From cultures to civilization, Superman to the seacoast, the best museum exhibitions this year had us re-examining that which we thought we might have known by heart. It was a year of fresh faces and artists reconsidered so wholly, they might as well have been entirely new. And one museum decided to upend the whole notion of how a museum should be.

Huma Bhabha: They Live
Installation view, "Huma Bhabha: They Live," The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston
Photo by Charles Mayer Photography © Huma Bhabha

"Huma Bhabha: They Live"

No artist’s work has stayed with me this year as much as the sculpture of Karachi-born artist Huma Bhabha. Her towering figures populated the Institute of Contemporary Art like beings descended from another world and her sculpture reflecting on the ravages of war in the Middle East was wrenching. Most evocative though, was a shrouded, supplicant figure that filled an entire gallery—not only in size but also with extraordinary layers of meaning.

This exhibit was on view March 23 through May 27, 2019 at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Graciela Iturbide's Mexico
Mujer Ángel, Desierto de Sonora / Angel Woman, Sonora Desert, México, 1979
Graciela Iturbide, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico"

She’s Mexico’s most famous living photographer and known chiefly for one photograph of a Juchitan woman crowned in a wreath of iguanas. But as this expansive exhibition revealed, Iturbide’s prowess comes in her ability to capture, again and again, a profound sense of place and culture in her arresting black and white photography.

This exhibit was on view from January 19 through May 12, 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Renoir: The Body, The Senses
"Seated Bather" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Courtesy of The Clark Art Institute and the Fogg Museum

"Renoir: The Body, The Senses"

For a long time, Renoir has been lost to the hokum of endless wall calendars and postcards. Who knew that he was cool enough to capture the unbridled passion of Picasso? This first-ever exhibition of Renoir’s nudes revealed the painter's skill from his earliest academy days to his end-of-life push into the avant-garde.

This exhibit was on view from June 8 through September 22, 2019 at the Clark Art Institute.

The Hood Museum of Art
The renovated second-floor galleries in the Hood Museum of Art, featuring installations of contemporary African art, Melanesian art, and contemporary Aboriginal Australian art
Michael Moran, courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth

The Re-opening of the Hood Museum of Art

When the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College re-opened this year it was about much more than a gleaming new space. Its director and curators inverted the typical museum experience. You’ll still find Renaissance art and the blockbuster artists like Picasso. But, they’re on the fringes of the museum. It’s now the often-overlooked global contemporary art that refreshingly takes center stage in the museum’s core galleries.

The Hood Museum of Art re-opened January 26, 2019.

J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate
Syon House and Kew Palace from near Isleworth (‘The Swan’s Nest’), c. 1805, J .M. W. Turner (1775-1851) © Tate, London 2018
Joe Michael, courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum and Tate, London

"J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate"

The Mystic Seaport Museum scored a major coup in landing the only North American stop for a vast collection of Turner watercolors that rarely travel and can only be exhibited once in a generation because of their sensitivity to light. It was a must-see show for Turner’s beauty and process—including how he kept one fingernail long to literally scratch suggestions of light into his work.

This exhibit is on view from October 5 through February 23, 2020 at the Mystic Seaport Museum.

hyman bloom
"Seated Old Woman" by Hyman Bloom

"Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death"

Hyman Bloom’s fascination with the cycle of life led him into gruesome territory—depicting cadavers and bodies carved wide open. But as someone who worked with the same talent and force as 20th century greats Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his work vibrates with color and luminescence. For the subject matter, Bloom has long been over-looked so kudos to the Museum of Fine Arts for having the conviction to see his body of work, well, re-Bloom.

This exhibit is on view from July 13 through February 23, 2020 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Homer at the Beach
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Children on the Beach (aka Watching the Tide Go Out and Watching the Boats), 1873. Oil on canvas (12 5/8“ x 16 ½”).
Courtesy of Sotheby's, Inc. and the Cape Ann Museum

"Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey, 1869-1880"

With a comprehensive review of Winslow Homer’s marine painting, comprised of ambitiously gathered national and international loans, the Cape Ann Museum revealed itself as the little museum that can and will do. The exhibition charted Homer’s travels up and down the eastern seaboard moving from beaches busy with bathers in New Jersey to the rugged isolation of northern New England.

This exhibit was on view from August 3 through December 1, 2019 at the Cape Ann Museum.

fatimah tuggar
A piece from Fatimah Tuggar's "Home Horizon's" exhibit at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College.

"Fatimah Tuggar: Home’s Horizons"

In the photographic collages of Fatimah Tuggar, all is not initially appears. The artist creates an “alternative imaginary” in work which presents sliced up scenes of cultural collisions—all which harken back to the Nigerian artist’s abstract notions of homes. The slow-looking her work engenders is a great lesson for absorbing cultures in the world outside Tuggar’s imaginary one.

This exhibit was on view from September 13 through December 15, 2019 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College.

Men of Steel, Women of Wonder
Jason Bard Yarmosky, Wintered Fields, 2016. Oil on canvas 72 x 144 in.
Courtesy of the artist and the Addison Gallery of American Art

"Men of Steel, Women of Wonder"

For some 80 years Superman and Wonder Woman have been with us standing for truth, justice and the American way. But the Addison forced us to question whose truth and justice they stand for now. A diverse array of artists answered the question with cheeky, probative and reverential looks at the superheroes’ sexuality, frailty and humanity. After this show, they’ll never be seen the same.

This exhibit is on view from October 5 through January 5, 2020 at the Addison Gallery of American Art.

John Akomfrah, Purple, 2017
Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

"John Akomfrah: Purple"

A six-channel video installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s free, raw exhibition space in East Boston, "Purple" was a sweeping, epically cinematic look at our planet by way of archival and newly shot footage of wilderness, industry and civilization across the continents. At once wondrous and chilling, Purple was a monumental experience made even more unforgettable by a killer score.

This exhibit was on view from May 26 through September 2, 2019 at the ICA Watershed.