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.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.