Glowering at the Gardner

Maybe I’m a museum snob.

Or maybe I really am a better informed museum-goer.

Today I ditched all responsibilities of being a good Christian liberal arts college student that might have demanded my attendance at a variety of religiously-oriented events (affectionately deemed “symposium” by the college campus) and instead traipsed into Boston to patron two museums that I have grown to know and love during my time in New England.

The first of these was the MFA.  I’ve gone the MFA at least once every year that I’ve been in college, and each time I go I appreciate it more.  They recently opened new Asian art exhibits, some of which eerily captured the feeling that on might acquire upon entering a Buddhist temple.  Although there is still some art that I do not think should be called “art,” I appreciate the way that they have set up exhibits and addressed all eras and cultures of art.

The second museum that I stopped at was really the reason that I went into Boston in the first place.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had become one of my favorites during my freshman year, and I had not visited since the fall of sophomore year.  Seeing as I will be leaving the area in four short weeks and am on vacation this week, I knew it was now or never.  Waiting till later would mean that I would no longer get the college student discount of a $5 ticket (that’s something I’m really going to miss).

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is unique in so many ways.  Just a brief snapshot of the museum: Isabella Stewart Gardner lived in the late 19th century and, after visiting a palazzo in Venice, decided that she wanted to mimic the look of the house in the United States and open it as a museum.  After her husband died, she built the museum, moved into the fourth floor, and installed a number of art pieces on the first three levels.  When she died, she opened the museum to the public, with the stipulation that none of the exhibits be moved…at all.  This made it difficult when one of the biggest art heists in history left the museum without a Vermeer and Rembrandt, as well as some others.  All the curators can do is leave the frames hanging on the wall, empty. (Most of this information, of course, can come from the handy-dandy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_Museum).

So, the Gardner is unique.  There are unmarked masterpieces hidden throughout it, like an original Michelangelo sketch.  Apparently I missed an original manuscript from Dante while I was there.  Everything is organized not as it would be in a lofty museum, but like it was her house…which it was.

I was expecting this quaintness upon my return to the Gardner today.  When I arrived, however, I was dismayed to find that the museum had been desecrated.

Okay, that’s a little bit melodramatic.  It hasn’t been desecrated.  True to the contract, the exhibits are unchanged.  But what the museum has done in the past year is add a new wing to it–a modern looking wing, with tons of glass windows, libraries, a large restaurant, a concert hall, art rooms, all to accommodate the large number of visitors that they receive.

It made me mad.  Even though the paintings are still there, the layout of the original museum is the same, the whole outlook of the museum has been modernized, and somehow that kills the essence of its soul.  I may feel so strongly about this because of my four months in Italy, where I realized the importance of art in context.  These pieces at the Gardner are not in context of their original creation, but previously they were in the context of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s home and reflected her as a person.  Now, in the way that the museum has been modernized, she herself begins to become a business–her context of the art-collector’s apartments is lost.

I don’t mind these new things at large museums like the MFA.  Those museums are supposed to be like.  The Gardner’s not.

Like I said, maybe I’m just a museum snob now.

Or maybe they really are killing places like the Gardner.

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