MFA Will Display Revere-Era Time Capsule Contents

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and conservator Pam Hatchfield looked at the artifacts removed from the time capsule at a press conference on January 6. Brian Snyder/Reuters

You probably already know what’s inside the centuries-old time capsule discovered at the State House late last year, but now you can see it all firsthand.

Starting March 11, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston will display the artifacts from Paul Revere, Governor Samuel Adams, and Revolutionary War Colonel William Scollay’s 1795 time capsule in the very spot where conservators revealed its contents in January. The historic package was placed 220 years ago to mark the opening of the new Massachusetts State House.

Museum officials say the small 1-inch-deep brass box and its contents will be on display to the public until April 22. The items, placed in chronological order beside enlarged sketches and photographs of each one, will sit in a glass case situated on the first floor of the museum’s Art of the Americas wing.


The time-capsule exhibit.

“From a contextual perspective we really couldn’t think of a better spot,’’ Exhibition Curator Nonie Gadsden told Boston.com before the display was publicly unveiled at an event on March 10. “Looking at the objects themselves, not just photographs, it takes [visitors] back into history itself.’’

The artifacts discovered in the brass box include numerous coins, newspapers, a medal with George Washington on it, and a silver plaque believed to be engraved by Adams himself. Since the objects were revealed in January they’ve been cleaned and studied in order for historians to learn more about them before they are reburied.

A silver plaque believed to be engraved by Samuel Adams.

Michael Comeau, executive director of the Massachusetts Archives, says historians have learned that the plate may very well have been engraved by Adams. Researchers have compared the engraving style on the plate– script engraved in the shape of a crescent declaring the 20th anniversary of American independence– to be similar to other pieces from Adams’ collection.

“This was a brand new nation for them,’’ Comeau said. “Their optimism and idealism is tangible… The Old State House was built by Britain and symbolized the king. They were marking not only a new State House but a new nation, their own nation.’’


The historic artifacts will sit alongside permanent gallery items including portraits of the capsule’s owners, other silver pieces smithed by Adams, and other historic American coins and portraits. Thomas Sully’s enormous painting of George Washington, “The Passage of the Delaware,’’ serves as the display box’s backdrop.

Comeau and Gadsden say the museum has learned a lot since the capsule was cracked open. MFA Director of Exhibitions Patrick McMahon researched the brass worker responsible for making the box, Andrew J. Gavett, who wrote his name in poked holes on the top of the capsule.

“We owe him one,’’ McMahon recently told The Boston Globe. “It’s because of his handiwork and because he did such a good job that this material survived for so many years.’’

“[Gavett] wanted to make his mark and be a part of history. There’s a human element to it, though,’’ Comeau told Boston.com. He pointed out that the inscription becomes more cramped as the letters approach the box’s edge. “It reminds me of myself trying to write neatly in grade school.’’

The inscription on the time-capsule box, made by Andrew J. Gavett.

Comeau and Gadsden say they hope to educate visitors who want to know why the box was unearthed and who may not know anything about Freemasonry, the stonemason organization central to the State House ceremony that placed the capsule.


“Some people wonder why it was dug up– was it really found?’’ Gadsden said. “And the Freemasons have been seen as this secret society, but they’re actually very open and played a large role in this ceremony.’’

The capsule, originally placed in 1795 and previously unearthed in 1855, will be returned to the cornerstone of the State House after the exhibition. It’s unclear if officials will place new items in the cornerstone, as those who uncovered it in 1855 did.

“It’s the state’s decision,’’ Gadsden said. “When the question ‘What would you put in it?’ comes up most kids say, ‘An iPhone!’’’

But Comeau and Gadsden say they would like to preserve the capsule as it is, and that a new phone isn’t the best update despite the Apple presence in the Old State House’s time capsule. “The newspapers placed in this capsule were from that day, we can see what was happening that very day,’’ Gadsden said. “An iPhone probably won’t work, it won’t turn on by the time it’s found.’’

At its unveiling in January both former Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary William Galvin, chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, also expressed interest in leaving the historic capsule as it was found.

“[This] is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts citizens to witness what Revolutionary heroes Samuel Adams and Paul Revere thought significant to preserve when they placed this box in the State House cornerstone just 20 years after the Declaration of Independence,’’ Galvin said in a statement. “I urge people to visit the museum to see this significant fragment of Massachusetts history.’’


A Pine Tree Shilling.

The coins found in the capsule have been identified as Pine Tree Shillings, which the MFA says are some of the oldest currency made in the American colonies: an early act of rebellion against the British. The conservation of the objects and documents in the capsule was overseen by Hatchfield, who originally unearthed the box, and Annette Manick, MFA’s Head of Paper Conservation.

After five weeks on display the artifacts are scheduled for reburial in June or July, Comeau said.

“You may not see it again in your lifetime.’’


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