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After spending hours strolling between the world-renown masterpieces of Boston’s Fine Arts Museum, I stumbled upon the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and found myself more fascinated by the character of the museum itself. The low-key, three-floor gallery embodies a woman who, for over three decades, assembled a collection of more than two thousand artifacts (paintings, sculptures, objects, textiles, drawings, manuscripts, photographs, letters, etc) from around the world. Isabella’s story is intriguing, and her collection, a lifetime’s pursuit of diverse eccentricities, conveys the energy one woman found in the art of collections.
The story begins when Isabella lost her first and only child to pneumonia. Soon after, she discovered she would be unable to conceive again. Traumatized by the loss of her child and the barren news, Isabella felt defeated and sank into a two-year seclusion in which she remained in her room, refusing to interact with the outside world. In the end, it was Isabella’s husband’s decision to take her on a trip across Europe that revived Isabella’s love for life, setting in motion what was to become a lifetime’s addiction.
From her travels all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Isabella found a new purpose: bringing back strange and beautiful objects from these foreign lands. After filling several warehouses in Boston with her new goods, she decided to build Fenway Court to house her entire collection, which she opened to the public in 1903.
“El Jaleo” by John S. Sargent, part of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Collection. (source)
However, not much is known about Isabella’s private life. She burned thousands of her letters before she died, leaving very little information about her personal story. Certainly, however, an intriguing persona lay behind this collection. In 1888, it took painter John Sargent nine tries to get the portrait that Isabella wanted of herself right. She was an “energetic intellectual curiosity,” but much of what the world knew about her came from her public-facing role as a socialite and avid collector of foreign esoteric things. Her collection includes framed textiles, signed letters from celebrities, and strange artifacts such as a seventeenth century silver German ostrich. When seen as a whole, the eclectic mix portrays the interest and curiosities of a woman from the late nineteenth century with the means to follow through on her passions.
Isabella Gardner is a perfect example of the difficulty in distinguishing an eccentric collector from a compulsive hoarder. Where does one draw the line? Is it a matter of taste or refinement? Quality over quantity? The ability to purchase more space so as to not wallow in what’s been amassed? Granted, most people don’t spend millions of dollars amassing treasures like Isabella, or trek the planet in search of curiosities, but we all have our quirks that hold inexplicable power to us alone.
A couple of weeks ago, I began a collection of vintage photographs, for no reason other than my fascination with the stories hidden within their frames. My newfound hobby got me wondering about what drives people to spend time and money on collections, especially when not motivated by financial gain. As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” John Reznikoff’s collection of celebrity hair – including locks from Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and many others – seems to abide by this motto. Then there’s Ray Bandar’s collection of 7000 animals skulls…
But not all collections have to be as eccentric or far-fetched. Some people collect comic books. Others collect skulls. What’s your treasure? What is it about our interests that you think gives meaning to our life?