MFA Boston Unlocks the Country’s Oldest Time Capsule

"This is what we as conservators live for."

Pamela Hatchfield, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Michael Comeau, executive director, Massachusetts Archives reveal the time capsule's contents. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.
Pamela Hatchfield, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Michael Comeau, executive director, Massachusetts Archives reveal the time capsule's contents. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

The country’s oldest time capsule was opened yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reports the Boston Globe. The package was buried underneath the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795 by then governor Samuel Adams with Paul Revere and Revolutionary War colonel William Scollay.

This snapshot into the age of the Founding Fathers last saw the light of day in 1855, when it was cleaned and documented. Rediscovered while repair work was being done on December 11, it was painstakingly excavated by Pamela Hatchfield, the head of objects conservation at the museum.

The capsule, which weighs 10 pounds, was X-rayed at the MFA several days later, but it was not opened until yesterday’s unveiling. Just loosening the screws holding the lid in place took some five hours, before Hatchfield carefully unpacked the contents at a small press conference.

“It was like brain surgery with history looking down on us,” said MFA director Malcolm Rogers on Anderson Cooper 360°.

The time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

The time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

Despite concerns over the condition of the contents—the area where the parcel was buried was known to have had water leaks—the objects, even five newspapers, including copies of the Boston Daily and the Boston Traveller, seemed to be in remarkably good shape. Hatchfield opted not to unfold the papers during press conference.

“This is the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” said Hatchfield as she unpacked the capsule using specialized tools such as a dentist’s probe, a strip of polyester film, and a porcupine quill. “This is what we as conservators live for.”

Also inside were 24 silver and copper coins dating from 1652 to the 1855. The newer specimens were added before the capsule was resealed and plastered into the building foundations in 1855.

The time capsule also contained a copper medal depicting George Washington, a paper imprint of the seal of the Commonwealth, cards, the title page from the first volume of the Massachusetts Colony Records, and a silver plaque engraved on one side by Paul Revere at the 1795 burial, and on the other in 1855.

An inscribed silver plaque from the time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

An inscribed silver plaque from the time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

Originally interred on July 4, 1795, the time capsule was cause for a great deal of celebration. The cornerstone was pulled to the State House by 15 white horses, and a 15-gun salute was fired as Adams, Revere, and Scollay placed the box between two lead slabs, the governor declaring that it should “there be fixed, unimpaired, in full vigor, till time shall be no more.”

Those wishes will be fulfilled. The capsule’s contents will likely be displayed at the MFA at some point this year, before being buried once more—possibly with a few contemporary additions.


Follow artnet News on Facebook:


Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.

Share