A number of unexpected challenges during construction have delayed the opening of the Harvard Art Museums’ central building, formerly known as the Fogg Museum, until the fall of 2014. But faculty and administrators said they are confident that the final product—first conceived almost 10 years ago—will be well worth the wait.
Unexpectedly high levels of asbestos in the old building, along with the complexity of the structural bracing required to preserve the building’s historic exterior, delayed construction plans by about a year, according to Director of the Harvard University Art Museums Thomas W. Lentz.
Construction for the project broke ground in 2010. Since the Fogg Museum closed in 2008, the Sackler Museum—home to Harvard’s modern art collection—has displayed temporary rotating exhibitions culled from across the University’s collections. Lentz said he does not expect the opening date to be further postponed.
“I think we always thought it was going to be finished in 2014,” said professor David J. Roxburgh, director of undergraduate studies in the history of art and architecture department. “2013 was a long shot.”
Planners say the building, located at 32 Quincy Street, is expected to receive LEED Gold certification under the United States Green Building Council’s sustainability standards—a goal that has challenged both budget and schedule.
“It’s very difficult for art museums to be green buildings,” said Lentz, citing the high energy demands of constant climate control and security for artwork under storage. “But it’s something we believe in deeply.” Ninety-six percent of the old building’s material was recycled, he added.
The Harvard Art Museums will take control of the building from the contractor in late 2013, according to Harvard Art Museums spokesperson Daron Manoogian. It will then require a year of conditioning and installation to ensure that art exhibition and protection systems are functioning properly before it can open to the public.
Access to Harvard’s collections will be restricted during this time as museum staff conduct inventory and arrange the new exhibitions, a fact that will pose difficulty to some departments on campus.
“I know the museum is working hard to minimize that window of time, but it will be a challenge for us,” said Robin Kelsey, chair of the History of Art and Architecture department. The department and the Harvard Art Museums have been in contact with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to develop resources for students during this time, he said.
History of Art and Architecture professor Henri Zerner, who teaches the survey course HAA 10: “The Western Tradition: Art since the Renaissance,” said the ongoing renovations could influence the organization of the course next fall. While in previous years sections have been taught using objects taken from the museum, Zerner said that this cataloguing may not allow undergraduates to have the same access.
Lentz acknowledged that the decade-long renovation process has been difficult for not just students and faculty but museum staff as well. But he emphasized that the unification of Harvard’s three art museums under the larger umbrella of the “Harvard Art Museums” will make Harvard’s art collection—which numbers close to 250,000 works of art and is one of the largest in the country—more accessible to students, faculty, and the public.
“Finally these collections will be talking to one another,” Lentz said. “We’re asking the building to do much more than it ever did in the past.
”When renovations are completed, the external facade of the flagship museum will remain largely unchanged, and a special effort has been made to preserve and revive core elements of the old Fogg Museum. These include the Calderwood Courtyard, which Lentz calls the “symbolic heart of the museum,” and the conservation laboratory—the oldest of its kind in the United States.
The rest of the interior, however, has been completely redesigned.“That building, beloved as it was, was really sort of grinding to a halt,” said Lentz. In fact, it was a report in 1956 that first called for renovation—a suggestion that was not heeded until nearly 50 years later.
Architect Renzo Piano has worked with the Harvard Art Museums to design spaces particularly suited to integrating exhibition and education.
A new study center complex directly below the conservation laboratory will allow students, faculty, and the public to request works of art to view independently.
In addition to traditional exhibition galleries, the new space will accommodate three 1,000-square foot curricular galleries, and the building will also have seminar rooms and two lecture halls.
The decision to move most of the museum’s stored objects from the basement of the building to an offsite location in Somerville means that the renovated museum will be able to accommodate more square feet for both teaching and exhibition.
The change will also increase lag time for instructors who want to request items from storage to use in their classes. However, professors agreed that the added safety and enhanced climate-controls that offsite storage offers—as well as the freeing-up of space inside the new facility—is well worth the added wait.
“The new museum will enable objects of different kinds to mix in ways that the old museum structure didn’t,” said Kelsey, describing exhibition spaces that could interface work across historical period, geography, and medium.
“For pedagogical reasons, it’s wonderful to have this flexibility, particularly when many students now are interested in issues that fall on the boundary of old categories.”
The design also connects the museum and the Carpenter Center—home of the visual and environmental studies department—via a ramp that cuts through the museum and around to the Carpenter Center’s entrance on Prescott Street.
“We’re going to be tied to [the central museum] by an umbilical cord,” said David Rodowick, the chair of the VES department.
“It’s a very exciting time for what I call the ‘Arts Corridor’ along Quincy Street,” said Kelsey, referencing the Graduate School of Design, the HAA and VES departments, the Carpenter Center, and the Museums. “These institutions are working together in a way that’s unprecedented in my experience.”
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