New Gardner Museum Addition

I just read here about recently unveiled plans for a new addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. I’m really surprised about this new modern wing, especially since Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will requires that the museum cannot be altered from how she originally designed and curated the collection display. In fact, in order to get approval for this new modern addition, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had to approve a deviation from the will last year.

But why meddle with Gardner’s aesthetic vision? I think that shows great disrespect for the person who amassed this collection in the first place. Gardner stipulated that if her collection/museum ever deviated from her aesthetic vision, then her whole collection would immediately be transferred to the ownership of Harvard University. (Until recently, the museum staff has followed these instructions insofar as to hang empty frames when masterpieces were stolen off of the wall in 1990.) If Isabella knew about the new changes taking place in her museum, I’m sure she’d sent the collection to Harvard posthaste.
What do other people think? Am I being irrational? Do you think the museum is justified in their plans for expansion? Maybe I’m just a historical purist – I hate to see things change just to accommodate modernity.
  • e says:

    That is interesting.
    I remember learning about her museum with that picture you used to have as your facebook profile picture.

    This is a tough subject.
    I think that there is always room for improvements in museums and exhibitions, but, at the same time, some semblance of purity to the original intent should remain in place. It's tricky.

  • little augury says:

    If only things could stay as Isabella intended. After reading the links and the project website-it seems that the MUSEUM will stay intact-but many of the activities the Museum struggles to house will find a home in the new space-I can only imagine the pains taken to make this happen. Isabella's legacy remains intact legally it seems-whether it will in spirit remains to be seen. I've been several times and cherish the trips-the most dispiriting thing it seems is that the patrons will not enter from the original space-that will be lost and impossible to duplicate. Found your blog through the Corinthian Column.

  • little augury says:

    oh and meant to say- Commerce has to have driven this project through. Still the Gardner is unique and I will go back whenever I can

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, little augury (and welcome to my blog!). I completely agree with you – commerce appears to be one of the primary motivations for the project, since ticketing, eating, and shopping will take place in the new area. This especially is disheartening, since it's likely that this monetary factor helped drive court's decision to deviate from the will.

    I am glad, however, that the actual Gardner palace will not be modified. I actually have never been to the museum, but I have wanted to go for a long time. Hopefully I'll be able to make a trip to Boston soon.

  • M says:

    And e, I do think that this is a tough subject. I do understand that the museum staff might need more space, but it doesn't seem right to deviate from the original intent. It's no wonder that this project has been so controversial (see here and here). So yeah, it is tricky.

  • e says:

    This is will sound odd, but I was laying awake in bed last night (been having trouble sleeping lately), and I started thinking about this.

    "My" museum is going through something sort of similar.
    They've decided that they are going to make some big changes to the permanent exhibition. They told us about this a few weeks ago and I actually get to sit in on a meeting about this upcoming week.

    I've felt torn on the matter because I appreciate that the exhibit strives to tell the entire story, but at the same time, I can see that it lacks some elements that perhaps the general public may like. Plus, in terms of logistics, it's a bit of a nightmare. It's just not laid out to handle the millions of people that come through it (they greatly underestimated the amount of people coming through when they made the plans). So, I keep thinking about these upcoming changes and how the old timers at the museum will take it (shoot, even me). Will I like the changes? Will I think they are caving to "experts" who don't really know it at all?
    And, you know, the people that are in that exhibit all day long (like me or coworkers) probably won't have much say other than being invited to meetings.

    I also feel really bad that Isabella's final wishes aren't being fulfilled. I found it particularly interesting that the staff is saying the museum director stifled any debate on the matter. How true to life is that? The fear of losing a job or reputation can make people go along with quite a bit, plus, museum directors are very powerful people.

    (sorry this was such a rambling mess … it was just on my mind)

  • heidenkind says:

    Commerce probably is driving the changes–but why should they care about commerce? It's the ISG Museum for god's sake! I know they're not rolling in dough, but they shouldn't have to cater to donors or the public. If the director does have as big of a hand in this as rumor says, then that person needs to go work at another museum.

    I really hope Harvard demands their artwork. It would serve the ISG right.

  • little augury says:

    Not being a Bostonian I can not feel the entire weight of such a decision-I am positive each side has staunch allies for the best reasons. After I happened to find ISG and become fascinated with her story and museum many years ago-I've been constantly surprised that more well informed were not familiar with the museum. Progress is painful. I think Mrs. Jack may have succumbed to it ultimately. It would seem the legal aspects are a sealed deal-I would think iron clad-or otherwise the project would not be moving forward.What purpose would disemboweling the art and mansion from one another serve in the long haul. I hope this evolves and Mrs Jack has her day again.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. It will be interesting to see how this new addition is received after it is finally completed. Who knows? Maybe we'll all love it. More than anything, though, I hope that the aesthetic and "feel" of Isabella's palace is maintained.

    E, I'm interested to see what happens in your museum. Things always are controversial when permanent exhibitions change at museums. Museum-goers (and museum employees!) are creatures of habit, and it's hard to accept change. You'll have to keep me posted with what happens…

  • The Swan says:

    If only the BARNES FOUNDATION were so LUCKY…those who have lobbied to remove the collection from the 'ORIGINAL BUILDING AND SITE' altogether only do so for Vanity sake…to see their named foundations attached to that magnificent collection so enchanting in that ORIGINAL BUILDING AND SITE location.

  • little augury says:

    I am a lover of the Gardner-I believe this addition to the museum will enhance the collection ultimately-Mrs G. would have been moving on with progress certainly. I've enjoyed reading the comments and have linked this post to my blog post about ISG.

  • M says:

    The Swan, thanks for your comment. You put things into perspective by mentioning the Barnes Foundation. At least the Gardner Museum is staying on the original site – the Barnes Foundation hasn't been that lucky. (For anyone who's interested, you can read a little bit of the Barnes Foundation controversy here.

    little augury, I've appreciated your comments on this post. I hope that the addition does prove to be a good thing for the ISG, too.

  • The Down East Dilettante says:

    I love the Gardner. Every quirky, beautiful, dusty inch. I have occasionally been moved by art there in a way that doesn't always happen in a more conventional presentation.

    I love the old. I also love the new and the innovative. But sometimes, it seems that people just need to change for change's sake, or publicity,or whatever. I think this is an ill considered addition. Other solutions could be found.

  • home before dark says:

    I found you though little augury and I weigh in with the I don't think so camp. The Gardener was one woman's vision. Work had to cease when she was not physically present. I wonder how the Gardener spirit will react to this intrusion?

  • Francine Gardner says:

    Just found your blog while working on a post on the family island which was so loved by Isabella.On foggy days, I have read all her published books, her letters, her entries in the guest books, looked through her photo albums…and feel as if i have known the lady.She was brave, daring, courageous, exentric, everything I love in a woman and to have exhibited all these traits in her time was in itself extraordinary. Needless to say, i was very upset at the thought of altering her vision in this incredibly generous gift of her vision and passion to a city that never showed her any support while she was alive.

  • M says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Francine! It was very refreshing to hear that a member of the Gardner family is also upset about this decision.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.