If you’re looking down at your phone as you walk along Highland Avenue, you might miss it—a smallish orange box, roughly 24 inches high, 36 inches wide and 30 inches deep that rests in front of a gorgeous restored Victorian on the corner of Highland and Sycamore Street.
The terra cotta home belongs to assemblage and sculptural artist Martha Friend, who is also the creative mastermind behind the box. Look inside, and you’ll see that it’s actually a tiny museum—the Friend Smithsonian Museum—which opened its “doors” to the public earlier this year.
Friend’s tiny museum was partially inspired by another Somerville artist, Judith Klausner, who’s behind a small box of public art near the Independent in Union Square. “I thought, ‘I could do something like that in my front yard, but bigger,'” Friend explains. People have long told her that her house is itself like a museum; she’s spent years decorating and beautifying the aging Victorian and its garden, filling it to the brim with both her own art and works from other artists. Each year during Somerville Open Studios, she welcomes the community to come enjoy her collection.
“If you come into my house, there’s just stuff everywhere to look at,” Friend says. “It was just natural for me to start decorating the outside of my house.”
Since Open Studios comes just once a year, Friend had an idea: She’d build a small, public exhibition space for artists to show their work. The pint-sized museum could house one artist at a time, and the installation would rotate every month. A friend came up with the name for the museum—a play on her husband’s last name, which is Smith—and it was built by local artist Janie Owen with the help of a grant from the Somerville Arts Council. It celebrated its grand opening with a tiny ribbon cutting ceremony in October.
In the last three months, Friend, Owen and painter Susan Strauss have shown their work there. The museum is waterproof, theft-proof—”everything-proof,” Friend chuckles. It lends itself to three-dimensional art; when Strauss’s painting was on display, Friend rounded out the exhibit with grasses and figurines, turning the two-dimensional work into a sort of diorama.
Friend says the tiny museum has been a huge hit with kids, who can often be spotted peering into the box’s front window. One group of local children even took a “field trip” to her home earlier this year, where they enjoyed the museum along with what Friend has dubbed “The Emerald City,” an outdoor installation of green glass and metal that she’s built in her backyard. (Her yard is a veritable wonderland for children, with spray painted plastic animals—bright blue dinosaurs, a barely visible herd of cows tucked under bushes—hidden throughout.)
Fans of outdoor art may realize similarities between the Friend Smithsonian Museum and Little Free Libraries, the colorful public book exchange boxes scattered through the city. Much like those Little Libraries, Friend says she’d love to see more of these museums popping up in yards around town.
“It would be awesome if other people in Somerville said, ‘Oh, I want a mini museum in my yard, too,'” Friend says. “I would love for that seed to be planted.”
And while the Friend Smithsonian Museum is booked through April, Friend is currently on the hunt for more artists who want to exhibit their work there moving forward.
“Anyone is welcome to approach me and ask about it. I’m the sole curator… so to speak,” she says with a laugh.
The Friend Smithsonian Museum is located at 135 Highland Ave. in Somerville. You can learn more about Friend’s work, and find information about past and present exhibits at the tiny museum, at marthafriend.com.