There are many contentions surrounding museum collections. High profile repatriation and provenance cases such as the Parthenon marbles are frequently discussed both within the sector and in the media. The issues are complex and they continue to reappear as there is no right or wrong answer or a one size fits all fix. Fortunately, some cases are clear cut when determining what is right and wrong such as souveniring from an historic site or a key landmark.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of thirteen artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; one of the great modern mysteries of the museum world. More information is available on the museum’s website. More recently, they have added a Google Art Project virtual tour of the stolen works. If you have not visited the museum, you should check it out.
When I visited the museum for the first time last year, both as a visitor and museum programmer, I was amazed and astonished by the powerful account of the thefts as told by the exhibits. The same impact cannot be found in any book, podcast or in the virtual tour. This is one of those museum experiences that cannot be replaced by technology and innovation.
Despite anticipating the empty frames from the moment I arrived, I overlooked the small painting missing from the Blue Room on the first floor. It was not until the Short Gallery, on the second floor, almost half way through the museum that I noticed a gap and a brief label explaining the loss. To someone whose art knowledge is somewhat lacking, it blatantly demonstrated the complexity and malice of the theft. The thieves had largely ignored the exquisite pottery, furniture and paintings of the first floor in search of these small Duget drawings in a cabinet. They knew the collection, the museum layout and the value of the pieces. Likewise, they had specifically taken very valuable works by Vermeer and Rembrandt in the nearby Dutch Gallery. In this room, the pristine condition of each of the preceding rooms only exaggerated the impact of the large, empty frames.
I have always been led to believe that the empty frames were so left out of respect for Gardner’s request “that the permanent collection not be significantly changed”. However, the museum claims that they have been “left not as a stipulation of Gardner’s will, but as a symbol of hope, awaiting their paintings’ return.” Either way, the decision to leave them there was not a programming one, yet the impact on the visitor’s experience and understanding of the theft is great. As an historian and an advocate for interdisciplinary experiences in museum programming, the history the museum from its inception to today, including, of course, the theft, is as important as understanding the works themselves.
Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigation should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617 278 5114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.gardnermuseum.org/resources/theft