Pictures at an Exhibition

After a six-year major reconstruction project, the Harvard Art Museums is ready to reopen its doors as a university museum that combines the prestige of a metropolitan art museum with the mission of learning and research.
Detail of the Light Machine at the renovated Harvard Art Museums. By John Y.C. Wang
By Adela H. Kim

On a sunny day in spring 2014, the constant humming of the crane that echoed across Broadway and Quincy streets suddenly halted, signaling the beginning of the end to the Harvard Art Museums’ renovation. In the months that followed, makeshift structures, designed to aid or veil construction, were dismantled one by one, finally revealing the brick façade of the Museums’ new home. The post-construction debris was swept away, and the barrier between the sidewalk and the building was taken down. Now, seven months later, the Museums are finally ready to reopen their doors.


In 2008, the Fogg Museum and the Busch-Reisinger Museum, both housed at 32 Quincy St., closed their doors, signaling the beginning of a six-year major reconstruction project helmed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. When reconstruction began, works from the Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger were exhibited in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, located just across the street. However, the significantly smaller size of the Sackler limited how many of the more than 250,000 works in the collection could be displayed. Well-known works were displayed for visitors from the general public; classes offered by the Department of History of Art and Architecture could also request that particular other works be exhibited. On June 1, 2013, after five years of provisional exhibitions, the works in the Sackler were moved to the storage facility in Somerville. The building on Quincy St. was finally preparing to open again—not as the Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger, but as the Harvard Art Museums.

The newly renovated building houses the three museums—the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Sackler—in different sections of the same building. According to Director of the Harvard Art Museums Thomas W. Lentz, who received his Ph.D. in HAA (formerly called Fine Arts) from Harvard in 1985, this change will drastically alter the way the museums function. “By bringing the three museums together in one building under one roof, we can put the collections in dialogue,” Lentz says. Such interplay seems to be key for the Harvard Art Museums. By emphasizing the ways the museums’ collections intersect, as well as reaching out to various communities within the University, the Harvard Art Museums has reinvented itself as a university museum that combines the prestige of a metropolitan art museum with the mission of learning and research.


Housing the three museums in one building is a decision that aims to foster a more multi-dimensional presentation. When the museums were in different facilities, the curatorial staffs of each did not often communicate with one another—something that Lentz says he wanted to address with the reconstruction. “If the curators aren’t talking, the collections aren’t talking to each other.” Lentz says. “If we wanted to talk about the importance of Greek and Roman sculpture in the classical tradition to Renaissance Italy, the materials were separated in two buildings. It wasn’t a viable operating model.”

The new architectural layout of the Museums seems to be key in ensuring that the three museums interact. Elisabetta Trezzani, a partner architect at the RPBW who was involved with the renovation process, stresses the importance of the Calderwood Courtyard in connecting the three museums. “The Calderwood Courtyard is in the center of the building. It’s a center point for the three museums, spatially and visually,” Trezzani says. “When you’re in the space, you can see the three museums through the glass door, and you have the three museums divided in the building. There’s an open view between the different galleries and the three different museums. There’s always some connection through the glass door.”

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At the same time that the staff worked on uniting the museums, they also focused on maintaining the three distinct identities. As independent entitites, the museums were all created at different times and housed different collections: the Fogg opened in 1896 and exhibited a wide variety of Western artworks from the Middle Ages to the present. The Busch-Reisinger Museum was founded in 1903 and displayed Germanic art, such as works of German Expressionism and Bauhaus. The Sackler, which opened in 1985, housed non-Western art from East Asia, the ancient Mediterranean to India and the Islamic world.

For Lentz, the separate histories were an important aspect of the renovation. “They were all formed at different times for different reasons,” he says. “All of that is wonderful and is a celebrated part of history.” The architects and the museum staff worked together to preserve the museums’ personalities. “We really wanted to create one museum but keep the three different identities,” Trezzani says. According to Lentz, the objects all have labels that state which museum they belong to. “Philosophically and ideologically, it was important for us to do that,” he explains.

In addition, Lentz says he hopes that the combination of the museums will help combat a disparity between Western and non-Western art. “All of our ancient and non-Western collections sat [in the Sackler],” he says.”There was an uncomfortable perception that basically said all the important things were at the Fogg, which happened to be European. [The] rest of the world was across the street. With this new building, where all three museums are under one setting, the benefits will be obvious to people.”


The decision to bring the museums together is a part of the Harvard Art Museums’ renewed mission as a university museum—a key difference from the other major museums in town. For many of the sources interviewed, the Harvard Art Museums’ identity as a university museum is driven by Harvard’s broader mission as an educational institution. According to Lentz, the pedagogical function of the University accounts for the emphasis on visual-based learning in the Museums. “A lot of what the museum presents has been the hallmark of this institution—a deep belief in the power of original works of art, and attending to that, the notion that there are enormous benefits that come from the process of looking and thinking closely about original works of art,” Lentz says.

The proximity of the Harvard Art Museums to other major museums in Boston, such as the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, was a crucial factor in reconsidering the function of the Harvard Art Museums. “We thought long and hard about what it is that we do that’s a little different, what is unique to us, and where we can really make a contribution,” Lentz says. One pointed decision was to make the galleries relatively sparse. “We didn’t want to overhang or overcrowd our galleries. We want to slow people down by showing not 150 works of art, but 50,” Lentz says. “By doing that, we increase the chances of people stopping, looking and thinking about the art. You walk through a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you look at 200 coins. Your eyes are going to blur across that.” At the same time, Trezzani says, the RPBW worked to maximize space in the galleries.

The Harvard Art Museums has also made administrative changes to emphasize its pedagogical role to a greater extent than possible before. One example is the creation of the Division of Academic and Public Programs, which will help integrate all the University’s academic programs with the Museums as one of its main jobs. Jessica L. Martinez, the director of the DAPP, highlights the cooperation between the University and the Harvard Art Museums. “The mission is how to partner with faculty members across campus,” Martinez says. “How do we support the work of students, and how do we encourage new ways of viewing originals works of art?” Martinez’s colleague David Odo, the director of student programs and research curator for University collections initiatives, adds, “We want to combine the Museums’ mission with the University’s mission. We want to bring the academic work that’s being done at Harvard to the Museums.”


What Lentz calls the Museums’ function as a “giant, transparent classroom” goes beyond the gallery space. The Harvard Art Museums also bring in academic work through the new and improved facilities, such as the Art Study Center, the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and the Materials Lab. These spaces will provide visitors to the Museums with alternative ways to interact with the collections. At the Art Study Center, for example, visitors can request to see objects that are not displayed in the galleries but are housed under a glass rooftop through which natural light shines.

"It's a place for people to really experiment with materials that artists have used over time and to explore the materiality. We can get our hands dirty," Jessica L. Martinez says.
"It's a place for people to really experiment with materials that artists have used over time and to explore the materiality. We can get our hands dirty," Jessica L. Martinez says. By John Y.C. Wang

The facilities will provide valuable opportunities to professors as well as students. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, a professor of fine arts in the History of Art and Architecture Department, said she plans on holding classes for her course HAA 278g: “Drawing: Object, Medium, Discourse” at the Museums. The class, which teaches exhibition design and curatorial skills, will use the Art Study Center extensively. “Because of the study room, we will be able to look at the objects during the seminar, which is crucial,” Lajer-Burcharth says. “The students will get to examine the materiality of the object and think about it with others. It is training in art, not only as an image but also as a material thing. Otherwise, you won’t get a sense of handling or a subtlety in rendition. These are the most basic things that you must have access to.”

For both Lajer-Burcharth and Whitney T. Gao ’16, an HAA concentrator, close physical handling of artworks is crucial to a deeper understanding. “I often had things brought to class when the museum was closed, or we would go to the storage facility,” Lajer-Burcharth says. “We were always surprised at how much could come off from our collective looking.” Gao adds that the Museums will make a difference in her studies. “Knowing from excursions to museums that seeing the objects in person makes a huge difference, I’m very excited to experience the museum,” Gao says.

While the Art Study Center encourages analysis of artworks as material objects, other facilities allow people to explore different aspects of art. Museum officials say the Material Lab is meant to be a space where visitors can interact with the materials that go into works of art. “It’s a place for people to really experiment with materials that artists have used over time and to explore the materiality,” Martinez says. “We can get our hands dirty and experiment.”

Although the Conservation Room is mainly for professionals, its glass walls enable it to educate the public. “The conservation room is completely transparent to the public, which will let them know what’s happening in the spaces,” Trezzani says.

"By bringing the three museums together in one building under one roof, we can put the collections in dialogue," Thomas W. Lentz says.
"By bringing the three museums together in one building under one roof, we can put the collections in dialogue," Thomas W. Lentz says. By John Y.C. Wang

Lajer-Burcharth believes that the combination of these facilities with the vast artistic resources of the Museums presents students with a unique opportunity. “There are art museums elsewhere but they don’t have a great collection. If they do have a great collection, it’s a different kind of access,” she says. “Here, you have both—a museum that belongs to the University, whose mission is defined by the mission of learning and teaching, and a great collection.”


Although the Museums will be a key location for the HAA Department, they are also working to encourage interactions with other Harvard communities. The DAPP has created the Student Guide Program and the Harvard Art Museums Student Board to ensure exposure across the University. Led by Odo, the Student Guide Program has 18 undergraduate students from different concentrations who will give tours of the Harvard Art Museums. “We purposefully selected students from a wide variety of disciplines so they would bring fresh eyes to the collection,” Odo says. “We’re training them to think about the museum, the different types of collections, and to have interesting conversations with visitors who come on the tours.”

Meanwhile, the Harvard Art Museums Student Board includes students from all 12 graduate schools as well as the College who serve as liaisons between the larger Harvard community and the Museums. Siddhartha G. Jena ’16, a joint chemistry and physics and mathematics concentrator and a member of the Student Board, highlights its diversity. “We try to reach out to every possible demographic of the student body, especially the ones that wouldn’t have been reached before,” Jena says. “We have students ranging from president of the Wine Society [to] heads of investment groups at the Business School.”

Erin Northington, the student outreach and program coordinator for Division of Academic and Public Programs, thinks this variety of extracurricular interests will enliven the museum space. “We want the museum to be an active, vibrant space. In addition to encouraging curricular use of our space, we want Harvard Art Museums to be a vibrant part of extracurricular use,” Northington says.

Another mission of the Museums is to serve as a juncture point between Harvard and Cambridge, museum leaders say. According to DAPP, the Phillips Brooks House Association is working with the Museums on bringing students and mentees together with curators. They have also been collaborating with the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and the Graduate School of Education. “We’re training six students from the GSE to teach high school students from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin school. They’re working with the students in the classroom on art, and they come to the museum,” Odo says. “Next semester, various classes will visit the museum with their teachers, forming relationships with the high school and the Museums.”

In addition to the programs, the three entrances to the building—one on Prescott, one on Broadway, and a student entrance on the side—will ensure the physical intersection of the different communities. “The Calderwood Courtyard is the intersection between Cambridge and Harvard, and you can access it from both Prescott and Broadway,” says Northington. “Hopefully we’ll have neighbors and the greater Boston [population] perhaps cutting through the museum on their way home.” Trezzani believes that this architectural layout will foster more transparency. “Between the works of art, the galleries, and the communities, we have the idea of circulation,” she says. “We hope that the museum will be more open to the city, and more part of the community.”


After countless hours of planning and discussions, the Harvard Art Museums are finally ready to open—to an excited audience. According to Northington, tickets to the Student Opening on Nov. 6 sold out within one day at the Harvard Box Office; various students took to their residential house email lists to ask for tickets.

But one could say that the Museums has spent the last six years engaged in a process of opening; through its new layout, facilities, and different curricular and extracurricular programs, the Museums aims to make itself a welcoming and productive space for casual visitors, as well as students and experts. It’s a process that administrators for the Museums hope will continue even after opening celebrations have concluded. Martinez stresses that there is still plenty of room for further development. “We’ll figure out the future,” she says. “We’re thinking about how to make it so that people feel free and welcome to experiment.”

—Staff writer Adela H. Kim can be reached at

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