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  • Writer's pictureAmy Leggett

Visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston for a Unique Experience!

When visiting Boston, there is no shortage of museums to explore to get your cultural fix. But if you haven't checked the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum off your to-do list, I suggest you move it to the top for your next visit to Boston! I will admit that art museums are not generally my favorite (I tend to prefer photographs over paintings and admittedly don't have enough art history knowledge to fully appreciate what I am seeing). However, the story behind the creation of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the intrigue surrounding the unsolved art heist that occurred here in 1990 made this art museum a favorite for me!

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella was a progressive woman for her time. She was known for being a free-spirit and used her strong, out-spoken voice during a time when women and their rights were severely restricted. She and her husband shared a love of art and culture and after her father's death she used her inheritance to begin collecting art. Over the years she amassed quite a collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, rare books and decorative arts. Following her husband's death in the late 1800's, she decided to fulfill their dream of creating a space to showcase the treasures.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was opened in 1901 and Isabella moved into a private residence on the 4th floor of the museum building so she could dedicate her time to personally arranging the works of art in her private collection in the historic galleries on the first three floors. She never fully explained her reasoning or thought process behind some of the arrangements or the pairings of works in certain rooms, leaving the observer to contemplate the scene and try to make their own connections.

Isabella believed that art possessed the power to change lives and she made it her life's mission to collect art from around the world and share it with the public. When she died in 1924, she left the Museum "for education and the public forever". She funded an endowment to operate the Museum after her death, stipulating that nothing in the galleries be changed or moved and that no items be acquired or sold from the collection. When you visit the Museum you will see the items she personally chose and they are displayed exactly as she personally arranged them over the years!

The Museum

The Museum has three floors that surround an open courtyard. The structure of the Museum resembles a Venetian palace. This is an intentional design concept created by Isabella as a nod to Venice, a spot that she and her husband frequented to soak up the art and culture of the time. The three floors are divided into various galleries or "Rooms". Again, each Room was very intentionally established and organized by Isabella. You will receive a detailed map to guide you through each Room. The map also highlights the certain pieces of art to keep an eye out for in each section as you make your way through the Museum.

In addition to the map, you can also access a free guided audio tour on the Museum's website to give you additional information about the Museum and the art pieces in each Room. We used this audio tour on our visit and it was very informational! Be sure to bring headphones with you so you can listen to the audio tour while you wander through the rooms. Access the audio tour here.

The Museum is full of beautiful art pieces collected by Isabella over the years, but the heart and soul of the Museum is the center courtyard. It is the first thing you see when you enter into the Museum building. Only women inhabit this space. All figures depicted in the artwork and statues in this space are female. This is a reflection of Isabella's strong feelings about female empowerment and women's place in the world.

This part of the Museum is a living, breathing art installation as the plants in the Courtyard are changed about every six weeks. As you can see from the picture, mums were being highlighted in the garden when we were there.

The Courtyard was definitely my favorite part of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum!

The Art Heist

One of the more intriguing aspects of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the unsolved art heist that occurred in 1990. In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers obtained entry into the Museum by claiming they were responding to a disburbance. Breaking protocol, one of the security guards allowed them in through the employee entrance and at the fake officer's request left the watch desk. The two security guards on duty were handcuffed and tied up in the basement.

The Museum has motion detectors, so the movements of the thieves in the Museum were recorded. Works of art were taken from the Dutch Room, the Short Galley and the Blue Room. The thieves made two trips to their car with stolen artwork and left at 2:45 am. The whole theft took 81 minutes from entry to getaway. It remains the single largest property theft in the world.

They ultmately stole 13 works of art valued at $500 million dollars, including three original Rembrandts, five Degas drawings and a Napoleonic bronze eagle finial. The Rembrandts were cut from their frames and the empty frames remain hanging in the Dutch Room. The frames are kept empty as placeholders for the missing works and symbols of hope that they will one day be returned.

While the crime remains unsolved, the Boston police have narrowed the suspects but have been unable to close the case. There is still a $10 million dollar reward for information leading directly to the recovery of the works. There is a separate $100,000 reward for the return of the Napoleonic eagle finial. If you want to learn more about the theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the investigation, there is a good Netflix series titled This Is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist.

Visit the Museum

The Museum is open every day except for Tuesdays. Admission is free for kids under 18, $20 for Adults, $18 for seniors and $13 for college students with a current ID. One cool fact about the Museum is that if your name is Isabella, you have lifetime free admission! The Museum is popular and tickets for busy days sell out fast, so I recommend reserving a timed entry ticket online here if you are planning to visit. We were lucky to be able to pop in on the spur of the moment, but it was a Monday in November so not a high traffic time.

Although I am not a huge art museum fan, I really enjoyed my day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the art, the history and the intrigue! Plan your visit soon!


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