Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum shut its doors on the 33rd anniversary of the institution’s infamous art heist, after learning climate protesters were planning a demonstration at the museum.
“After careful consideration, and an abundance of caution for the safety of our staff, volunteers, visitors and collection, we made the difficult decision to remain closed for the day,” said the museum in a statement on March 18, adding that anyone who purchased advanced tickets will be refunded.
In the past few months, environmental activists have targeted artwork in museums as a form of protest, gluing themselves to a Sandro Botticelli painting at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and throwing tomato soup at a Vincent van Gogh in London’s National Gallery.
“We do not support this type of tactic that targets art institutions and could possibly put the Museum’s collection, staff and visitors at risk,” said Peggy Fogelman, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in a statement.
The protestors in question belonged to the Boston branch of Extinction Rebellion, an environmental advocacy group which started in London in 2018. The group planned its demonstration for months and analyzed maps of the museum to carry out a “peaceful, non-destructive, visually striking demonstration” in the museum’s courtyard, according to a statement from Extinction Rebellion.
However, the group said it sent an embargoed press release to members of the media beforehand which was leaked to the museum. Extinction Rebellion demonstrators, many of whom were dressed in animal costumes, subsequently gathered in front of the closed institution to protest “against Earth’s rapid biodiversity loss at humanity’s hands,” said the organization.
Animal bones displayed in empty frames
The demonstration was planned for the anniversary of the Stewart Gardner Museum’s 1990 art heist, where 13 works, including those by Johannes Vermeer, Edward Degas and Rembrandt van Rijn, were stolen in what the museum refers to as “the single largest property theft in the world.” The artwork has never been found and the museum continues to investigate the case alongside the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen works.
“This protest was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the art theft that took place at the Gardner exactly 33 years ago,” said Fogelman. “While March 18 is always a painful day in the Museum’s history, those feelings were amplified today by not having the opportunity to welcome our visitors.”
Extinction Rebellion planned to incorporate empty frames hanging at the ISGM which used to hold the stolen works, with activists telling Boston.com they intended to fill the frames with “extinction-themed art pieces,” including an hourglass filled with animal bones.
The planned protests were supposed to “illustrate the dichotomy between our society’s obsession with a heist of 13 artworks, and its apathy for the extinction of over 1,600,000 species since the art went missing in 1990,” according to the environmental group.
While the original demonstration was thwarted, Extinction Rebellion’s goal of gaining media attention was still achieved, according to Linus Owens, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College focusing on demonstrations and activism. “To the extent that this was at least partially about the publicity and getting information out about Extinction Rebellion, one might say it’s at least as effective as if the protest went down.”
While the recent focus on museums has garnered headlines for environmental activists, this type of demonstration will likely cycle out at some point, he said, adding that this shift could be influenced by decreased attention on the protests or heightened museum security.
“All kinds of tactics run their course,” said Owens. “People figure out something that works and at some point the other side figures out how to stop them.”