The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is my favorite art museum for children. This is no ordinary museum. A visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will strike you with a sense of wonder and intrigue from the moment you walk in the door. It also happens to be the location of one of the most famous art heists in history.
The winter is my favorite time to visit the museum. I love walking in from the cold to the lush tropical setting. The museum is centered around a grand courtyard.
As we circled the courtyard, a woman called us over to her table. She had activity cards to give each of my kids. The cards set us on a scavenger hunt around the museum. My kids love a good scavenger hunt. It is such a great idea because it gives them something to focus on and also helps them to notice things that they normally may overlook.
The museum is so easy to explore. There are three floors that each circle the courtyard, so it’s impossible to get lost. Large windows looks down to the courtyard giving it an open airy feel.
At the sign of the first empty frame, my kids were so intrigued to hear about the art heist.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist
At 1:24 on the morning of March 18, 1990, the security guard heard the buzzer ring at the back door of the museum. He was greeted by two men dressed as police officers stating that they were responding to a disturbance. Since it was the day after St. Patrick’s day, the security guard believed them and broke protocol to let them in. Immediately, the two security guards were dragged down to the basement, handcuffed to pipes and their eyes taped shut.
From there, the thieves headed straight for the Dutch room. They were hunting Rembrandt’s. They took down the frames of irreplaceable art work and used a box cutter to hastily cut them from their frames.
They brazenly spent 81 minutes taking whatever they wanted. They even took two trips to their car with their loot. In all, they took 13 pieces from the Gardner collection. Police didn’t arrive until 8:15 the next morning.
Today, empty frames hang where these works of art once lived. It is an eerie reminder of what happened, but the museum uses them as a placeholder for the missing works and as symbols of hope awaiting their return. Gone but not forgotten. There is still an active FBI investigation going on with a $10 million dollar reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen works. It was the single largest property theft in the world.
The stolen art work was made by some of the most famous artists in our history. Pieces from the 1600’s. Just think of the care that went into keeping a piece of art intact for that long. And the pain for the curators to see it cut into with nothing but greed on their minds. These rare, extraordinary works of art can never be replaced.
You can walk in the footsteps of thieves by taking an audio tour. The director of security will lead you through their movements from that night. Little did the thieves know, motion detectors recorded their every movement.
So who was Isabella Stewart?
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a visionary who loved travel and Renaissance art. In fact, the museum is designed to look like an inside out Venetian palazzo. She once lived in the private fourth floor quarters of the museum. She arranged the artwork herself and filled the space with performing artists, concerts and exhibitions. Picture people singing from balconies or attending a lecture in the garden. There was no place like it in the early 1900’s.
Isabella’s “unconventional behavior” made her the topic of gossip columns. She was my kind of woman. She was unapologetically herself during a time when women were suppose to fit a specific mold.
When she passed away, she left the museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” She provided an endowment to operate the museum, stipulating in her will that nothing in the galleries should be changed, and no items be acquired or sold from the collection.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum welcomes families with children to visit. It is not a stuffy art museum, but still remind your kids not to touch. Children under the age of 18 are admitted free of charge. Kids will even be supplied with free sketching materials near the courtyard (just outside the Macknight Room). Check their website for kid-friendly programs such as Saturday drop-in art programs.
There is also an upscale cafe at the museum. No reservations are required, as their meals are designed to be served quickly. But don’t think cold food on orange cafeteria trays… think: caramelized onion and gruyère quiche and creamy cauliflower soup over a glass of wine. While the cafe is currently closed, they plan to reopen in April.
I would highly recommend a trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Don’t let kids stop you. They will enjoy it just as much as you will, even if it is for different reasons.
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