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A Century in the Making

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Celebrates Anniversary with Exhibit

By Jacqueline O’Connor

staff writer

The Making of the Museum, A Centennial Exhibition

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Until Aug. 21

Tucked away behind the vast spread of the Museum of Fine Arts and protected from the bustle of Huntington Avenue, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a little piece of paradise hidden away in a corner of southern Boston. The grand house stands cloaked in vines and surrounded by a tall wall that protects the treasures inside. Despite its mysterious outside, this museum, which holds an impressive collection of art and artifacts spanning hundreds of years, serves as a cultural haven for the city of Boston.

This summer, the museum has focused its special exhibit on the creation of the museum and Isabella Stewart Gardner’s role in the growth of this unique gallery. The exhibit, which focuses on the entire process from the museum’s inspiration to the completion of construction, includes diaries and letters of Gardner as well as photographs, blueprints, artifacts and quotes from friends during the time of construction. Each is well-documented and shows an intimate side to the museum and its creator.

Upon entering the exhibit, the first wall has large copies of the blueprints for the museum and a quote from the diary of architect Willard T. Sears. The quote describes Gardner’s integral and sometimes forceful role in building the museum, her frank rejection of some of the plans, and and even her firing of some of the masons. This striking opening to the exhibit sets the tone: Isabella Stewart Gardner, despite her forthright leadership tactics, cared very much about the museum and its benefits for the people of Boston.

In addition to letters, blueprints and newspaper articles about the building of the museum, this collection also includes many of Gardner’s scrapbooks, sketches, family photographs and miniatures by her artist friends including John Singer Sargent and Ralph Curtis. The scrapbooks were the most interesting part of the collection because they revealed the influences that shaped the museum. The pages showed papyrus from Egypt and watercolors from China as well as written entries about each place.

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s travels heavily influenced her collection and the architecture of the museum. Her travels to Italy inspired the columns and arches in the walls of the magnificent courtyard, and visits to Asia gave her ideas about plants and flowers that show in the outdoor gardens at the museum. In addition to the architecture, the art itself follows themes from her experiences.

The most striking part of this museum, though, is the vastness of the art. It does not only hang on the walls but is integrated into every aspect of the house, the furniture and the architecture. The special exhibit highlights her relationship with Bernard Bereson, a young yet enterprising art critic who was instrumental in the growth of her collection. He worked tirelessly to find the perfect pieces to add to the collection while she used her amazing sense of taste and design to put it into a comprehensive museum collection.

A visit to this museum is like no other. It is overwhelming to see the number of priceless treasures so beautifully arranged within the walls of this cultural oasis. The special exhibit adds to the experience by providing a detailed history of the museum and all its charm. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s dream of creating a unique cultural experience has certainly been realized, and will hopefully stay vibrant for centuries and centuries to come.