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Big ideas come in small packages in MFA’s ‘Tiny Treasures’

The show uncorks ‘the magic of miniatures’ with a delightful and eclectic mix of paintings and objects

The MFA's "Tiny Treasures:" A world of wonder in the palm of your hand.
The MFA's "Tiny Treasures:" A world of wonder in the palm of your hand. (Video courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

It’s the rare exhibition you routinely have to squint to see, but “Tiny Treasures,” recently opened at the MFA, both demands and rewards close looking. Like a lot of collection shows — almost all of its 110 pieces are in-house — it’s built at least partly to dust off objects long left in the vaults. That can leave it feeling at times like a premise in search of the objects to suit it, with the occasional head-scratcher wedged in. But as a summertime confection, “Tiny Treasures” is a delight, with more than a few stabs at real enlightenment amid its eclectic, whimsical pleasures.

Curator Courtney Leigh Harris structured the exhibition around six rubrics, loose as they are. But an introductory gallery takes aim at topical relevance for a genre as old as human enterprise itself. I was thrilled to see the dollhouse-sized home of the Shelter in Place Gallery front and center. Representing a significant chapter of Boston’s own very recent art history, Shelter in Place served as perhaps the city’s most dynamic showcase for contemporary art during the early shutdown months of the pandemic, in 2020. Conceived and run by Eben Haines and Delaney Dameron, it hosted a regular rotation of contemporary artists, first from Boston and then further afield, shown exclusively on Instagram, a lockdown-ready art showcase if there ever was one.


Katarina Burin, "Hotel Nord-Sud, model, 1932-34," 2010-2017. Copyright Katarina Burin, Museum of Fine Arts

Shelter in Place’s artfully disheveled interior, with walls of tiny painted faux brick and black grid windows, had the cool and breezy air of the kind of disused industrial spaces artists have been repurposing for decades. By 2020, those spaces were already scarce, swallowed whole by a voracious real estate market repurposing them for condos and lab space — a phenomenon that continues to both gain momentum and prompt some pushback, as my colleague Malcolm Gay recently reported.


Shelter in Place’s scale was meaningful, providing the only kind of exhibition space the local community seemed able to afford to access: tabletop, and virtual. Online, scale hardly matters, but in the material world, the project became both a critique of a brick-and-mortar crisis and a generator of new work at miniature scale.

Prayer bead with depictions of Saint James and Saint George. Art Gallery of Ontario

It’s a perfect touchstone for the show, which spans millennia and continents; miniatures remain a relevant, occasionally loaded form for artists to ply their craft. Aptly, Shelter in Place shares its chapter of the show with Katarina Burin’s “Hotel Nord-Sud, model, 1932-34,” 2010–2017, a low-slung Bauhausian model of a hotel by her fictional architect, Petra Andrejova-Molnár; destroyed during the Second World War, as Burin conceived it, it was more than a marvel of meticulous design and the edicts of proportion and clean lines of its time. Made by a woman who struggled against gender bias to work in the field at all, its essential evocation — of a dollhouse, and a radically austere one — turns the mind in many directions at once. The piece is both an elegant conception of form and a response to the era, when women were largely denied professional and intellectual advancement and assumed to care only about the conventionally pretty.

That might be the meatiest contemplation to be found here, though wonder otherwise abounds. A chapter of the exhibition called “Magic, Mystery, and Memory” contains such things as a boxwood prayer bead from the early 16th century, truly among the most baffling objects in human history; the size of a walnut and carved by an anonymous maker in absurd detail to portray Saint James and Saint George, it remains, along with its kin, the root of an insoluble mystery, like Stonehenge or crop circles. (A 2016 exhibition of the beads at the Art Gallery of Ontario, their principle storehouse, engaged a master woodcarver to replicate one; he surrendered, utterly defeated.)


“Bastet amulet inscribed for Pamay,” 724–712 B.C., gold. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But the chapter isn’t mere whimsy; tiny objects of devotion were often made to be portable, as missionary types carted around pocket-sized objects to either serve the faithful or help convert those who were not. Here, a golden Bastet amulet from the eighth century BCE in Egypt is toothpick-height and nearly as slim; nearby, a matchbox-size silver pendant from 1504 unfolds in three parts, a dizzyingly wee take on an altarpiece depicting the martyrdom of Santa Barbara, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Gereon. Its tiny drama exudes high-Catholic angst and demands a face-pressed-againt-glass examination; it’s a treatise on how less can be more. Next to it, a traveling communion set, made in 1967 by Robert W. Ebendorf, sports the clean lines of midcentury modern aesthetics, with its spare silver cup and swooping rosewood box.

In the catalog that accompanies the show, Harris offers helpful signposts. Miniatures, she explains, have flourished during profound cultural shifts. Objects like the hand-carved globe compass included here, rendered in ivory, reflected a world both growing and shrinking as European exploration spread further afield in the 15th and 16th centuries — literally the whole planet in the palm of an enterprising mariner’s hand.


As the Enlightenment flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, expanding scientific inquiry discovered the micro-realms of cellular biology and genetics brought into view by the innovation of the microscope (a tiny brass magnifying glass from the 18th century sits in a vitrine here, like a Monty Pythonesque pun).

Jean‑Baptiste‑Camille Corot, sketch to show how six paintings should be hung.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The last period, Harris suggests, is not historical at all. We’re living in it: a universe of images at the constant ready on our phones, where scale becomes increasingly abstract as we straddle real and virtual worlds. While I don’t disagree — a square Instagram box, however convenient, is a badly diminished proxy for seeing real things in real spaces — that notion (thank you, Shelter in Place) is hardly present here.

What is present is a distractingly wonderful cornucopia of strange delights. I had never seen — and can’t imagine another context where I would — an enthralling ink schematic by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the Barbizon master, of how he wanted six of his paintings hung. The sketch, comprising the half-dozen paintings roughed out, each the size of postage stamp, brought me more pleasure than perhaps it should have.

Shûôsai Hidemasa, “Clam‑shell with the Vindication of Ono No Komachi” early 19th century, stained ivory. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

And there are flicks at conceptual intent. Ron Ho’s “TV Guide,” 1992, is an ungainly, outsize necklace pendant of an old tube TV perched on a table alongside traditional Chinese home shrine objects. It succinctly sums up his immigrant experience, living in two worlds, distilled to a wearable object that’s an outward signal of hybrid identity. Nearby is a dollhouse-sized replica of an opulent dining room from 18th-century Netherlands, laden with silver and finery imported from far-flung places. Its pint-size extravagances signals another kind of identity — one telegraphing wealth and power, in portable form.


Meaning can come at the behest of wonder. But it’s also easy to get stuck in the bafflement of “how?” — ant-size saints carved in boxwood? How about a Japanese parable tucked neatly inside a clamshell, as in Shûôsai Hidemasa’s 19th-century ivory carving? — and lose, perhaps, the “why?” The makers’ intentions are many, but still converge into one: Somehow, some way, each tests the outer limits of the possible. And it’ll make you look.


Through Feb. 18. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300,

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.