Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Shifting Landscape

The new wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, photograph by Nic Lehoux

As the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum‘s public relations staff have been trying to tell you for weeks now, the new Gardner Museum wing will be opening on Thursday, January 19. What they don’t tell you is that Mrs. Gardner would never have approved of the the Museum’s plan for the new Lynch Foundation garden—or the rest of this new-fangled glass display case of an addition.

Well, that may be a bit severe. Let’s just say that Mrs. Gardner didn’t care for change. Here’s how the Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum describes Gardner’s desires (emphasis mine):

In 1919 Isabella Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes and died on July 17, 1924, leaving a $1 million endowment for the museum. Her will stipulated that the museum’s permanent collection be displayed ‘for the education and enjoyment of the public forever’ and that the composition and arrangement of the collection not be significantly altered; if her wishes were not honored, the palace and collection were to be sold and the proceeds donated to Harvard University.

Got that? Don’t touch anything! It’s mine!

Ahem. It’s clear that the Gardner Museum’s succeeding trustees have creatively interpreted Mrs. Gardner’s instructions—for example, by covering her meditation room and selling most of her Buddhist statues and sacred objects, according to WBUR—and the notorious thieves who from the museum in 1990 certainly didn’t carry out her wishes (though they did carry off thirteen works of art). And now, there’s a gigantic new addition for displaying stuff that Mrs. Gardner never saw, and rotating exhibitions. Anything goes!

The new wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, photograph by Nic Lehoux

To be fair, the only thing Gardner said in her will about the open space around her garden is“I prefer that the vacant land shall remain open, but if the Trustees deem it necessary for the protection of the museum, they may erect buildings thereon…” Still, the most radical (in the “root” sense of the word) expression of the new wing’s novel impermanence is in the Lynch Foundation Garden. The bizarrely unedited Museum Project Fact Sheet describes thusly:

Behind the new Museum lobby space is a grade-level garden of Lacebark Elms and Witch Hazel, creating the illusion of a larger garden space. Functioning more as a horticultural exhibition space, the new Lynch Foundation Garden will be reinstalled by a new artist in several years.

Once you’re done wondering how a garden creates an illusion of a larger garden, and how the Lynch Foundation Garden functions more as a horticultural exhibition space (more than what? A rock? A vampire squid?), look at the end of the second sentence; the garden will be reinstalled in several years.

Yes, the Gardner Museum now has a rotating exhibition garden! It’s like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard, only on a completely different time scale. Perhaps the designers were inspired by the Gardner Museum’s January, 2011 lecture on the annual Garden Festival at Quebec’s Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens. Or perhaps no one could decide what to do with the place.

Now, the Lynch Foundation Garden is planted with “tight groves of juvenile Chinese lacebark elm trees,” according to Carol Stocker’s Boston Globe piece on the Museum’s landscaping. They’re growing in planters buried in the ground, and they have to be dug up and put somewhere else in three years. If not, “They will eat the building,” says landscape architect Ron Henderson. I suppose that’s better than having the building eat the trees.

Of course, the new building project did eat the gardens. As the Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report states repeatedly, “all of the gardens were excavated and redesigned as part of the 2012 museum expansion project.” That may not be such a bad thing; Stocker quotes Gardner director of operations James Labeck as saying, “Every director took an interest in redesigning the garden, so the reality was a hodgepodge.”

The Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1946

Labeck doesn’t seem to realize that the reality is still a hodgepodge. The new wing has a greenhouse that visitors can admire, and an allée of American hornbeams and lacebark pines (not elms! They’re keepers!) shading the glass corridor between the new wing and the Gardner Classic museum, a bunch of potted elms, and the Monks Garden which “awaits an 2012-13 makeover by a yet-to-be-named designer” according to Stocker. Oh, and a giant outdoor portrait of an ailanthus tree, one of the top invasive plants in Massachusetts. (I suppose it’s transgressive art.) There are some new permanent plantings—a few magnolias, three sugar maples. But it all sounds a bit non-committal.

Imagine how the Renzo Piano-designed wing would be received if it opened this week with a few walls missing and a sign at the entrance desk saying that all the furniture would be replaced in a few years. Mrs. Gardner might find that a bit more amusing than having her Monks Garden, which was “very dear” to her, torn apart and left unplanted for a year. But Isabella Stewart Gardner has been dead for ninety years now. She doesn’t have much of a say in the matter any more.



  One Reply to “Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Shifting Landscape”

  1. Faith Ferguson
    January 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Hey Meg–My grandmother apparently told stories about Mrs. Jack (ISG) opening the house to the public one day a year and basically chasing people through….. shooing them along… truth or not? don’t know. Great story though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *