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Nov 21, 2009

The Museum Effect . . .

Responding to Boston MFA & the Stewart Gardner Museum
by Anitra Kitts

The author of this article is the sister of Thomas Kitts and it is reproduced here with her permission.

Isabella Gardner Museum (top)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts (bottom)
Over the last twenty years I have made it a priority to visit art museums whenever I travel. I do not have a formal education in art so I enjoy wandering into museums to peruse the art and read the little cards you find next to it. 
And while I understand there can be all kinds of conversations about what is, and isn't art, I've never stopped to consider how a museum’s environment affects my experience until I rolled into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I had no expectation or preconception of what I’d find there, other than having been told to look for some good John Singer Sergeants. I did know it had once been the palatial home of a wealthy woman, before it became a museum, and that it had many rooms converted to intimate galleries. 
Immediately after crossing the threshold, I found myself in a small, contained area where I paid my admission and stepped into an open area where I could see a lovely atrium containing palms, ferns, and flowers. On my left was an alcove with a scattering of objects carefully set into a roped off recess.
But there wasn’t a museum card in sight. No neat carefully crafted commentary glued to the wall anywhere. In other museums I would think long and hard about those interpretative paragraphs – and wonder who it was that wrote and argued over what they had to say. In some museums I’d tried to look at the art before reading the cards, and in others, tried to read the card before looking at the art. But I never questioned their actual presence until I entered the Gardner Museum. Only their content.
That afternoon I discovered I had no context for the objects in the alcove. They looked as though they might be old, but I didn’t know. They looked like they could have been from a Greek or Roman time, or from a garage sale just around the corner. And yet, they were clearly arranged in a very intentional way. 
The whole museum was like that: you’d walk from room to room only to encounter a wild collection of objects – furniture, fabric, silver furnishings, stone fireplaces, rugs, and wooden room dividers – and intermixed with it all, would be art hanging willy-nilly on the walls. In some rooms, hanging on the ceiling as well. It felt like the art was being displayed in a personal fashion, the way it was hung before there was a museum. Without a pedantic frame or lens. 
Here is my question: Is it still a Rembrandt, or a Titian if no one tells me it is? Does having a painting sourced and explained by a little card make me slow down and appreciate it more? 
I overheard a employee – a curator or staffer, I don’t know – explain to couple of visitors how the museum struggles with offering interpretations of the artwork. Apparently a lot of people lodge complaints because they don't know what they are looking at, or who it was that made it. The staffer said the museum once mounted cards next to the work but "he" demanded they be removed because they weren’t part of owner’s original vision. So the museum curators have now compromised by setting laminated pages out on wooden stands, notes the visitors can pick up and carry around room, keyed to the artwork on display.
Not only is the stuff just there – it isn’t particularly well lit. Again, this points back to how the artwork was originally displayed by the owner, as opposed to each piece being meticulously hung at eye level and carefully lit with light from above. 
The entire experience was set up by Isabelle Stewart Gardner, who created the collection with her own wealth. She then carefully arranged each room so visitors would experienced it as a whole – and not as a series of objects devoid of a surrounding. 

The staff of the Gardner Museum struggle to stay true to Isabella’s vision. (Because they know if they deviate too far from her wishes the ownership of her collection defaults to Harvard University . . . a restrictive and difficult covenant, and one which makes me wonder who it is that decides when the curatorship has strayed too far, or has broken the trust?) 
In several rooms, you will encounter a small piece of art set on a table next to a window in front of a chair – as if you are being invited to stop and contemplate it in a casual way. But every chairs is roped off. No sitting there. 
Only a few blocks away you will find Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, an institutional contemporary of the Gardner Museum. The MFA is presently adding two new wings to their complex so most of their American art has been put away in storage, unavailable to the visitor. (For example, there were only two Sergeants out on display for my visit.) Boston’s MFA has a massive edifice, very Greek-templish and it screams out: Serious Art and Institution of Cultural Significance Here!
Perhaps because of my seminary education, or perhaps because I had just visited the Semitic Museum at Harvard the day before, I made a point of spending a lot of time going through the MFA Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Middle Eastern collections. I felt as though I was wandering through an educational experience designed to tell me what was significant and what was not. While the MFA attempted to present each object in a neutral environment, I could never forget how the building itself declared: We are Powerful and Prestigious. Here is the Official Canon of Art. 
Meanwhile Stewart Gardner Museum has been throwing a small riot frozen in time.
I still feel overwhelmed by my experience at the Gardner Museum. I find myself questioning the ups and downs of amassing great wealth, and the power such wealth has to institutionalize one kind of art over another. I now find myself wondering about art when it has been endorsed with a capital ‘A’. About who makes art, and why. And for whom. And finally, how a work of art can be transformed into a different thing altogether when it has been separated from its original place and time. 

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