 

My favorite experience was overhearing a group of three women who reminded me of my grandmother. They giggled in hushed tones, whispering to each other “I just love dolls,” and “Gosh, this is so cute.” This interaction gave me hope for my own future, because I always fear that something I love now won’t have the same appeal as I grow.

The women were looking at “Untitled with Fallen Chairs,” a piece by Liliana Porter, which contains a slew of dollhouse furniture attached to a large white canvas by gesso and other materials. The exhibit felt reminiscent of the dollhouse of my dreams that I tried to materialize with my own mother and grandmother.

The piece resonated with me, because it felt like the parts of childhood we lose as we grow older. While we can still see bits and pieces of the joy we felt, there is no longer the pristine innocence of being a child. As children, the dollhouse is intact. The only worries we have are when we will get a new Barbie, or when Cars 3 is coming out. We don’t even know what a bad movie is yet. 

But as we age, that careless, blissful life fades and is muddled by responsibility and daily grievances. I’m worried about real life things, and the dollhouse is no longer intact, because I no longer live in my childhood home and I haven’t played with dolls in a decade. 

“Untitled with Fallen Chairs” reminds us of the simple joys we enjoyed as children and lost as adults, but also encourages us to get it back and most importantly, reassures us that it’s possible. 

From old women to young kids, the exhibition’s viewers were engaged by the intricacy and endearing nature of the pieces in the collection. I saw a boy who looked about 8 years old press his face to the glass of a miniature dining room set full of silver. It reminded me of my own childhood experiences at the museum, and my mom dragging me through the Renaissance art when all I wanted to see was something fun

The MFA demonstrated a clear commitment to providing an exhibit everyone can enjoy. This was especially evident in the aforementioned piece, “Dining room with silver miniatures,” by Arnoldus van Geffen. I was engaged just staring at the piece. It felt exactly like a dollhouse, and I returned to it time and time again during my walkthrough. 

The intricacy and time put into the piece made it impossible to look away from. It’s the kind of dollhouse every girl wished she could have as a kid. I was delighted with the place settings and the actual “silverware,” which was complemented by the ongoing exhibition of silver dinnerware in the permanent collections of the museum. The difference in scale between the two exhibitions made the miniature versions stand out even more.

As I left the exhibit, I knew my question had been answered. Squeals of delight and gasps of awe in reaction to the collection proved to me that all ages still enjoy what we grew up loving. Even the ups and downs of college life will not take the inner child out of you. Visit the collection, and let yourself be a kid for the day, instead of a stressed out Boston College student. 

February 18, 2024