Phew. It has been a very busy week, and it’s only going to get busier. Last weekend, I made a very quick, brief trip to Boston to see some dear friends, and paid a visit as well to the newly expanded Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This week I am in Washington DC, attending a workshop at the Freer-Sackler discussing early modern (Edo pd) Japanese books, a subject I expect I will be blogging about before long.
Left: One of several computer screen displays set up like easels. Clean, sleek, easily changed, cutting-edge, but also light and simple-looking.
But, first, the Gardner. It was opened in 1903, after being built and designed by socialite Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner specifically to be a museum to hold and display her personal collection. In her will, she stated that the galleries be maintained as she arranged them herself, “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” Thus, the museum remained for roughly a century, albeit with some changes here and there, including the selling-off of the so-called “Chinese Room” (which was judged to be a personal space, and not one of the galleries) in the 1970s, and the famous theft of several of the museum’s treasures in the early 1990s. But, for the most part, the museum remains today as it always has, a monument to Mrs. Gardner’s taste, and to the attitudes and tastes of her time.
A view from inside the Gardner’s new wing, looking across towards the original building. The two are linked by a glass corridor.
If I recall correctly, the last time I visited the Gardner, they were just about to begin work on their planned expansion. Now, the gorgeous glass structure, attached to the original building (known as “the Palace”), is open. It is designed by Renzo Piano, the same architect who did the NY Times Building, the Morgan Library expansion, and the international terminal at Kansai Airport, and it shows. Lots of glass, very light and open.
The new stairs leading down to restrooms, up to special exhibits, lecture hall, and concert hall. The light, airy, transparent aesthetic can be seen clearly (no pun intended) here.
The new expansion doesn’t contain any permanent exhibition galleries, or seek to compete with Fenway Court (the original building, aka “the Palace”), and indeed it feels more like an entryway, a foyer, leading into the museum, than a competing museum space. This feeling or idea is emphasized by the fact that they don’t check your tickets until you are going into the original building. The expansion contains a special exhibits gallery, lecture hall, concert hall, museum shop, café, apartments for artists-in-residence, a reading room, and greenhouse maintaining a source of plants & flowers for the jewel of Fenway Court, the Venetian courtyard. The reading room, or “Living Room” as they’re calling it, is quite nice – I wish more museums had such a space – sofas, nice chairs, shelves of books, and some small number of art objects or other conversation starters, with a volunteer or artist on hand to engage in conversation. The shop is bizarrely small, though. I can’t say I was planning on buying a copy of Journeys East, the exhibit catalog about Mrs. Gardner’s travels in Asia, as I totally couldn’t afford it, but I was nevertheless surprised to not even see it on offer. I wonder if they’ll expand the shop somehow at some point…
The main ground floor lobby sort of area of the expansion, between shop, café, stairs, Living Room, and corridor to Fenway Court.
I’m realizing now, as I put this post together, that I really did not take good photos of the museum… An exterior shot would have been nice, and maybe something better capturing the overall glass/light/open feeling of the new space. Ah well.
As for the concert hall, a special issue of the Boston Globe Magazine dedicated entirely to the Gardner expansion explains that there was a need for a new one, as the crowds attending concerts in the Tapestry Room were beginning to have a serious negative impact upon the condition of the room and its contents. The Gardner claims to have the longest-running concert series of any museum in the US, dating back to 1927, so it was important to them to continue to have a concert venue. I haven’t seen the new concert hall myself, and I’m admittedly not much of a concert-goer, but from what the Globe Magazine has to say about it, it looks pretty incredible. The performers play in the center of the room, surrounded by two rows of seats on each side, and then three more floors with just a single row on each side. And, unlike the Tapestry Room with its sound-dampening tapestries, the new place is loaded with acoustical innovations.
Photo of the courtyard at Fenway Court, 1902. Courtesy Boston Public Library.
The museum itself, that is to say The Palace, is of course the same as it has always been. Mostly. The Venetian courtyard is still gorgeous. And photos are still inexplicably prohibited. I wonder what their official reason is. If it’s a matter of trying to get people to really appreciate the art, rather than just snapping photos, or if it’s about keeping people moving, so they’re not blocking traffic taking photos, I can appreciate that. The two are kind of contradictory – people standing and really thoroughly appreciating an artwork block traffic even more than those taking a few seconds to take a photo. But, fine. What confuses me is that most museums forbid photos when it’s a matter of copyright issues. When objects are on loan from another museum, the copyright issues become far more complicated; but, by definition, nothing at the Gardner is on loan from another museum. So, really, photos should be allowed, if only for the central courtyard, which is just so incredibly gorgeous. As frustrated as I am with being unable to share photos with you all, or to have photos to look at again, I cannot deny that being unable to take photos did enhance my engagement with the works, and with the museum space as a whole.
One thing which has changed within the Palace is that a staircase leading to the Chinese Room has been opened up (not the room itself; just a few stairs). I do not know what they are planning to do with the space, or if they plan to reopen it, but even just seeing these stairs is a wonderful, tantalizing taste. It maybe extremely expensive and difficult, or even impossible, to reacquire all the objects sold off from the Chinese Room in the 1970s, but if something can be put together to attempt to recreate the Buddha-filled space for museum visitors, and/or make it a space for regular tea ceremony events (as Mrs. Gardner herself enjoyed with friends during her life), that would be incredible.