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Spotlighting an early alliance with a fledgling museum

Early ally to fledgling museum

During the early years of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Athenaeum played a crucial role: It provided advice and support, loaned works of art, and hosted the MFA’s first exhibitions in its galleries on Beacon Street.

By the time the MFA was founded in 1870, the athenaeum had decided to scale back on its ambitions in the art world and focus on its role as a private library. The MFA didn’t have its own building during the first six years of its existence so the athenaeum’s help was warmly received.

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This story is told in a new book published by the athenaeum, “With Éclat: The Boston Athenaeum and the Origin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” and a companion exhibit, “Brilliant Beginnings: The Athenaeum and the Museum in Boston,” on display at the athenaeum through Aug. 3. Hina Hirayama, the athenaeum’s associate curator of paintings and sculpture, wrote the book and organized the exhibit. Today the athenaeum, holds more than 600,000 books, and it still owns 100,000 works of art.

Debating women’s roles

Are women too timid? How can they achieve their full potential? Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, addresses these questions in her new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” (Knopf). Published March 11, it has been met with sharply divided opinions.

Yet controversy is nothing new when the subject is a woman’s proper role. About 175 years ago, these same questions consumed another woman, one who is the subject of Megan Marshall’s new biography, “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), published the same week as Sandberg’s book.

Fuller is by no means as well known as her close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, whose early work she edited with a stern critique. Yet she was a front-page columnist for the New York Tribune, a foreign correspondent, and editor of The Dial, the foremost literary journal of its time. She not only advocated for women’s rights but was paid handsomely for it.

As Marshall wrote in an e-mail, “Margaret’s Conversations for women were the original consciousness-raising groups, and her aims with them were similar to Sandberg’s Lean-In groups — but more intellectually focused, deriving a sense of empowerment from studying the heroines of classical mythology. Still, the questions were, ‘What were we born to do — and how shall we do it?’ ”

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A few men joined Fuller’s Conversations, a weekly series of discussions, held in Boston in 1841; the class filled immediately, netting Fuller $600 in ticket fees, which Marshall, who teaches at Emerson College, estimates is the equivalent of at least $13,000 today.

Fuller insisted there were no capabilities that belonged exclusively to either man or woman. At the time, it was most definitely not a widely shared view. Would she be surprised that it still stirs debate today?

Coming out

“The Five Acts of Diego Leon”by Alex Espinoza (Random House)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler (St. Martin’s)

“Grand Ambition: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built It, and the Millionaire Who Can’t Really Afford It” by G. Bruce Knecht (Simon & Schuster)

Pick of the Week

Annie Philbrick of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., recommends “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger (Simon and Schuster): “This gem of a novel takes you back to the times when kids played kickball in the street in the lazy light of summer, protected by the innocence of youth and a small town. These children are exposed to murder, adultery, and lies but they don’t forget their faith, their family, and their loyalty to youth.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.

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