UPDATED: April 11, 2017 at 10:30 a.m.
Though Harvard’s collections of art, artifacts, scientific specimens, and more have historically been divided according to discipline, today many at the university’s museums, including the Harvard Art Museums and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, are seeking greater integration and collaboration. Museums are experimenting with exhibitions that cross the divides of academic disciplines and asking new questions. What counts as art? What is worthy of display in museums? What obligations do museums have to their histories?
It is a little known fact that Harvard’s numerous museums originally began as a collection housed under one roof: the Philosophy Chamber.
In 1820, a team of Harvard faculty and officials dismantled the Chamber and divided it into collections categorized by discipline and topic. Those collections evolved into today’s Harvard museums.
Now, almost 200 years later, curators at the Harvard Art Museums are working to undo that separation. In an effort led by Ethan Lasser, Head of the Division of European and American Art and curator of American Art, Harvard Art Museums staff are working to piece the room back together for a temporary exhibition.They seek to revisit the rationale for the original division and unlock the untold stories of the museums and university collections.
In many cases, the wishes of donors determine an object’s eventual place of display. Objects come to the Harvard museums as gifts from donors or purchases by the museum, Tedeschi explained. “We’re involved in a collection assessment project right now where each curator is looking at the collection in their field, and looking at what the strengths and the weaknesses are, and where we might want to build or expand our holdings,” she said. “So we’re actively looking to see what areas have been neglected in the past, where might we want to take the collection next.”
Like other museums, Harvard’s collections adhere to specific historical norms of cataloguing and categorization. These norms erect disciplinary divisions between museums, establishing distinct identities for each museum, according to Yukio Lippit, Chair of the Department of History of Art and Architecture. “These conditions and the way we categorize the world and its cultural production are constantly evolving,” he wrote in an email. “Just look at the way in which academic departments at universities, as well as the courses they offer over the decades, are constantly changing. So current academic and museum practice, to a certain extent, is forced to overcome the historical conditions under which collections and institutions were formed.”For Leib I. Celnik ’18, a member of the student board of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, the museum divisions created by historical conditions can feel arbitrary in some ways. “That comes back to the original wishes of the donors,” he said. “Donors, if anything, have more power today. They can very explicitly direct. They can say, ‘I want my money to go only towards buying art by this artist, or this general time period, or this subject matter.’”
In other cases, though, collections are in certain museums because of their original intended purpose. For example, in the 1870s and 1880s, German father and son glassmaking duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka produced a series of glass models of invertebrate sea animals for private aquariums. Though it was possible to keep sea animals, it was difficult to display them aesthetically. With glass versions of jellyfish and anemone, aquarium-keepers could more easily showcase beautiful aquatic displays. Louis Agassiz, founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, purchased some of the Blaschka’s invertebrate models to display and use as a teaching tool for zoology students.
Inspired by Agassiz, Harvard botany professors of the time decided to commission a collection of glass flowers in 1886. Cold Cambridge winters prevented them from teaching students with real flora and forced them to turn instead to inaccurate models made out of papier-mâché and wax. The Blaschkas were commissioned to produce a series of floral glass models for the purposes of botanical instruction.
“Almost immediately, as soon as they started putting them out in the exhibit gallery, they became a tourist attraction,” Jane Pickering, Executive Director at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. “They were done for scientific purposes at the behest of the faculty, but then, in and of themselves, became these amazing works of art.”
Though the two collections of glass objects, both with artistic merit, were produced by the same makers, they found homes in science museums rather than art museums. Even though both collections might be considered artistically meritorious, their origins as scientific instruments of instruction for botanical and zoological purposes place them in the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, respectively, rather than in the Harvard Art Museums.
In other contexts, however, the models are understood differently. Some of the Blaschkas’ remaining invertebrate models were acquired by Cornell. Those models are today on display at the Corning Museum of Glass, a center specifically dedicated to glassmaking as an artistic medium. “They’ve totally made the transfer over since they’re now displayed in the Corning Museum rather than the biology museum of Cornell,” Pickering said. “That, to me, is interesting because it shows this historical development. Especially in a place like Harvard, we are very much a product of our history.”
The history of Harvard’s museums can also have effects that some staff and students say are problematic. For some, the divisions between exhibits of certain objects reflects a certain reliance on outdated notions of what is worthy of display or public attention.
Anthropology has historically engaged primarily with non-Western cultures, whereas the art showcased in art museums often tends toward Western art—a difference that became concrete in the distinct identities of each type of museum, according to Irene C. McLaughlin, Curator of North American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum. “In the 19th century, people often didn’t accord much respect to anthropology because they didn’t think at that time that the study of non-Western people was as worthy as the study of Western civilization,” she said. “Art museums and art historians, of course, felt … that Western art was more highly valued than art from the rest of the world. In fact, they often did not even apply that term ‘art’ to the products of other cultures.”
Some now see these historical divisions as outdated. “The Peabody's collections are overwhelmingly non-European in origin,” Julian Rauter ’19, a social anthropology concentrator and member of the HMSC student board, wrote in an email. “The problem with anthropology (as opposed to art or history) is less what is being represented and more how it is being represented; rather than excluding the work of non-Europeans, our discipline has been guilty of viewing them like you would view a biological specimen.”
Another reason for the divisions is the inherent tendency of anthropology to view objects as objects in their own right, rather than for their aesthetic value, according to McLaughlin. “Anthropology museums have been criticized for not recognizing the artistic dimensions of the objects they have,” she said. “Anthropology in the early days was most concerned with not going for the exotic and most beautiful object … The whole worldview of anthropology is how people behave on a daily basis, not the masterpieces that they occasionally collect. That doesn’t mean anthropologists were never aware of native individuals that were especially skilled, what we might call artists today.”
The Harvard Museums of Science and Culture have made several attempts to correct the problem of Western dominance, including their year-long “Race, Representation, and Museums” lecture series. “Right now, for the past year through the end of this semester, the HMSC’s been running a series of lectures, seminars, and dialogues about race and how that plays into the museum curation practice,” Celnik said. “They’ve been making a very conscious effort to publicly talk about this.”
At the Peabody, several exhibits address the issue head-on. “The Peabody's new exhibit on the history of anthropology has tackled problematic representations of indigenous cultures head-on, and I think that's a sign of self-awareness about this key issue,” Rauter wrote. The exhibition, "All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology," will open on April 22.
Meanwhile, at the Harvard Art Museums, the Sackler Museum has always displayed Mediterranean and Asian art. Curators are making efforts to mitigate the legacy of outdated museum divisions. One such effort is a gallery of African art, currently on loan from the Peabody. “These are true masterpieces of African art and we have them here, and we get to see them next to a gallery of art from the Islamic lands, just around the corner from European painting, and close to Chinese and Korean works of art,” said Jessica L. Martinez, Research Curator of African Art Initiatives at the Harvard Art Museums. “So then you get to see how Africa is part of a dynamic and global story. Africa is the nexus of the story that we’re telling.”
To some, however, even the notion that non-Western culture needs to be classified as “art” in order to be considered significant or important is problematic. “It reduces all culture to this common denominator of formal properties of material things that basically strips out the cultural context,” McLaughlin said. “Many people have argued that it’s an elevation of other cultures to call it art, but I think that’s a little patronizing. I know that people mean well that are trying to promote the recognition of non-Western arts…. It’s a complicated question.”
On the other hand, Martinez suggested that the installation of African art at the Harvard Art Museums is a way of examining the objects from an artistic standpoint. “We believe deeply that African art is central to a larger art history story that we tell here at the museum,” said Martinez. “We want to see the works from the Peabody Museum in an art museum context and ask, how do we look at these works as new? What fresh perspectives can we take when we see the Peabody collections in an art museum context?”
“Here, history is treated with innovation—old becomes new, art and science are partners,” reads the introduction of “Open,” a commemorative guide published at the reopening of the renovated Harvard Art Museums in 2014. But the idea that “art and science are partners” is a relatively new one. Around the time of the Philosophy Chamber’s dismantling in 1820, the prevalent teaching philosophy indicated a trend toward the categorization of material by disciplines.
Exhibitions of university collections today reflect these shifting pedagogical priorities. “We’re thinking about how an exhibition is an argument,” Pickering said. “For example, you’re telling a story or making an argument in an exhibition … Often those things don’t just come from one place. You wouldn’t just use an object or set of objects from one museum if you were looking at a complicated topic, or something that was very multidisciplinary. You’re going to want to bring objects from lots of museums.”
At the Harvard Art Museums, the ability to draw on collections from the Peabody or Houghton Library allows for a more global view. “There’s a great interest among museums in general now at offering a more global exhibition calendar, that isn’t so focused on one part of the world, or one medium,” Tedeschi said. “There are many different possibilities for borrowing here, which means that we can think outside of the boxes we inherited.”
Cross-disciplinary exhibits have been a practice of Harvard museums for several decades. A 1927 photograph depicts a Mayan art exhibition in the Fogg Museum featuring objects on loan from the Peabody. That interdisciplinary trend continues in a contemporary context, as museum curators work to strengthen their exhibits by drawing on the collections of other museums.
An upcoming exhibition at the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments entitled “Scale: A Matter of Perspective” examines the notion of scale from different perspectives and features objects on loan from multiple museums and university collections. The exhibition will cover subjects ranging from astronomical instruments to biological models and ethnological concepts to literary devices. “[The exhibition] includes how we look at scale, how we measure and observe it in terms of microscopes and telescopes,” Pickering said. “We have objects that come from every museum, as well as some of the library collections as well, because we’re looking at a broad-based topic. You wouldn’t be able to do that with just collections from the Peabody.”
“[‘Scale’] really made me think about the way that we often arbitrarily deem certain objects as ‘belonging’ to one discipline or another,” Rauter wrote. “When you get down to it, all museums are trying to show the world through a different lens, just like all academic disciplines. I think there could be a lot more crossover in curation.”
The effort to bridge disciplinary gaps requires a certain level of communication between museums. “The staffs of all the museums are talking to each other constantly,” Pickering said. “We’re making an effort to borrow from each other. There are some very practical reasons why that’s a great idea, because Harvard has astounding collections and it’s relatively inexpensive to borrow something from across campus.”
The impetus to design unconventional exhibits can also come from faculty, some of whom see the need to integrate university collections into the curricula of their courses. For some courses, museum collections serve as an integral component of curriculum. “It is safe to say that the museum collections have been incorporated into almost every class I have taught over the years,” Lippit said. “Whether a seminar or lecture course, this has involved bringing students into the gallery, storage rooms, or now the art study centers, doing visual analyses or writing research papers on museum objects.”
As academic philosophies evolve, the Harvard museums are working to adapt their exhibitions to fit the expanding definitional limits of their divisions and separate focuses.
“I think it’s definitely true, and certainly coming at it as a scientist, that if you see the importance of research as being to help humanity deal with its huge challenges, and the only way we’re going to sort of address those challenges is by thinking across disciplines, that we just can’t answer these questions,” Pickering said. “We cannot begin to understand and answer questions associated with these topics without bringing in people from many different disciplines.”
Many museum staff recognize that cross-disciplinary work is impossible without a solid base of collaboration between departments. “Collaboration is alive and well on college campuses and university campuses,” Tedeschi said. “The interdisciplinary [focus] and collaboration go hand in hand: the recognition that different disciplines can actually feed each other and enhance each other. The museum is a fantastic place for that to happen. For any object that you can look at in history, there are so many different lenses through which you can examine it.”
Interdisciplinary exhibits benefit academic thought, according to Pickering. “Since I firmly believe that museum collections have a huge role in this sort of research … I therefore think it’s very important to do this interdisciplinary work, because if you don’t, then you’re not using the collections to their fullest extent, but then you’re also not doing useful things,” she said.
If the ideology surrounding disciplines changed once, though, there is certainly the chance that it will shift again, necessitating further shifts in museum practices. “I’m sure philosophies will change,” Tedeschi said. “They have ever since we’ve been paying attention, so there’s no reason to think they won’t change.”
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @carolinetsai3.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 11 at 10:30 a.m.
An previous version of this story stated that the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, or glass flowers, are housed in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The glass flowers are in fact housed in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.