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MFA Melee: New Wing Causing Creative Chaos

The American Wing is massive. More than three years after breaking ground it's still a work in progress, slated to open to the public late next year. But the MFA is already bringing in some art. The very first object is so big it has to be carried into the museum's messy construction site so the building can go up around it. It takes brawn, says Elliot Bostwick Davis, because the thing weighs 800 pounds.

DAVIS: It's the largest work of art, it's a nearly 50 foot, hand-hewn oak beam from the Manning House Frame which was located in Boxford, Mass., near Ipswitch. It's a beam from the second floor of the 17th century house, so for the United States, it's a very old relic but also an important one for the museum.

Bostwick Davis is the chairman of the museum's vast Art of the America's department. The new wing falls under her direction. For months the timber beam will rest, protected from the elements and the back hoes, in a specially designed crate. Inside the museum's new visitor's center Bostwick Davis peers through a picture window at the wing's three-story steel skeleton rising out of the earth.

BOSTWICK DAVIS: It's larger than most regular museums that people tour around the nation, it's certainly larger, as you can see I think, than something like the Guggenheim in New York.

All that space, almost 60,000 square feet, needs to be filled with art, including a good number of new pieces. And the MFA can afford to do that because it raised money for the new wing before the economy tanked. So the museum is acquiring to diversify its current trove of more than 15,000 American art objects. They've added Ancient American, Native American, and works by lesser-known artists such as the African American abstract painter Norman Lewis.

Then there's the MFA's permanent American collection, which had to be packed up and stored away during construction. Bostwick Davis says she can't tell us where.

BOSTWICK DAVIS: They're in our secret off-site location, I can tell everybody here that it really does look like Raiders of the Lost Ark if you know that film they're carefully stacked they're in carefully constructed crates all carefully fitted with foam it's a Tetris puzzle over there.

Over here in the museum, too. Designing, re-imagining and experimenting is going on behind every door and in every gallery in the current American wing, which is still open to the public. Precious pieces in the existing collection are also playing a role, test driving new lighting and display technologies.

BOSTWICK DAVIS: We're standing with The Liberty Bowl here in this particular case.

Patriot Paul Revere engraved this silver bowl in 1768. It's considered the third most important artifact in the U.S. after the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The bowl is housed in a streamlined, almost seamless glass box.

BOSTWICK DAVIS: As you go around the bowl on the back, you'll see flags engraved with Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights referring to England. Wilkes was an important British sympathizer with the cause of Liberty.

The display case is a prototype made in Milan. It's state-of-the-art, temperature- and moisture-controlled and very secure. The MFA has ordered dozens to protect priceless art in both the old and new galleries.

Down the hall another old gallery has been transformed into a lab of sorts. On this day head, designer Keith Crippen works on potential displays with curators from the decorative arts department. It's a rare opportunity, he says.

CRIPPEN: Typically we work with existing spaces so this is, we actually have a brand new space so we're able to create something from the ground up. The time and resources that we're pouring into it are far far beyond anything else we've done.

The work on the new American wing, and other major improvements at the MFA, costs $500 million. Hundreds of people, including constructions crews, curators, conservators, are working towards its completion. Museum officials acknowledge it's quite an undertaking in the shadow of the economic crisis. Other institutions, including the St. Louis Art Museum, have delayed plans to renovate or expand. But at the MFA, the plotting and building continues.

The American Wing is supposed to be built by the end of September, this year. It could take another year to install thousands of works of art before the 50 new galleries open for business in late 2010.

This program aired on January 23, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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