The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Friday 15 November 2019

One of the additional benefits of occasionally going abroad for work with my PhD is that I can sometimes tack on extra time in places I wouldn't normally get to go to. After a conference in Amherst, Massacheusetts, in July, I booked a couple of nights in a hostel in Boston before I had to fly back to London.

When I asked for recommendations of things to see in Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the most consistently recommended place to go, and so the moment I arrived back in Boston after my conference I took myself over there. I hadn't had time to do much research, and didn't really know what to expect - but I was confronted with one of the most delightfully weird museums I've ever set foot in. The outside really doesn't prepare you in the slightest for what you'll find inside. Gardner was an art collector, and on her father's death inherited a huge sum of money - once her collection outgrew the house she shared with her husband, the couple decided to build a new house.

The result is a Venetian-inspired palazzo-style building which is 'inside out' - the beautiful facades you see on the outside of Venetian buildings are turned inwards, surrounding the interior courtyard, brimming with plants and topped with a huge glass roof. When construction finished in 1901, Gardner lived on the fourth floor, and the first three became a public museum housing the collection which she arranged herself. It's very much not your traditional museum layout, having themed rooms rather than any kind of chronological order, but it's unbelievably fun to wander about. The collection is hugely diverse, from medieval manuscripts to Vermeer paintings to furniture and fabrics. It's also the site of the largest property heist in the world, still to this day unsolved, where in just 81 minutes, two people stole $500 million worth of paintings by artists such as Rembrandt and Degas. My favourite object(s): a wall of 17th-century Mexican tiles, probably made for the Church of Augustín in Atlixco, Peublo.


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