Sunday, July 29, 2012

Boston sightseeing

Recently, I traveled to Boston for a conference and took advantage of some free time to make a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.  This is unlike any other museum I've ever visited; Gardner set up the collection and when she bequeathed it to the public, the terms of the bequest mandate that the collection not be altered in any way.  Not only must the collection remain intact (no sales, no acquisitions), but her arrangement must also be preserved.  Having been to the Freer many times, the "no addition no subtraction" rule was familiar to me, but the idea that you can't even move things around from time to time - that was new.  It's unfortunate, really, as it means the curators can't put on exhibitions of parts of the collection.  For example, they can't put all the Sargent paintings in one room for a few months.  What you see is what you get.  Of course, the central courtyard plantings change with the seasons, so you'd get some variety there, but otherwise, it's always the same.  I'm assuming that the curators set up tours to highlight various parts of the collection, so that would serve as an exhibition, but still...

The day that I went, there were no organized tours offered, so I purchased an audio tour when I entered.  Best $4.00 I ever spent, as I would have been utterly overwhelmed without it.  Each room is jam-packed with objects: paintings, sculpture, silver, furniture, etc., etc., etc.  You can't possibly take it all in, so having a guide to point out a few items in each room was great.  In addition, the collection covers a wide variety of artistic periods and artists - there are pieces from antiquity to the early 20th century.  I've never used an audio tour before, so I have nothing to compare this to, but I thought it was very well done.  Different people spoke on the tour, mostly people from the Gardner, but others chimed in as well.  Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked, narrated the commentary in the Dutch room.  It turns out that the Gardner has a residency program for artists (defined quite broadly to include musicians and authors, as well as painters and sculptors).  When Maguire lived at the Gardner, he spent most of his time in the Dutch room, so it was interesting to hear his comments on that part of the collection.

I'm not entirely certain if Gardner was a genius or a madwoman, but her collection is worth a visit.  Note that this is not Washington, so there's an admission fee of $15 for adults.  I spent about two hours following the audio tour, but you could spend days (you could spend a lifetime, really) and still not see everything.

Another day, I took the Boston subway out to Quincy and took the tour of the Adams National Historic Park.  You walk across the street from the subway to a large office building where the National Park Service has a storefront.  Pay $5.00 (a bargain, in my view) for your ticket, board the trolley out front and you're off to the John Adams and John Quincy Adams birthplaces for the first part of your tour.  Frankly, these were a bit of a snooze, as the only things original to the houses are the foundations, but they're kept in period style, so you get a sense of how people lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  When John and John Quincy were born, this was the countryside; now, it's a bustling Boston suburb, so it's a bit odd to look across the street from the houses (which sit next to each other) and see modern architecture.

After the birthplaces, you board the trolley again and you're off to Peacefield, where John and Abigail lived after they returned from Paris.  This is wonderful - everything original - their furnishings, china, books, wallpaper.  We had a terrific park ranger give us the tour, where I learned that Louisa Adams (wife of John Quincy) was the only foreign-born first lady.  In addition, John Quincy and Louisa had china designed by Marie Antoinette.  Who knew that Marie Antoinette designed china?  There is a separate building that John Quincy had constructed in order to house his library.  It's fireproof, which just goes to show that the sixth President knew the importance of books!  It's one large room, with floor to ceiling bookcases all around the walls.  There are thousands of volumes, shelved two and three deep, in a host of different languages.  For a book lover like myself, this was the highlight of the tour.

If you find yourself in Boston and like historic sites, this is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon.  It's quite easy to get there using the subway, and even if you know a bit about the Adams family, you'll learn something new.

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