Past Exhibitions

"Can She Do It?" Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote

26 April to 21 September 2019Can She Do It graphic

Colorful political cartoons, engaging campaign materials, and visual propaganda illustrate the passion of those who argued for and against women’s suffrage.

Commemorating 100 years since Massachusetts ratified the 19th Amendment, this exhibition explores the activism and debate around women’s suffrage in Massachusetts. Featuring dynamic imagery from the collection of the MHS, “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote illustrates the passion on each side of the suffrage question. 

Original calendar listing

Fashioning the New England Family

5 October 2018 to 6 April 2019

A journey through several centuries of New England style in an exhibition of clothing, fabric, accoutrements, and associated manuscripts.

Fashioning the New England Family explored the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items featured had been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition enabled scholars, students, and professionals in fields such as fashion, material culture, and history the chance to see these items for the first time. It encouraged research and provided the possibility for new discoveries. The public were able to view in detail painstaking craftsmanship, discover how examples of material culture relate to significant moments in our history, and learn how garments were used as political statements, projecting an individual’s religion, loyalties, and social status. 

The exhibition was organized as part of MASS Fashion, a consortium of eight cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston’s South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815 to 1825

11 May to 14 September 2018 Vose

Virtually forgotten for two-hundred years, the brilliance of Isaac Vose and his furniture were revealed in an exhibition and accompanying volume.

Beginning with a modest pair of collection boxes he made for his local Boston church in 1788, Isaac Vose went on to build a substantial business empire and to make furniture for the most prominent Boston families until his shop closed in 1825. Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston's South End showcased a number of pieces by the workshop of Isaac Vose through the vision of guest curators and authors Robert Mussey and Clark Pearce. The exhibition and accompanying book help to restore Vose from relative obscurity to his rightful position as one of Boston’s most important craftsmen.

The complementary book, Rather Elegant Than Showy (May 2018), by Robert Mussey and Clark Pearce, is available for sale at the MHS.

Image: Couch, Isaac Vose & Son, with Thomas Wightman, carver, Boston, 1824. Historic New England, Gift of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1923.507); photograph by David Bohl.

 

Yankees in the West

6 October 2017 to 6 April 2018 Yankees in the West

Yankees in the West explored how a generation of eastern tourists set out to claim their story line in the expanding narrative of the American West.

The American West has long loomed large in the popular imagination. Depicted alternately as a harsh, untamed, and unpopulated wilderness; a land of opportunity; and the embodiment of America’s sense of entitlement through manifest destiny, realizing western promise was a dominant theme throughout the 19th century. Beginning mid-century, descriptions of the trans-Mississippi West flowed steadily east, capturing the Yankee eye and fueling still steadier streams of westward travel. Through a selection of letters, diaries, artifacts, photographs, and drawings, Yankees in the West explored how New Englanders experienced the trans-Mississippi west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity

10 March to 22 September 2017 The Irish Atlantic

This exhibition explored the impact of generations of Irish in Boston from famine relief efforts to a mass migration movement, community and institutional building, and a rise in political power.

The Irish have long had an important presence in Boston. The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, & Opportunity, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Forbes House Museum, explored the Irish in Boston from famine relief efforts to a mass migration movement, decades of community and institutional building, and a rise in political power.

Watch this video for an overview of the exhibit by guest curator William M. Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern University.

See the exhibit’s companion website for an overview, timeline, and interviews with Mayor Martin Walsh; Consul General of Ireland Fionnuala Quinlan; former mayor and ambassador Ray Flynn; guest curator and Northeastern University professor William Fowler, Jr.; Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the MHS Peter Drummey; attorney and author Christian Samito; Boston College professor James O'Toole; and guest historian Catherine Shannon.

Turning Points in American History

10 June 2016 to 25 February 2017 Turning Points

Turning points as described in eyewitness accounts, personal records, and artifacts in the Society's collections were explored in the exhibition.

Turning Points in American History examined 15 decisive moments when everything suddenly changed or a process began that would change what followed. These are not the only, or even the most important, events in American history, but turning points described in eyewitness accounts and personal records, or commemorated by "dumb witnesses"--artifacts found in the Society's enormous collections. The exhibition included an account of sailing a small boat through New York Harbor on 11 September 200; the opening of the American West in the 19th century; the abolitionist movement and the Civil War; the American Revolution and the birth of the United States; and John Winthrop's account of setting sail for New England in 1630. 

Original calendar listing

The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

29 January to 26 May 2016 The Private Jefferson

Through the Society’s collections, the exhibition uncovered one of the most famous yet enigmatic and private Americans, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson has been described as an “American Sphinx.” As the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, he is one of the most famous Americans. Nevertheless, he is an enigmatic figure. Through a selection of architectural drawings, writings and correspondence, and record books from the collections of the MHS, this exhibition pulled back the veil and uncovered the private Jefferson. 

One of the Society’s greatest treasures is the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts. The collection is comprised of letters, journals, record books, accounts, and more than 400 architectural drawings—almost 9,500 documents in all—collected by Jefferson’s descendants who lived in Massachusetts and donated them to the Society.

Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive presents digital images and searchable transcriptions of a selection of Jefferson's personal papers, including his Farm and Garden Books, the manuscript of Notes on the State of Virginia, his only full-length published work, and his handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence. The website also features digital images of Jefferson's architectural drawings and sketches of two of his library catalogs.

The Private Jefferson: Perspectives from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a full-color, extensively illustrated publication with essays by Henry Adams, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrea Wulf, and published by the MHS is available for purchase online or at the Society.

Original calendar listing

Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection

2 October 2015 to 9 January 2016 Terra Firma

The MHS map collection—one of the Society’s most diverse and interesting— includes landmarks of map publishing.

Terra Firma celebrated the beginnings of one of the Society's most diverse and interesting collections. Among the maps in the exhibition were landmarks of map publishing that included the first published map of New England, the first map of Massachusetts published in America, and a unique copy of the earliest separate map of Vermont, as well as maps of important battles and maps and atlases from the United States and beyond.

Learn more about four of the mapmakers at www.masshist.org/terrafirma.

Original calendar listing

God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill

27 February to 4 September 2015 God Save the People

Immerse yourself in the tumultuous times leading to revolution with an exhibition of letters, diaries, political cartoons, newspapers, maps, artifacts, and portraits.

“The decisive Day is come on which the fate of America depends,” writes Abigail Adams to John Adams after the Battle of Bunker Hill in a letter dated June 18-20, 1775. Two hundred and fifty years after the enactment of the Stamp Act in 1765, the Society is commemorated this decisive era with an exhibition to tell the story of the coming of the American Revolution in Boston. God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill followed the evolution of colonial thought and political action through the letters and diaries of men and women caught up in the conflict, together with political cartoons, newspapers, maps, artifacts, and portraits.

Explore the coming of the American Revolution through the following online displays.

Perspectives of the Boston Massacre is an interactive website that allows visitors to examine materials offering a range of perspectives related to the events of 5 March 1765.

The Siege of Boston presents more than one dozen accounts written by individuals personally engaged in or affected by the siege, which occurred from April 1775 to March 1776.

The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., presents the complete four-volume set of Revolutionary-era Boston newspapers and pamphlets assembled, annotated, and indexed by Harbottle Dorr, Jr., a shopkeeper in Boston.

Discover the fears, friction, and turmoil that shaped these times with The Coming of the American Revolution, a web display of newspapers, official documents, and personal correspondence arranged into fifteen key topics.

Original calendar listing

Letters & Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War

12 June 2014 to 24 January 2015 Letters and Photographs

An exhibition of letters, photographs, and other memorabilia assembled to commemorate the centenary of the first World War.

To commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, the MHS organized the exhibition Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, focusing on two of the hundreds of women from the Commonwealth who went to France as members of the U.S. armed forces, the Red Cross, and other war relief organizations. From the Society’s extraordinary collection of women’s remembrances, the exhibition featured photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia related to Margaret Hall and Eleanor (Nora) Saltonstall, Red Cross volunteers in France. Both women were keen observers of the climactic months of the war and depicted what they witnessed in vivid detail.

Purchase the MHS publication Letters & Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall.

View all of the photographs from Margaret Hall's memoir on our companion website.

Original calendar listing

Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment & Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial

21 February to 23 May 2014 Tell It with Pride

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington

In commemoration of the Civil War battle of Fort Wagner led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and in cooperation with the Massachusetts Historical Society, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. organized the exhibition Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment & Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial.

The exhibition celebrated Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ magisterial Shaw Memorial (1883–1900).The monument commemorates the July 18, 1863 storming of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina. The Civil War battle was waged by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African American military units raised in the North. Although the 54th was defeated at Fort Wagner and almost a third of the regiment was killed—including Shaw himself—or wounded, the battle was seen as a turning point in the war: it proved that African Americans’ bravery and dedication to country equaled that of the nation’s most celebrated heroes.

Learn more about items in the Society's collection related to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Read about the sword Robert Gould Shaw carried at the assault on Fort Wagner.

Original calendar listing

The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections

4 October 2013 to 17 January 2014 The Cabinetmaker & the Carver

An extraordinary opportunity to view nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from private collections in the greater Boston area.

Boston has been the home of an important furniture trade since the mid- 17th century. As part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration, the Massachusetts Historical Society presented an exhibition covering several centuries of a rich and varied furniture-making tradition. Visitors were able to explore nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from distinguished private collections in the greater Boston area. Ranging in date from the late-17th century to about 1900, these privately held treasures, generously lent by their owners, provided a look at the trajectory of cabinetmaking in the Hub. Supplemented with complementary materials from the Society’s collections the exhibition explores furniture as history and provides a look at Boston’s distinctive urban tradition.

A full-color, extensively illustrated catalogue written by guest curator Gerald W. R. Ward and published by the MHS is available for purchase online or at the Society. Learn more about The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections.

Original calendar listing

The Object of History: 18th-Century Treasures from the Massachusetts Historical Society

13 June to 7 September 2013 The Object of History

Explore how documents and artifacts can tell us about the characters, events, and issues of the past.

What is the meaning of historical objects? Why are they preserved, and why have they survived? Are they valued for their associations with notable historical figures or landmark events, as objects of beauty, as the survival of relics from a distant past, or for the stories they convey? The exhibition explores these questions through the display of 18th-century portraits and objects from the Society's collections, along with rarely seen engravings, needlework, maps, weapons, furniture, clothing, scientific instruments, and silver.

Original calendar listing