In the creation of her Museum over a century ago, Isabella Stewart Gardner bequeathed the Museum and its collection to the city of Boston as a public institution, mandating that the Museum preserve and protect it "for the education and enjoyment of the public forever."
Adherence to this unique vision and intent requires ongoing diligence in conserving the collection – and evaluation, stabilization, research, and restoration of the historic building and collection remains an ongoing and vital part of the Gardner Museum’s activities. Isabella Gardner’s specific legacy requires the Museum to permanently exhibit the complete collection, spanning more than 30 centuries, with each piece maintained in the precise location she chose for it. During her lifetime, galleries were lit with candle and firelight. The environmental parameters of the galleries, which open onto a central Courtyard, bathed in sunlight, and the personal nature of the installations themselves present significant challenges for conservators.
Throughout its history, the Gardner Museum has demonstrated a strong commitment to the conservation of its collection. Beginning in the 1930s, the Gardner Museum, along with the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fogg Art Museum and the Worcester Art Museum led the way in the research and conservation of works of art in America laying the foundation for the emerging field of modern art conservation. At the core of the preservation principles established at that time is the notion that conservation treatments are best undertaken through careful research of the materials that make up a work of art and a thorough understanding of its physical condition. Foremost among the Gardner’s early conservators was George Stout, who established the conservation department in 1933. Along with his colleagues, he conducted pioneering research into artist’s materials, the degradation process that affect a work of art and devised innovative treatment methods. As director of the Gardner (1955-1970), Stout strengthened the Museum’s commitment to preservation, a legacy that continues to the present day.
Over the last two decades, the Museum has undertaken major initiatives including the introduction of state of the art climate control, which established a stable environment for the objects in the collection. More recently, a project to upgrade lighting and control daylight throughout the galleries was undertaken to improve the visibility of the collection while protecting the collection from excessive light levels. In addition to the treatment of individual works of art, conservators have also executed whole gallery projects restoring the installations to their original splendor.
The Conservation Department is staffed with trained conservators specialized in the treatment of objects, paintings, and textiles. The conservators collaborate amongst themselves and with the curator of the collection to carry out conservation treatments and technical analyses on works of art, and establish standards, policies and goals for the long-term preservation of the collection as a whole. Technical research conducted on a work of art can lead to a greater understanding about its material composition and the artist’s creative process. To that end, conservation is constantly increasing its treatment and research capabilities with equipment such as lasers, digital infra-red imaging equipment and x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy.
Looking for a conservator for your own collection? Visit the American Institute for Conservation online to learn more about how to choose a qualified conservator, and search for conservators in your area.
Filmmaking for the film Conservation at the Gardner, above, by SheridanWorks.
Head of Conservation and Paintings Conservator
Senior Objects Conservator
Associate Objects Conservator