The effect is plain throughout: there are nearly no labels, and the handful I saw named at most a culture and century. The organization of the collection in the galleries is only vaguely defined by time and place, and rather more by visual harmony: an 18th-century Russian lampstand finds its place beside a Turkish textile and a Japanese basin, while the "Spanish Cloister" is wallpapered with tiles from Mexico (right) and oriented toward its show-stopping highlight, a huge painting by John Singer Sargent. Roman sarcophagi, meanwhile, are sprinkled throughout both the Cloister and the Courtyard (above). This is no ordinary concept of museum display! It is a treat to feel Mrs. Gardner's touch in every arrangement, and to imagine her making it all "just so" for her salon guests.
In laying out her art museum in Boston, which opened in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner sought to ellicit an emotional response in her visitors. Rather than teach them something intellectual about the works on view, she prioritized aesthetic impact. And she was able to realize this vision completely, being the sole visionary and financier of the museum—not to mention a seemingly headstrong personality.
Sometimes her touch seems more enthusiastic than professional, as in the tapestries that have been bent in order to fit into a corner (below), or the row of pictures hung on the short side of a cabinet, as if to use every possible inch of vertical space.
The great achievement of this display concept is letting viewers really look at the pieces, make associations, think creatively and personally about what they are. We cannot be distracted by text or multimedia stations; we have to just look at the objects. And if the immense variety and quantity of objects can be overwhelming, this is in part a result of the ceaseless acts of imagination prompted by these pieces—just what Mrs. Gardner was going for.
This beauty of a display is in the Harvard Semitic Museum. Never before had I seen such creative use of a single color of paint applied to a wall to enhance an array of objects. The objects in question are ancient amphorae, perfect for a wall-mounted display because they are large — taking up a good amount of the large vertical space — and tough, requiring no special climate control or protective glass case. Taking the extra step to paint them into an ancient ship is a truly inspired move that works on several levels:
One of my favorite museum galleries on a recent trip to Boston was the atrium-like core of the "Encounters with the Americas" galleries in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The diagonal arrangement of display cases is a wonderful way to slow down the visitor, to encourage her to pause and look: the lack of a straight axis through the room offering a clear line of sight to the next room hinders the common mode of jetting right through the gallery, hardly glancing to either side along the way. The effect here is of course helped by the quite sizable piece of beautifully carved stone blocking the trajectory. Erecting the smaller stone pillars on the diagonal too adds some movement to these otherwise heavy, static pieces.
Subdivisions in the gallery are achieved in part by large explanatory panels, similarly set on the diagonal, acting like half-walls to guide the visitor into differently-themed spaces. (And hooray for the copious information on those signs!)
A final nice touch is the use of antique wooden display cases outfitted with new blue risers. The risers are almost a sort of minimalist artwork in themselves, and certainly freshen up the older cases without being distracting.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.