News Column

MFA hosts Magna Carta exhibit

June 30, 2014

By Tenley Woodman, Boston Herald



June 30--What do a medieval English text and Massachusetts have in common? More than you'd think.

The Museum of Fine Arts' exhibit "Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty," opening Wednesday, features 20 historical pieces that connect England's "Great Charter" to Boston.

"I don't think people read it much today, but it's still an important symbol," MFA curator Gerry Ward told the Herald of the nearly 800-year-old document.

The Magna Carta, written in 1215, served to limit the powers of the England's king and listed the rights and laws available to Englishmen. Only four copies remain, and the MFA will display the Lincoln Cathedral copy, through Sept. 1. Boston is the first of three American stops, including the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and the Law Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., ahead of next year's 800th anniversary celebration in England.

State Rep. Cory Atkins (D-Concord), chairwoman of the committee on tourism, arts and cultural development, worked to bring the Magna Carta to the Bay State. She said it is the DNA of the American legal system.

"Everything from 'to be judged by your peers,' 'no one is above the law,' 'habeas corpus,' these were all fundamentals spelled out in the original document," said Atkins. "The language is included in both the charter for the colony of Massachusetts, the Mayflower compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts constitution and the Constitution of the United States. This is a set of principles that have guided how we think about society and people's rights for 800 years."

It provided a template for which America's own documents of independence were based, and Ward said there is good reason why.

"In the mid-18th century, Magna Carta was a living, breathing thing to colonists," said Ward, who also serves in the New Hampshire state legislature. "They thought of themselves as English, and their rights protected by Magna Carta. When they felt their rights were being trampled, they invoked Magna Carta time and time again."

Twenty pieces, including 10 from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, will illustrate the connection.

A draft of the Massachusetts constitution, authored by John Adams, will be on display. Other items will include the Liberty Bowl, made by patriot Paul Revere; the annotated newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, a shop keeper and member of the Sons of Liberty; and a portrait of Mum Bett, also known as Elizabeth Freeman, a Massachusetts slave who fought for her freedom by calling upon rights listed in Magna Carta.

"The argument we are making by surrounding a document from 1215 with these documents from 1775, is that the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, the Massachusetts constitution play the same role for us as the Magna Carta does in England," said Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. "The Massachusetts constitution literally has language taken right out of Magna Carta, as opposed to the U.S. constitution which relies on a bill of rights added separately after."

Ward said Magna Carta's humble physical appearance belies its importance.

"It's not huge, and has a lot of tight handwriting," said Ward. "How many of our electronic emails will last 800 years? It's an amazing, powerful symbol."

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(c)2014 the Boston Herald

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Source: Boston Herald (MA)


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