MUSEUMS ARE expanding everywhere you look these days. Most of them do so to make room for their growing collections. But this was not, of course, the problem faced by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Gardner’s collection, as everyone knows, is never going to grow. Rather, the museum wanted to address practical problems with which it had long been struggling.
Although attendance had been relatively flat at the Gardner for at least 10 years, hovering between 160,000 and 200,000 annually, many more people were coming through the building than in Gardner’s day. This was taking its toll on the museum.
The venue for the Gardner’s thriving concert program was the Tapestry Room on the second floor. The room had atmosphere in abundance, but its acoustics were poor, and to get to it, visitors had to traipse through the museum, compromising both security and conservation.
Meanwhile, the space for temporary exhibitions was frustratingly limited. And the front entrance could get crowded. On particularly busy days, people waiting to purchase tickets occasionally had to line up outside, sometimes in inclement weather. The shop and cafe - important revenue earners for any modern museum - were squeezed into cramped, unprepossessing quarters at the back of the museum.
All these problems have been addressed by the new wing, which, although it is bigger than Gardner’s original palazzo, is politely set back from the original, to which it is joined by a covered glass walkway.
An ambitious and beautiful concert hall has been constructed. There’s also a functional and highly flexible space for temporary exhibitions. With a high ceiling that can be raised or lowered to suit the art, it has a glass wall that faces toward the palazzo so that, from the direction of the Museum of Fine Arts, the gallery, lit from within, emits a glowing yellow light, like a lantern.
Clean, modern, and welcoming spaces, with conspicuous spots of bright color in the forms of chairs, overhead lamps, and tables, have been set aside for a shop, a cafe, a classroom, a greenhouse, two small apartments for artists-in-residence, and sundry other functions, including a library and a spiffy conservation lab.
All these functional spaces have been made to cohere ingeniously by one of the leading architectural firms of our time, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, based in Genoa, Italy. It’s impossible not to notice the architects’ sensitivity to light, and in particular their embrace of an ideal of transparency, which blurs the line between inside and out, melding the lush and carefully staged landscaping with the experience of being indoors.
In short, as the museum’s director, Anne Hawley, has explained, all the everyday, “messy,’’ back-of-house business can now be taken care of in the new building, so that the experience of Gardner’s actual museum need no longer be compromised.
There’s no avoiding the fact, however, that the whole project has been controversial, and that some people believe that the new building runs the risk of compromising the spirit of the museum.
It’s worth thinking about why.
A new building, after all, is more than just a building, or a set of solutions to practical problems. It also embodies a philosophy. More importantly, in the case of an art museum, it embodies a way of framing the delicate and highly charged experience of looking at art.
Gardner, needless to say, had her own very particular ideas about how she wanted to do this. It was a question to which she dedicated all her considerable resources and energies, which is exactly why we celebrate her today.
It’s helpful to see her efforts in some kind of historical context. For although the Gardner Museum is unique, it is one of a select number of what might be called “collection museums’’ - small museums created by an individual who collected not just for him- or herself, but for the purposes of creating a museum. Other examples include the Wallace Collection in London, the Frick Collection in New York, the Musee Condé near Paris, and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
As Anne Higonnet pointed out in her 2009 book, “A Museum of One’s Own,’’ these collection museums sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries partly in reaction to the simultaneous rise of vast public museums. In each instance, the crucial premise of the collection museum was that art might be displayed more powerfully in a carefully choreographed, intimate setting than in the great, antiseptic halls of encyclopedic museums.
It’s an intriguing and in many ways attractive notion. Who has not walked into the Frick after a day slogging through the marvels of the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art and thought “Ah, but this is how it was meant to be!’’
Nonetheless, as art museums have become increasingly professionalized over recent decades, many who work in them have turned their back on the underlying premise of collection museums. Trained to be skeptical of the motives of rich collectors, and schooled in “best practice’’ standards, they have limited patience for the idiosyncrasies of the wealthy, often eccentric visionaries and tastemakers of yesteryear.
The Gardner Museum has presented a particularly difficult case in this context. It receives more than its share of affection from the public. But there are those who do feel baffled when they go there. Perhaps the most commonly heard critique about it is that the art is not displayed advantageously.
At certain times of the day and in certain seasons the rooms are unusually dark. Parts of the building can feel cramped. The labeling is not clear. One is not sure why the miscellaneous objects have been arranged as they have, nor which works are masterpieces and which minor. One feels, in short, disoriented.
How is one to make sense of it all?
This is the question that appears to have been at the back of the minds of the museum’s leaders when they embarked on their ambitious new building project. They seem to have conceived the new building not just as a solution to the practical issues outlined above, but as a way to address a perceived problem in the way people were experiencing the museum.
They wanted, in short, to make the founder’s vision more palatable to contemporary audiences.
The expansion is the most dramatic change in the Gardner’s century-long history. But it is by no means the first time her vision has been meddled with.
In the 1970s, for instance, under the directorship of Rollin Hadley, the contents of Gardner’s so-called Chinese Room were auctioned off and the room converted into a cafe and shop.
Most recently, in order to create space for the new wing, an idiosyncratic and rather grand-looking Carriage House was demolished. As Hadley wrote in 1978 and Robert Colby, a former curatorial fellow at the Gardner, pointed out in 2009, the Carriage House was dear to Gardner, and in symbolic ways articulated her whole vision of the museum as an aesthetic sanctuary, a protected enclave dedicated to the life of the spirit and the senses.
Gardner, as the controversy around the Carriage House reminded us, designed her museum in a very particular way. She created an opaque exterior, offering only subtle clues about what to expect inside. She surrounded the building at the back and to the side with a high wall with trellises, the carriage house, and tall trees.
One entered into the building and was immediately thrown into a new setting: a cloistered courtyard, high interior walls resembling the exterior of a Venetian palazzo, a skylight, plants, flowers, antiquities. The effect was intended to be - and is - beautiful, spellbinding, strange.
At this point, and even as one proceeded to walk through the different rooms, one was not necessarily supposed to know what to think or how to feel, much less to fathom what works of art were more valuable or critically esteemed than others. Instead, one was encouraged to remain pliable and open, moved, impressed, in a state of animating uncertainty and heightened receptivity.
Gardner never, to my knowledge, articulated her philosophy of aesthetic experience. She let her museum and, to some extent, her extraordinary circle of friends do the talking. In 1911, Matthew Prichard, who was the assistant to the director of the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, wrote about going to the Gardner:
“You visit a lady of feeling. She receives you in a room hung with tapestry; someone is playing on the piano; your friend is charmingly dressed and she wears jewelry; there are flowers about. You sit down and talk with her . . . you were aware of the various elements affecting you during the call, the music, the flowers, the dress, and so on, but you did not examine them . . . you did not conceptualize them. It appeared all as one harmony. . . . Do you not think that such an experience may be typical of what we call art?’’
Both Henry James and the painter John La Farge likened the museum to poetry - an experience to succumb to rather than analyze. It was deliberately open-ended, intentionally mysterious.
The Gardner’s former curator Alan Chong even likened the absence of a clear interpretive order in the presentation of the galleries “to the shifting points of view in James’s late novels.’’
Of course, but for the dramatic entrance from the Fenway, one can still have this mysterious, shifting, multi-sensory experience. Almost everything about Gardner’s original vision remains intact, and the Tapestry Room has been painstakingly restored to something much closer to its original state. It now looks very beautiful, and amazingly spacious - just the kind of room you long to walk into after negotiating the many smaller, busier galleries that lead up to it.
But how differently the whole Gardner experience will now be framed!
The deliberately theatrical, disorienting experience Gardner contrived with her original building is not just being altered: It is being openly contradicted by a new ethos of transparency, orientation, and explanation.
Peggy Burchenal, the museum’s curator of education, makes this explicit on the museum’s website: “Entering the historic museum building can be a somewhat disorienting experience for some visitors - you are launched into the museum with very little to go by. The new building, with its all-glass first floor, will give you a better sense of how to enjoy your visit.’’
The new building, in other words, has been explicitly designed to be all the things that the original museum is not: rational, transparent, reassuring, consumer-friendly. It is to be a place that, by conforming to our expectations of modern cultural venues - that they be enlightening and edifying - will mediate and to some extent subdue the strangeness of Gardner’s creation.
As such, it seems inevitable that the new building will dilute what Higonnet, in “A Museum of One’s Own,’’ called the “coherent personal energy’’ that makes every collection museum - and Gardner’s in particular - so striking. One can no longer plunge into the experience of the museum without first being enticed by all the clean, new offerings of the new building.
Indeed, the museum’s leaders want visitors to get a sense of a “museum-at-work.’’ Hence all its ancillary functions - from resident artists’ studios to education to greenhouses - will be made immediately visible to those entering the museum, in much the same way Piano and his colleague, Richard Rogers, made visible the inner workings of the Centre Pompidou in their famous inside-out design for the Paris museum.
Visitors will also be able to relax, talk, and orient themselves in a “Living Room’’ on the ground level. Books and brochures will be available, and at certain times invited citizens of Boston will be on hand to talk about their own collections, with props to boot.
Some might find it hard to match Prichard’s description of an experience charged with mystery and poetry with the museum’s new, ultra-modern vision of sociability and transparency.
Perhaps one shouldn’t try.
The reality is, Gardner’s vision is radically out of step with the prevailing thinking about how museums should make art available to the public. In museum culture today, it seems, it is no longer desirable to create situations where the viewer is credited with the maturity and independence to be left alone, one on one, in a state of animating uncertainty, with art.
All over the world, instead, we see what could be called the “CliffsNotes’’ principle at work: an inescapable impulse on the part of institutions to explain, edify, welcome, orient, and pre-digest. Nothing, according to this new way of thinking, should be too surprising. Lighting must be perfect, information clear and ingratiating, and amenities always close at hand.
Isabella Stewart Gardner belonged to an earlier era - an era of amateur art lovers. Rich, privileged, and no doubt vain, she was nevertheless passionate about art.
In many ways, her vision was fanciful, unrealistic, absurd. The very premise - a Venetian-style palazzo on the Fenway in Boston! - is almost embarrassing.
But perhaps it is a mistake to try to hide from this embarrassment. Splendid and anachronistic follies (one thinks also of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in England, or the Barnes Foundation) often generate the most interesting ideas, triggering imaginative leaps and reminding us of alternative possibilities, different ways of seeing.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.