Guest Series: WGBH and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the early 1960s

In this series, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) invites researchers, educators, industry professionals and collaborators to highlight the diversity of topics, interests, and perspectives preserved and made accessible in the public radio and television collections of the AAPB.


This week we welcome Michael Grasso, a recent graduate of Harvard Extension School’s Master’s program in Museum Studies. His capstone project was on the uses of childhood nostalgia in building museum visitorship, and researched extensively on the role television and other broadcast media plays in building an interest for learning in museums.

WGBH in Boston was at the forefront of a variety of different types of educational programming in the years before the establishment of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1969. Local Boston public broadcasting series, such as Julia Child’s The French Chef, went on to become PBS mainstays. Among the programs produced in Boston at WGBH in the 1960s was an educational outlet of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), a series called Museum Open House, hosted by the MFA’s Russell Connor.

Connor came to the MFA after being stationed in Korea and Japan and studying at Yale under the GI Bill. After spending a year in Paris painting, “the dream of every young American artist since the 19th century,” he found himself working at the MFA in the early 1960s. At this time there was intense interest in using the relatively new medium of television to deliver education to the masses and thus bring museum collections to audiences who might never set foot within an institution’s brick and mortar confines. Obviously, there were technical limitations placed on such educational efforts in the mid-1960s: black and white, low-resolution broadcasting on small television screens. But it’s interesting for me, as a museum professional in the present day, to compare the efforts in education-at-a-distance during a period of technological revolution a half-century ago with those of today, as museums spend enormous amounts of time, resources, and energy deciding how much and where to integrate mobile and web technology into their educational and audience outreach efforts.

The MFA and Connor jumped into the fray with both feet. Premiering in 1963 and airing for four years, Museum Open House used the MFA’s impressive collections, as well as temporary and traveling exhibits, to cover a new topic in art history in each half-hour episode, whether an artistic movement (such as the “Surrealism: Seekers of the Dream” episode) or a theme, such as “The Artist and the Mirror,” on self-portraiture. Connor’s dry yet approachable demeanor is still riveting in 2019; never dumbing down the topics for a broader audience, yet making the objects he discusses relatable and immediate for the non-expert. Nowhere is this clearer than in the “Animal Spirits” episode from 1966, where Connor weaves together the details of each period in art history he covers with brief yet vivid evocations of the ineffable “personality” of the beasts represented in each painting, sculpture, and tapestry he discusses.

Museum Open House; WGBH, Animal Spirits

The “Surrealism” episode mentioned above is another standout; not just because of the subject matter, which reviews a 1964 traveling exhibition on Surrealism and “fantastic art” from the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. The producers of Museum Open House take it upon themselves to try their hand at a “surrealistic” interlude midway through the episode, complete with visual homages to famous Surrealist film directors and artists such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. In addition, there are video and audio effects very obviously produced in-house at WGBH using the equipment available at the time. Given WGBH’s presence at the vanguard of the field of video art in the years to come, it’s interesting to see this playful sequence as a harbinger of things to come in public broadcasting.

Museum Open House; WGBH Surrealism: Seekers of the Dream

Episodes of the Museum Open House series are available online at http://americanarchive.org/catalog?f%5Bseries_titles%5D%5B%5D=Museum+Open+House&f%5Baccess_types%5D%5B%5D=online.


About the American Archive of Public Broadcasting

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the WGBH Educational Foundation to coordinate a national effort to preserve at-risk public media before its content is lost to posterity and provide a central web portal for access to the unique programming that public stations have aired over the past 70 years.To date, over 100,000 television and radio programs contributed by more than 120 public media organizations and archives across the United States have been digitized for long-term preservation and access.

The entire collection is available on location at WGBH and the Library of Congress, and more than 47,000 programs are available online at americanarchive.org.

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