Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum closes on anniversary of infamous heist due to planned climate change protest

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston closed its doors on Saturday (18 March) after receiving word that climate change activists planned on holding a “guerrilla art installation” at the museum.

Members of the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion Boston had contacted local media outlets and were instructed to not release information until 1pm on 18 March. However, officials at the Gardner Museum learned of the plan and decided to close the museum for the day—which, not coincidentally, was the 33rd anniversary of the infamous heist in which 13 objects collectively valued at $500m were stolen from the museum.

Following the museum’s closure, members of Extinction Rebellion Boston held a rally outside the museum’s gates, which they dubbed a “die-in”. “We will not stop calling for climate justice,” a message on the group’s event page stated. “We will not stop putting ourselves between the powerful and the vulnerable. We know how history paints us, in the end. No media outlet can suppress the truth forever.” Representatives of the group told Boston.com they “did not plan to damage any property whatsoever” and that they wanted to install “extinction-themed art pieces over the empty frames the museum has left on display since the 1990 heist. The guerrilla works would have depicted an hourglass filled with the bones of animals at risk of extinction, with a message reading: “Stop mass extinction: The biggest heist.”

People who intended to visit the museum that day—some in observance of the heist’s anniversary—and had purchased tickets in advance received refunds. “I come every year on March 18th, the last eight or nine years, to look at the empty frames,” one would-be visitor, Michelle Dixon, told CBS.

Following a wave of protest actions at major museums last year by climate activists amid efforts to bring attention to their cause, Gardner Museum officials did not want to take chances and risk damage to works in the museum’s collection. “Informed that climate activists were planning a protest inside the museum that could potentially put our community and artworks at risk, we made the difficult decision to remain closed for the day,” the museum’s director, Peggy Fogelman, said in a statement on Saturday. “While March 18th is always a painful day in the museum’s history, those feelings were amplified today by not having the opportunity to welcome our visitors…. It is our mission to uphold Isabella’s values; however, we cannot condone any action that would possibly put the museum’s collection, staff and visitors at risk.”

Several iconic works at major museums have been targeted in past climate protest actions over the past two years, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Claude Monet’s Haystacks.

The works stolen from the Gardner Museum on 18 March 1990—including paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Édouard Manet—remain at large and a $10m reward is still being offered for anyone who has information leading to their safe return.

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