The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located within walking distance from the Museum of Fine Arts. It houses a superb collection of artworks from artists such as Rembrandt and Titian. I would argue, however, that it is not solely an art galley. Instead, it had all the trademarks of a house museum. I will delve into this later, but first things first – let me cover the Palace.
So the main building that houses the artworks is referred to as the Palace. On entering the museum, you first walk through a modern-built annex that contains the gift shop, cafe, information counter, etc. You are then directed through a glass walkway to the Palace. It is not hard to see why it bears this name. Towering three storeys high, the Venetian-inspired Palace quite literally looks like you have been transported to another country. The courtyard garden in the middle features an Ancient Roman mosaic. Surrounding the mosaic are numerous plants, statues, and fountains. I will include photographs below because words cannot do it justice.
To understand why there is a Venetian Palace in the centre of Boston, I will now introduce you to Isabella Gardner Stewart. Born in New York in 1840, Isabella soon moved to Boston to marry John Lowell Gardner. They travelled everywhere, eventually developing a passion for art that soon turned into a desire to collect. Isabella decided to seek advice from her friends and certain connoisseurs of Italian Renaissance art just to make sure she was collecting quality works. What else did Isabella need? A house to store her new collection. She insisted that the house be built to her specifications and carefully watched over the construction. The result is what you can visit today. For this reason alone, you can start to see why the house is just as significant as the art held within its many rooms.
While walking through the numerous levels and rooms, you may notice there are a few empty frames. In 1990, there was a huge art heist with thieves stealing artworks by Rembrandt and Degas, to name a couple. The artworks stolen totalled around half a billion dollars. According to the museum, two men posing as police officers were let into the museum and when they left so did the artwork. What amazes me is that it is still missing to this day! If you know anyone in the Boston area who has a suspicious looking Rembrandt hanging in their living room, now is probably the time to call the police. How the museum has integrated this story into the display, is by having these empty frames where the artworks once hung. A curatorial decision, I presume, that reminds visitors of what was lost, but also, what remains.
The final general thing I want to discuss is the inclusion of conservation stations. We found two examples where conservators had set up workstations to show the public ongoing conservation efforts. One was in the courtyard showing the cleaning of a Roman statue. Another was on the third floor of the Palace where the walls and floor were slowly being restored. A great way to see how one section of a museum works. Not every section can have a public face, but, it is great to see some behind the scenes secrets exposed.
Now that I’ve covered the architecture and the heist, I want to spend some time discussing why I saw the museum as a house museum and not a gallery. This is entirely my opinion. I am sure for each of these points someone could argue the opposite.
1. No Labels on Walls
In each of the rooms there were numerous paintings hanging on the walls. They were curated to look as though they’ve just been hung on the wall wherever space was available. This allowed for a sort of cabinet of curiosities feel. There were absolutely no labels on the walls. Unless you recognised the painting itself, there was no quick way to identify the works. I haven’t been to many art galleries where this is the case.
There was some interpretation available. In each room was a room guide. First, if you wanted to identify a painting you needed to know if it was on the east, west, north or south wall. Then, you had to pick the right guide. Finally, on the guide, you had to select the right outline of the artwork. And there you have it. If it was any busier there would be no guides available and I imagine this would get frustrating. The map does have some highlight artworks, but there are only a few in each room.
So instead of worrying about the artwork, we viewed the room as a whole, focusing on how the artworks worked together inside each room. While you also can do this in any art gallery, the character of each room and the lack of labels meant our interest was with the room itself and not the artworks. They played into a larger picture (pun absolutely intended).
2. Room Restorations
If it was purely a gallery I wonder if there would have been an attempt to restore the rooms. In each room there were an array of furniture pieces including entire dining room sets, bookcases and tables. I am not insinuating that furniture cannot be art. Instead, I am suggesting that this desire to have the rooms appear as they looked originally, is in line with what I’ve seen at other house museums.
Originally it was designed to be a museum with a private residence attached. Even though they did not live inside the Palace, this does not mean it can be excluded as a house museum. One of the conditions of a house museum, according to the American Alliance of Museums, is that it must continue to serve the same function today as it did in the past. In other words, the museum must still be a museum solely displaying the works collected by Isabella.
For these reasons I think it is safe to say that this museum is a version of a house museum. I see it as a hybrid as it also can be considered an art gallery. This adds a new layer of complexity and intrigue. A debate that continued to follow me while walking around. This is unlike any place I have visited before and for this reason, I highly recommend a visit! Below are some more photographs.