The Gardner as a Center for Creativity

Peggy Burchenal, Esther S. Eastman Curator of Education

School Partnership Program students explore the Museum before public hours with Museum staff.

A pair of young visitors dive into their gallery activities.

Peggy Burchenal, Esther Stiles Eastman Curator of Education, examines how architecture can facilitate and inspire creativity and learning.

How can the architecture of an art museum facilitate learning, engage visitors, and inspire artists? The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been notable for its exceptional architecture—a singular vision of various styles and tastes. Renzo Piano was charged with the monumental task of designing and building a complement to this much beloved architectural jewel. In the Piano-designed building, much has been said about its transparency (on the first floor, views into the greenhouse work areas, and studio). By design, this transparency will expand and enhance education and creative thinking at the Gardner.

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. Just before the glass connector that takes you into the historic building a new space called the Living Room will offer opportunities to get an overview of the museum and its history and new ways to explore and think about the collection and special exhibitions.

Education activities that used to take place in a cramped basement room in the historic building will move to a new, glass-walled studio on the first floor of the new wing. Visitors will be able to see Museum staff at work, teaching young people from our school and community partnerships classes on weekdays and working with family audiences on weekends. We think that seeing the creativity of young people will inspire other visitors to find their own creative energy as they explore the museum.

In the Living Room, visitors will be able to browse materials relating to visiting Artists-in-Residence, including video interviews where visitors can listen to the residents talking about their practice and their experience of living and working at the Museum. In monthly live “Conversations” in the performance hall, visual artists, filmmakers, poets, composers, musicians, actors, conservators, scholars and writers will converge to discuss topics of vital interest.

Our new chamber orchestra in residence, A Far Cry, will hold regular open rehearsals in the new performance hall, giving visitors the chance to see how this group of young people (the full group numbers 16) goes about the process of creating their own interpretation of a piece of music.

Artsist-in-Residence Gcina Mhlophe sharing South African stories with young Boston students.

Some of the spaces planned in the new building such as classrooms and the special exhibition gallery are purpose-built while others such as the Living Room are meant to merely facilitate “accidental” or serendipitous encounters, conversations, and learning. This unplanned learning/dialogue recalls how visitors, students, scholars, and artists have always experienced the Gardner. The Museum is full of surprises, if you’re open to them. This, too, is how the courtyard works – upon entering the cloisters, you’re expecting just another art museum but the first thing you encounter is this glorious space with architecture, plants, and sculpture. In my view the courtyard signals that you have to lose your preconceived notions and be open to new experiences.

Also, the Gardner is a very intimate museum, so it’s a great place to have a conversation with friends that can expand to include other people in the galleries; it happens all the time. Gardner herself was always open to new experiences, and we encourage our visitors to be, too. To promote ongoing conversation, the Living Room will be staffed with volunteers (and on occasion, we hope, Museum staff and other interested individuals) who will engage visitors in dialogue about museum activities, past and present. Those unexpected insights and experiences are what can make a visit memorable.

What’s remarkable about the Gardner Museum is that it was the creation of one woman, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Her vivid imaginative vision is felt throughout the galleries, challenging us to develop our own response to her very personal way of installing art. Visitors often comment that entering the Gardner is like being transported to a different time and place, and how that allows them to respond more freely and creatively.

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