When a museum really gets the hang of it

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Max Beckmann’s painting is framed by doorways at the Harvard Art Museums.

By Globe Staff 

Art always involves a what, the work itself, and a who, the maker or makers.

Don’t forget the where.


Where becomes a factor when a museum exhibits a work. Sometimes the placement can be nearly as striking as the art. The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, hangs Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” so as to mark the culmination of its Dutch Golden Age galleries. Robert Motherwell’s “Reconciliation Elegy” dominates the atrium in the East Wing of the National Gallery, in Washington.

A where doesn’t have to be that dramatic or prominent to enhance the impression a piece of art makes. When you see a placement that really works, you know it. The where doesn’t even have to be in a gallery. Placed just so, an artwork can turn an otherwise-nondescript space into a view with a room.

Here are seven examples from area museums.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

“Self-Portrait in Tuxedo,” 1927

Harvard Art Museums | Cambridge


Max Beckmann’s painting has few rivals for assurance, authority, and swank. Depending on where you stand, the painting is framed by one, two, or three doorways. At the other end of the axis is a Blue Period Picasso, “Mother and Child.” Is Beckmann’s look one of acceptance — or disapproval?

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Greek funerary lion, 3d century BCE

Rhode Island School of Design Museum | Providence

Although the sculpture is small, it has the honor of being visible on not one but two axes. Doorways frame it both lengthwise and crosswise. If that weren’t enough, the sculpture’s supports rest on a low plinth. It’s as if the lion were crouching, ready to pounce. Roar!

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

“Cochiti Redskins,” c. 2000

Museum of Fine Arts


Mateo Romero’s painting isn’t in a gallery. Tucked away in back of the Art of the Americas Wing, it hangs at the top of a small staircase that leads to studio-art classrooms. That out-of-the-way location makes the canvas stand out all the more.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff e

Nine Shepard Fairey screenprints, 2000-2007

Institute of Contemporary Art

There are some familiar faces here. Hey, there’s Richard Nixon! There’s Malcolm X! But they’re in an unfamiliar space: at the bottom of the first-floor staircase, far from the fourth-floor galleries. As with the Romero painting, the unexpected location makes viewing feel intimate. It’s just you and Nixon and Malcolm and the rest.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

“Pope Innocent X,” c. 1650

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

This papal portrait after Diego Velazquez hangs in front of an Italian desk — very handsome, walnut, with brass fittings, c. 1700. Presumably, Mrs. Gardner used to sit at it and gaze at the painting. So the visitor gets the view she did (minus being able to pull up a chair and plop down).

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

“Loading,” 2011

Davis Museum at Wellesley College | Wellesley

Flanked by two short staircases, Tim Okamura’s double portrait has a small wall all to itself. Seen from across the museum’s atrium space, those few square feet look like a promenade, or stage, expressly made for Okamura’s two young women.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Van de Graaff generator

Museum of Science

True, the generator isn’t a work of art. But its two globes and the columns they rest on are gorgeously sculptural — like Iron Giant baby rattles. Museumgoers have a choice of perspectives: looking up, from a Theater of Electricity seat, or down, from a second-level balcony.

Mark Feeney can be reached at