So much attention is paid to what’s in museums, we can almost forget what they actually are: public spaces, usually with inspiring architecture, where you can stay all day. Cities, especially in summer, can be punishing, whether with crowds, pollution, or unyielding heat amplified by acres of asphalt. By all means, go to a museum to see the art. But look around and linger. It’s worth it.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s airy, Norman Foster-designed central atrium is largely occupied by the New American Café, its semiformal, table-service eatery. One floor down, one of the very best urban spaces in town has a more down-market entry point. Through the self-serve cafeteria on the lower level, you’ll find the museum’s internal courtyard, a space crawling with ivy and draped with leafy boughs that dapple the handful of cafe tables here with sun and shade. Walled in all sides by the museum’s stony neoclassical architecture, it’s a near-silent sanctuary, a lush retreat, and a pause for breath. After seeing “Philip Guston Now,” the just-opened retrospective of the great American painter that comes with warning labels about racially-charged content, you might need it.
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston jumpstarted a Seaport transformation when it opened its Diller Scofidio and Renfro-designed home on Fan Pier in 2006. Back then, it was all alone. That has obviously changed, with the bustle of the Seaport rivaling any neighborhood in town. The ICA building performs a remarkable public service: Its ascending swath of stadium seats — all in shade, under the canopy of the building’s overhang — face Boston Harbor and East Boston beyond, making for a cool respite with a view, complete with a sea breeze. It’s an ideal spot to unpack takeout from any of the many options all around the museum; or to read a book; or to just gather strength for the evening, which is when the Seaport comes to most boisterous life. Before all that, you might want to check out “A Place for Me: Figurative Painting Now,” the ICA’s current show of contemporary figurative painting, a fresh, vibrant survey of a timeless genre.
Harvard amalgamated its various art museums under one roof in 2014. The school gave it (them?) an ungainly moniker — Harvard Art Museums, always plural — but Renzo Piano, the architect who designed the space, made it exceedingly beautiful. Collections enjoy room to breathe; galleries are elegant and intuitive in terms of wayfinding. Wherever possible, the building welcomes in floods of diffuse natural light. And right in the middle is Piano’s architectural intimation of what a museum is for: The entire building is organized around a soaring central courtyard with a smattering of cafe tables, where students and locals alike study, work, or gab happily in a cool wash of daylight pouring in from above. It’s a natural gathering space and makes clear that for all the riches found on the walls, the most important element of any museum is the people who come to see it. A bonus: Jenny’s Cafe, a well-placed nook just off the courtyard, has terrific options, from coffee and treats to full meals. While you’re there, keep an eye out in the galleries for pieces with a label framed in orange; they’re part of the museums’ ongoing “ReFrame” initiative to interrogate their own historical collecting habits with social justice and equity in mind.