British Art Makes Comeback

HAA course explores museum's hidden treasures

In a non-descript building located within an open yet inconspicuous setting in downtown Somerville, six Harvard undergraduates and their art history professor explore the Harvard Art Museum’s storage facility, challenging traditional artistic views while preparing their own upcoming group museum exhibitions.

These projects will represent the weeks of research and careful planning executed in Professor David Bindman’s proseminar History of Art and Architecture (HAA) 171m: “British Art in the Harvard Museum.” The course will assemble and present three British art exhibitions over the course of the semester, two of which will be in the Sackler Museum and the last of which will be online.

Bindman, a visiting emeritus professor of University College, London and current W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Fellow, first came to Harvard as a graduate student in 1963. Early this year, however, Bindman’s colleague, HAA professor Jennifer L. Roberts, suggested that he teach a course on British art.

“I was very excited at the idea because there’s a great, very neglected collection of British art in the Harvard Art Museum,” Bindman says. “It has been a great treat to explore the collection…with students.”

To explore the institution’s archives, Bindman and his students make regular trips to the Somerville storage facility. In particular, the course works with the nineteenth-century British art collection of Grenville L. Winthrop (Class of 1886). Although Winthrop’s collection holds some of the finest examples of art from this period, it remains relatively unknown outside Harvard due to the donor’s stipulation that his collection not leave the university. For this reason, Bindman says studies of these works are scarce.

For Marcella A. Marsala ’11, these trips to see Harvard’s artwork up close have been a key aspect of the course. “There’s something about looking at a piece of art in person that just can’t be duplicated by looking at it on screen,” Marsala says.

Commenting on the more interactive aspects of the course, Marsala adds that she also enjoys the creativity involved in the process of designing the group art exhibit. “One of my favorite advantages is gaining the experience of curating an exhibition and all of the hard work that goes into it. It’s much more than writing just a research paper.”

While Bindman’s students will have to write a final paper on some aspect on the online exhibit, their collected essays will then serve as a catalog to accompany the online project.

Whereas this first exhibition, entitled “The Past and the Present: British Art of the Nineteenth Century,” was arranged by Bindman, the second exhibition, as well as the final online exhibition, will be organized entirely by his students. Not only will they have to choose a limited number of works to showcase, but they will also have to consider issues of space, accessibility, and presentation. In the end however, both the Harvard Art Museum and Bindman’s students will benefit from this exercise.

In addition to teaching students how to think like curators, Bindman says he hopes to encourage students to appreciate British art in its richness, diversity, and deceptive simplicity. He elaborated on this sentiment during a gallery talk held October 21 in the Sackler, during which he approached British art and its depictions of myth and the Middle Ages as resonating with the nineteenth-century public as well as with modern viewers.

“It’s a way of just looking at various works that in their own different ways look at the past and [then] seeing how you can begin to see them as having contemporary relevance,” Bindman says.

With so many works of British art in the Harvard Art Museum, the course hopes to communicate the rich diversity not only of British art but of Harvard’s collection in general with Bindman at the helm of this initiative. He joins a relatively small number of professors from Harvard’s history who designed a course a course that specifically addresses the complex study of British art. “I’m very happy that the arrangements were made to invite [Bindman] to come and fill a gap in the Harvard art history department,” Marsala says.

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