Museums Evening Looks Ahead

“How innovative can we dare to be?” asked Jessica L. Martinez ’95, the Harvard Art Museums’ Director of Academic and Public Programs, in her office the afternoon after the Wednesday kickoff of this year’s In-Sight Evenings event series. Organized by the Harvard Art Museums, the In-Sight Evenings have for three years featured presentations by museum staff and Harvard faculty on works in the Museums’ collections. At Wednesday’s event, titled “Preparing for the New Harvard Art Museums” and held in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Martinez and her colleagues discussed how they think the new museum facility on Quincy Street—scheduled for completion in 2014—will bring together academic disciplines and collections from throughout the Museums.

Though the In-Sight Evenings are often lectures, at the recent event Martinez and five curators spoke in three short dialogues about new points of focus for the Museums. “We don’t want to be an academic bunker,” Martinez said. “We’re a place of deep intellectual inquiry, but we’re also a home for the Harvard community in many ways.”

Michelle Lamunière, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Assistant Curator of Photography and Elizabeth Rudy, Theodore Rousseau Assistant Curator of European Paintings, described the incorporation of photographs, paintings, and prints into exhibits displaying works of other media. They also explained the challenges of working with these paper-based materials, which are sensitive to light, humidity, and other atmospheric factors.

Such multi-media integration, as well as integration of works that use the same medium in different ways, will be the basis of some future Harvard Art Museums exhibits, Lamunière and Rudy said. Prototypes of this kind of mixed exhibition have already been experimented with in the galleries of the Sackler, which have at times even included pieces from other museums in the Harvard community. “The space then becomes much more vibrant and much more meaningful,” Rudy said.

Traditionally, Martinez said, the collections of the three Harvard Art Museums have been kept distinct. “Whereas before the collections were very separate, the Busch-Reisinger, the Fogg, and the Sackler, now these works are in closer proximity, so the kinds of questions that are raised are new and exciting,” Martinez said. “I think coming to the galleries this year and to gallery talks is a way to gear up for what’s coming.”

Francesca G. Bewer, Research Curator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and Melissa A. Moy, Cunningham Assistant Curator of Asian Art discussed the importance of the connection between the artistic side of their work and the technological aspect of it. They explained, for instance, how researchers can create 3D models that show how ancient Chinese bronzes were made. The curators hope to make such displays available to museum guests, they said. “The idea is that you can have x-rays or technical information in the galleries but still not distract from what is being displayed,” Bewer said.

Though the presentations became highly technical, guests appreciated the curators’ depth of detail. “It was unexpectedly succinct, diverse, [and] informative,” attendee Mark L. Hanin said after the presentations. “They discussed technology that might have been dry. It was a pleasant surprise to hear curators discuss what concerns them without toning it down for the general public.”

The third pair of presenters—Martinez and Amy Brauer, the Diane Heath Beever Curator of the Collection, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art—focused on the Museums’ potential to have a greater impact in the lives of the Harvard community.

“We’re going to have three study centers in the renovated building where students and members of the public can come and have intimate, profound encounters with original works of art,” Martinez said. “It’s going to be a really dynamic space and afford all kinds of opportunities for students.”

The importance of creating a new facility that lends itself to teaching has been significant in the planning of the museum, Martinez said. She hopes students will be involved with the Museums to a greater extent through the new study spaces as well as through curricular galleries and other connections with students’ academics. “The skills students can learn and share through the experience of seeing and learning what’s involved with visualizing or even spatializing an argument and seeing how different that is from writing a paper are extraordinary,” Martinez said.

“Museums, when they’re successful, actually make visitors see their world differently. They reveal entire worlds and have the power to call into question our assumptions about what we see and what we know,” she said.