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Posts Tagged ‘museums’

Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends moved away (sniff), and we made a serious effort to soak up some time together before she left town. One afternoon in late June, she texted with a question: would I like to join her and her daughter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that week? Of course, the answer was yes.

The Gardner is one of my favorite semi-hidden Boston gems; it’s tucked away in the Fenway neighborhood, built around a central courtyard that’s full of lush plantings year-round. Mrs. Gardner, as the docents still call her, was an avid collector of art, furniture and curiosities, from around the world. Her acquisitions are still arranged just as she specified – in multilayered, sometimes overwhelming splendor – at the mansion/museum she called Fenway Court.

The first few times I went to the Gardner, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art: there are thousands of objects, including paintings, textiles, furniture, dishes, sculptures, sketches, letters, tapestries and who knows what else. It took me a while to realize the goal isn’t to see or learn about everything: it’s to walk through and experience the total effect, the layers of history and different origin stories and artistic styles, all brought together by one woman’s passion for collecting. These days, I wander through, pausing when a piece catches my eye, but less focused on the details than on the whole.

This time was different, for several reasons: first, we enjoyed a snack at the cafe before our museum tour. I’d never been to the (relatively) new Cafe G before, but I have to say, the citrus pound cake was delicious (and felt fancy).

The three of us wandered around, starting at the top floor of the museum (for something different) and winding our way back down to the ground floor. I loved being there with 12-year-old Lucy, who noticed things I’d never have picked up on, and asked excellent questions (my favorite: “What would you want to ask Isabella, if you could?”).

In light of the current conversations around artistic objects, their provenance, and the recent encouraging trend of museums considering returning stolen objects, I also wondered about the collection at the Gardner. Where did all these objects come from? Who brought them to Isabella? Were they given freely (in exchange for money, of course) or stolen from their original homes? What happened to the people, buildings and communities who created them? I never used to consider these questions when I visited museums, but I am thinking about so many things differently now. (I am also, as ever, curious about the heist in 1990, which has never yet been solved.)

Every time I go to the Gardner, I find myself drawn to the windows in every room, gazing out onto the courtyard, which I find both restful and beautiful. (I’ve never seen the famous nasturtium plantings there, but it’s on my list for this winter.) Mostly, I was grateful to share a lovely afternoon with two women I love, in a place we all enjoy.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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Last month, my guy and I headed to the MFA on a Saturday (thank goodness for library passes). Both the permanent collection and the rotating exhibits there are stunning, and we love an occasional afternoon spent strolling among the art.

We spent most of our time in the New Light exhibit, which brings together new pieces and older artworks, placing them side by side and in conversation with one another. I saw more pieces than I can possibly tell you about here, but I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of art in different media, from different eras, telling different sides of a story or simply highlighting the various angles of a subject or topic.

There were paintings, of course, and sculptures, and mixed-media pieces made of textiles and paper and wood. There were pieces clearly inspired by other artists’ work, and a tiny scale model of a gallery that an artist had used to virtually showcase others’ pieces during the height of the pandemic. There was a sculpture of Fred Hampton’s door, a powerful piece calling attention to the brutality so often faced by Black Americans. There were detailed botanical drawings next to a piece by Lui Shtini that combined a recognizable flower with some fantastical elements. And there were a number of pieces that simply identified the artist as “Artist once known.”

That, perhaps, caught me more than anything else: a way to acknowledge the fact that artists unknown to us (many of them female, Indigenous or marginalized) were once known, and important, to their loved ones and communities. Someone knew this quilter, this painter, this sculptor, this folk artist who took such care to carve or draw or assemble a piece. Their identities, while maybe lost to us, are still important, and still vital to acknowledge. It brought those “unknown” artists a little closer to me, and reminded me that art is always saying something: it highlights beauty, records and analyzes events, calls out injustice, names and honors complicated emotions.

The neon sign above, which hangs in a different gallery of the MFA, reminds me of that, too: the museum encourages visitors to look, feel, talk, communicate, interact with the art. You don’t have to be an artist or an art historian to do any of those things, to engage with art on a human level. I’m grateful to the MFA for reminding me of that, in different and thought-provoking ways.

What local adventures are you having, this summer? How do you like to engage with visual art?

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This is the summer, as I said recently, of antiracist reading (along with sunflowers and bike rides and strawberries). On a recent Monday afternoon, a friend and I decided to explore with both our feet and our brains: we met up in Beacon Hill to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

I’ve lived in Boston for a decade now, and I used to wander Beacon Hill frequently when I worked at Emerson College. But I didn’t know this trail existed until recently, and the more sites we found and the more snippets I read aloud from the National Park Service website, I wondered: why not?

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Like many American schoolchildren, I learned certain parts of Boston history: Paul Revere’s famous ride, the Boston Tea Party. I walked most of the Freedom Trail as a newcomer to Boston, ten years ago. I knew Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement (though it is also persistently racist). But I didn’t know about so many of the folks we learned about on the Black Heritage Trail: their names or their occupations or their contributions to the ongoing fight for Black freedom.

The trail comprises about a dozen sites, starting at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a volunteer infantry regiment made up of Black soldiers (made famous in the movie Glory). The memorial itself is closed for restoration right now, but there’s a great temporary exhibition wrapped around the fencing, so you can still learn about the soldiers of the 54th.

Most of the trail’s other sites are former homes of Black people who fought for the abolition of slavery, helped house people escaping enslavement, helped integrate schools and churches in Boston, and played other important roles in Black community life. There are two former schools along the trail: the Abiel Smith School, the first Black public school in Boston, and the Phillips School, which became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.

The trail ends at the Smith Court Residences and the African Meeting House (now the Museum of African American History), which seem to have been the epicenter of Black life in Boston in the late 19th century. But even as we walked, we saw plaques on other buildings noting people who had lived and worked for abolition and Black rights in the neighborhood.

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I might never have seen these plaques, or any of these houses, if I hadn’t been looking for them – and I kept wondering: why not? Why aren’t we taught these stories, alongside those of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and John Hancock? Why had I never heard of Lewis and Harriet Hayden or George Middleton or Elizabeth Smith? I want to find out more about them now – but their stories should not be tucked down a side street. They should be highlighted, celebrated.

So much of the work of adulthood, for me, is paying attention: noticing the details of each day, really listening to my loved ones when we’re talking, not simply scrolling or sleepwalking through this life. The work of anti-racism also involves paying attention: seeking out the stories we don’t know, the ones that have been ignored or erased or shunted aside. This walk, this trail, is a small beginning. I’m glad we went, and I’m committed to finding out more.

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Tucked away on a side street near the Fens, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of Boston’s hidden gems. I’ve been there a few times, with my parents or visiting friends, but I hadn’t been back in several years.

The museum is open late on Thursdays, with jazz and samba music winding through the galleries and evocative shadows dancing in the corners. I spent the evening there last night with someone dear to me who had never been before (though he’s lived in Boston for years).

We wandered through the galleries, marveling at intricate tapestries, delicate handmade lace, elaborate marble statues and tile work, and gorgeous paintings. In each room, I always end up at the windows, gazing down into the central courtyard, which is amazing from every angle.

The museum is a different place at night: arranged exactly as it is in the daytime, but with more mystery in its corners. We wondered about the origins of some pieces, and noted a few empty frames (which held the pieces stolen in the Gardner’s 1990 heist). Different details catch my eye every time: a medieval portrait of an anonymous woman, an impressionist painting of gladioli, a bronze sculpture of Diana the huntress.

There’s far too much art to take in all at once, and so you don’t have to try, which is what I love about the Gardner: you can simply wander through and experience the art and the place.

I’d never spent an evening at the Gardner before: I’d always been on a weekend afternoon, with the attendant crowds (and sunshine pouring through the skylight). But this was a lovely way to enjoy a beautiful space. I can see more evenings there in my future.

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isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard boston

On a frigid (but sunny) Saturday in February, I met my friend Kristin in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. During a previous outing, she’d mentioned the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which sits just around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts, tucked between it and Simmons College.

“I’ve never been there,” she said. “Is it cool?”

My response? “We’re going.”

isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard statue boston

The Gardner is the former home of its namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner – a Boston socialite and heiress whose art collection fills three floors of gorgeous, airy rooms. She collected everything: paintings, statuary, delicate handmade lace, elaborate candlesticks, furniture from various countries and periods. Leather-bound books and letters from famous people fill glass-fronted cases, and the walls are hung with tapestries, paintings and mirrors.

Mrs. Gardner (that’s what the museum guides call her) was a magpie, but a wealthy one with good taste. As specified in her will, the collection is left as she arranged it (with the exception of 13 pieces stolen in 1990, in one of the biggest unsolved art heists ever).

The central courtyard is the only part of the museum you’re allowed to photograph – and it’s stunning. Although the art in every room is amazing, I always find myself walking over to the windows to look out into the courtyard, again and again. The roof is enclosed by skylights, which give it a greenhouse feel. (Those orchids!)

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I’ve been to the Gardner several times – it’s a great place to take friends who come to visit. But it’s nearly impossible to see everything (the rooms are crammed), so I’m always happy to go back.

We wandered the rooms, reading some of the guide cards that provide information about the pieces, and soaking up the atmosphere. A flautist stood by the piano in one of the upstairs galleries, and her music, like liquid silver, followed us all the way down the hall.

I don’t consider myself an art aficionado. But I will always say yes to an afternoon spent among beautiful things, with a good friend. Mrs. Gardner’s museum is the perfect place to spend such an afternoon.

Have you been to the Gardner Museum? Any favorite museums where you live?

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This fall, the Harvard Art Museums finally reopened after a six-year, extensive renovation.

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I met my husband and a friend there one day in November. They’d had lunch in Harvard Square, and J’s friend wanted to see the museums while he was in the neighborhood. But we didn’t have much time, and we only got a glimpse of the galleries. (Though we did get to marvel at the gorgeous central courtyard, which alone is worth the price of admission.)

I like to have a mission during my winter lunch breaks, when it’s often too cold to spend the whole time outside. The art museums are across campus from my office, a 10-minute stroll through Harvard Yard. It’s a gorgeous walk, and not too far if it’s frigid out. So I’ve put it on my calendar for the winter: on Thursdays, I go to the museums.

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I don’t consider myself an art aficionado – though I enjoy a good museum, particularly when I’m traveling. But the art museums are almost literally in my backyard. I get in for free, as a Harvard staff member, and I want to enjoy the treasures on display – even if I don’t appreciate all of them equally. (Abstract art usually leaves me cold.)

So far, I’ve been to the museums four times, and I’ve made some beautiful discoveries. I fell in love with a Klimt painting (The Pear Tree, above) on my first solo excursion.

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I ended up transfixed by a display of medieval Persian luster tiles on my second trip. They remind me of my visit to the Alhambra in Spain, long ago.

Last week, I stumbled onto Monet’s gorgeous rendition of Charing Cross Bridge in London.

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The photo does not do justice to its moody loveliness. Also, it hangs just a few yards away from Degas’ Little Dancer.

degas little dancer sculpture

I like reading the captions and descriptions of the pieces, of course, but I am also doing my best to look – to simply pay attention to the paintings and vases and other pieces, rather than feeling like I have to learn everything about them. For a word girl like me, this is difficult, but also rewarding.

I’ve only seen about half of the galleries so far. But I like knowing I can take my time and come back whenever I want. And it gives me something to look forward to every week – a key winter survival tactic.

Are you a museum person, or an art lover? Any good museums in your neighborhood?

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I turned 30 recently, and to mark the occasion, J and I took off for somewhere totally new: Montréal. Neither of us had ever been to Canada, but since we now live just a few hours from the border, we agreed it was time. So we bought an invaluable guidebook, got a lovely hotel recommendation from a friend, and on a Wednesday afternoon, we headed north.

The weather was chillier and greyer than we had hoped, but we still spent three enjoyable days walking, museum-ing, snapping photos, trying out our (limited) French, and stopping into cafes to warm up with hot drinks and pastries. (We have been eating a lot of veggies since we got home.)

Our first snack in Montreal was a Nutella-banana crepe:

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Thus fortified, we headed to the Musée McCord (free on Wednesday nights), which included a multi-dimensional exhibit on the history of Montreal’s neighborhoods; a gorgeous display of First Peoples clothing and heirlooms; and a special exhibit on Grace Kelly. I am not sure what she has to do with Montreal, but the exhibit included movie posters, gorgeous couture gowns, her Oscar (!), and a slew of correspondence, including love letters from her husband, Prince Rainier (my favorite part).

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We ate dinner that night at Juliette et Chocolat, which specializes in chocolate (as you might guess) but also does wonderful crepes (and tea):

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The next morning, we enjoyed the first of several delicious carb-tastic hotel breakfasts (muffins, bagels, pain au chocolat, yogurt and juice – I wish I’d thought to take a photo) and headed out to explore. We visited St. Patrick’s Basilica (grand, but echoingly empty), then wandered around Rue St.-Denis and the Latin Quarter for a while before heading to Old Montreal to tour the Basilique Notre-Dame:

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After all that touring, we were famished, so we stopped for pastries and tea at the charming Olive + Gourmando in Old Montreal. (It’s named after the owners’ cats.) I could have stayed all afternoon.

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Later, we explored Rue Ste.-Catherine, a major shopping street, stopping in at the Argo Bookshop. It’s tiny, but crammed with wonderful books. I fell in love right away (and restrained myself from buying dozens of books). The bookseller was kind, if a bit gruff – we heard groups of fraternity guys screaming on the street outside, and he said with a sigh, “That’s why I prefer literature.”

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The next morning, we took the Metro to Marché Jean-Talon, a huge, beautiful open market packed with gorgeous produce:

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We strolled the aisles for a while, then bought a pint of strawberries and sat down to eat them while listening to a violinist play.

After a walk through Little Italy and another Metro ride, we ended up at La Banquise, a 24-hour hot spot for poutine, Montreal’s local dish. The standard version is French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds, but La Banquise has tons of options. J tried a version with three kinds of sausage, and I opted for La Grecque (“the Greek”) – tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and feta.

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Greasy, but so delicious.

We headed to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Montreal’s huge, free art museum) after that, and wandered through rooms full of paintings and sculpture.

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Fun, but a little overwhelming – we returned to Juliette et Chocolat afterward to enjoy another crêpe. Mmmm.

strawberry chocolate crepe juliette et chocolat montreal

Saturday morning, we toured the Centre d’histoire de Montreal, a lovely little museum about Montreal’s history housed in a former fire station:

centre d'histoire de montreal quebec

Fascinating exhibits (in French and English, thank goodness) about Montreal past and present. (Much less hokey than the video we’d seen at the Notre-Dame light show, the night before.)

We’d heard about the famous pork sandwiches at Schwartz’s, but the line was forever long, so we ended up getting ours to go and eating them in a park. (Delicious.)

After more shopping and wandering, an Italian dinner at Lombardi, and dessert at the lovely Brûlerie St.-Denis, we collapsed. (So much walking, even with the three-day Metro passes we bought for $18 each – a stellar deal.)

We came home with sore feet and lighter wallets, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip and a fun chance to explore a new city.

Have you been to Montreal? What are your favorite spots there, if you have?

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Interior (above) and exterior (below) of the JFK Library and Museum, near our house. Fascinating exhibits about the Kennedy family, JFK’s career, Jackie, and the turbulent 1960s.

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I do. (It makes me want to buy school supplies.)

J and I spent a long weekend in NYC recently with our friends Allison and Duncan, who hosted us in their wee apartment (though the air mattress took up most of their living room). Three days is only long enough to taste the glories of New York, but we savored every moment (and several delicious meals).

Saturday was summer-warm, so we strolled through Central Park:

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After lunch, we spent the afternoon wandering the West Village, browsing funky shops with adorable window displays:

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purple pumpkin window west village nyc

We sniffed and browsed teas at DavidsTea (I bought a tin of delicious pumpkin chai), tried on cloches at a gorgeous hatmaker’s shop (I felt like Maisie), listened to jazz in Washington Square Park, and finally headed to Victory Garden for goat’s milk ice cream:

(Allison had chocolate and salted caramel, swirled. I had salted caramel, with “choco-crunch” topping. Heavenly.)

We ate dinner that night at Arriba Arriba – the first good Mexican restaurant I’ve been to in New England. It wasn’t quite like home, but it was pretty darn close (and delicious). And then we saw The Fantasticks, which is a delightful, magical little piece of musical theatre. So much fun.

Sunday was rainy, but J and I braved the weather for another Central Park walk:

We visited the Frick Collection and then met our friends for chai at a hip little cafe on the Upper East Side:

sicaffe window photo nyc

That afternoon, we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum – a fascinating, well-researched museum detailing the lives of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you’re interested in NYC’s history and/or the history of immigrants in this country, I highly recommend it.

I can’t go to NYC (or really anywhere) without visiting a few bookstores, and the group let me stop at Shakespeare & Co. on Lexington as we headed for Thai food and the Tenement Museum. And later on Sunday afternoon, Allison took me to Books of Wonder:

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It is truly wonderful – a bookstore dedicated to children’s literature, with a gorgeous section of old and rare books at the back. I bought a copy of a story I loved as a child, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

We ate a cozy dinner at Quaint that night, followed by Scattergories, ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s, of course) and tea in the cozy apartment. And the next day, we played Ping-Pong in midtown before catching the bus back to Boston.

New York is where I go to do things I can’t do anywhere else – often several of them in the same weekend – and also to do the New York versions of things I love to do all the time, like browsing bookshops and drinking tea. It can be gritty and overwhelming, but it’s also dazzling, and exciting, and fun.

I’ve been to New York four times now, and my trips there are always chock-full of magical moments, which make me believe again in the New York I know from so many books and films. Mostly, I keep going back for a taste of that magic. And the city always delivers.

If you’ve been to New York, what are your favorite things to do there?

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As previously mentioned, my husband and I spent the weekend eating our way through New York City – or through parts of Manhattan and Queens, at least. And while I savored every bite of every meal we ate, there were many other highlights from J’s first (my third) trip to the city.

While waiting to meet Allison on Saturday afternoon, J and I crowded into FAO Schwarz and exclaimed over Quidditch supplies, stacks of books, stuffed animals galore and a wall of board games. And then we watched two professional piano dancers perform four songs on the giant piano – just like in Big! (They ended with – I kid you not – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. So. Impressive.)

I also met an old friend in the Lego section:

The Met is always a highlight – but I really loved watching J’s jaw drop in amazement at some of the things I’d seen before and wanted to show him. (I love playing tour guide.) He particularly enjoyed seeing the knights:

We hit some of the tourist hot spots I’d never seen before – the Plaza, Rockefeller Center (that skating rink is smaller than it looks in the movies!) and Macy’s on 34th. And, of course, the Lego store, complete with gigantic dragon:

He’s all made of Legos, and he’s “guarding” a Lego replica of Rockefeller Center (with a tiny replica of himself sticking out of one building). So cool.

On Monday before leaving, we went back to the Strand, where I managed to buy only three books, including a much-loved vintage edition of E.B. White’s wonderful essay Here is New York:

The other main highlight of the weekend was spending time with this girl:

Allison is a regular reader of this blog, and we’ve been corresponding by email for a while – and she did not bat an eyelash when I invited myself to her apartment for a long weekend in September, nor when I promised her I was coming back and bringing my husband. (What a brave soul!)

She gave us her room for the weekend, bought us real New York bagels for breakfast, traipsed around the city with us in below-freezing weather, and said all sorts of nice things about my wedding pictures (she’s newly engaged, so I brought my album along and we talked dresses and flowers for a while). I love it when online friendships transmute so perfectly into real-life friendships – and this one certainly has. It was such a treat to spend the weekend with her (and Allison, if you’re reading, please come up to Boston soon!).

Any suggestions for my next trip to NYC? You can bet we’ll be going back (when it warms up)!

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