Living Room treasures to spark discussion

In a project inspired by artist Lee Mingwei, about three times a week, guest hosts will bring in three to five objects from their own homes to facilitate discussion with interested museumgoers.

WHEN YOU WALK into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new wing, you may see some strange objects in the Living Room, a cozy visitor-orientation space. And for that, you can thank Lee Mingwei.

When Lee began an artist residency at the museum in 1999, he was captivated by Gardner’s collection.


“I wished Mrs. Gardner was there to discuss the history behind her art treasures,’’ Lee says. “I wanted to have conversations with her.’’

Led by her example, he brought his own special items to the museum and became a host, encouraging dialogue with visitors. Volunteer hosts took part in his “Living Room’’ project, too.

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The space in the new wing was inspired by that project. Staff will welcome guests and educate them about the museum. And about three times a week, guest hosts will bring in three to five objects from their homes to facilitate discussion with interested museumgoers.

Lee trains all the guest hosts, telling them to bring sentimental belongings they would save in a fire. Lee will host on opening day.

One item he’ll bring is a red Mandarin court gown that his paternal grandmother wore on her wedding day. He’ll also share a 1932 photo of his maternal grandmother and her medical school class posing with a dissected cadaver, New Zealand rocks created by a glacier about 68 million years ago, and some prehistoric stone tools and arrow heads given to him by a friend.


The project is open-ended, but will last at least a year.

“Every three months I will come back to check in with the volunteers and guest hosts,’’ Lee says. “I always think of it as a living sculpture.’’

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