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Newly Opened, Art Museums Prepare To Engage Undergrads

By Melissa C. Rodman
By Melissa C. Rodman, Contributing Writer

Dressed in mostly black cocktail attire and flashing camera-ready smiles, more than 500 students gathered on Nov. 6 to celebrate the opening of the Harvard Art Museums, newly renovated after six years of construction. Multi-colored flutes of nonalcoholic punch coupled with the pulsing beats of two DJs promoted a swanky, trendy vibe primed for the students to mix and mingle amid the art.

The opening signaled administrators’ hopes to make the Museums accessible and attractive to Harvard’s youngest affiliates.

University President Drew G. Faust has said the Museums are designed to serve as a “teaching machine,” as undergraduates, graduate students, and their professors collaborate and imagine new ways to use the Museums’ collection of over 250,000 pieces. Thomas W. Lentz, the director of the Museums, similarly called them “more open” and “accessible” at the Museums’ press opening earlier this month.

Now that the Museums have officially opened to the public, administrators want all students to take advantage of the collections. Certain classes will incorporate the gallery spaces and other facilities into their curricula, and others will direct enrollees to make use of the Museums’ collections on their own.

Some students, too, already have been at work behind the scenes of this Quincy Street institution. By designing public tours of the facilities, these students have become involved in the day-to-day life of the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums—now all grouped under one “Harvard Art Museums” moniker. Administrators hope the renovation will push Harvard students to interact with art in a new, educational way.

“It’s not just for showing a beautiful collection of art,” architect Renzo Piano said of the Museums at a press opening. “It’s for studying.”


Administrators at the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums, and the professors who plan to integrate various collections into their syllabi, say that they hope the facilities will fundamentally change how undergraduates interact with and think about art in their courses.

In total, four specific galleries in the Museums are dedicated to undergraduate coursework. Those galleries play a huge role in how the Museums function as classrooms, said Jessica L. Martinez ’95, the Museums’ director of academic and public programs.

These spaces will act as a “springboard” for further student inquiry and research, chief curator Deborah M. Kao said at the Museums’ press opening.

One of these spaces, the University Study Gallery, features one large display case that will showcase works selected by faculty members who want to incorporate the works into their course curricula.

“Faculty can select works from our storage—they can be installed for a day, a week, a month, the semester—to support their classes,” Martinez said.

Museums administrators hope that students across disciplines will benefit from the collections through their General Education courses, whose faculty instructors will have priority in installing exhibitions in the University Study Gallery.

“We really love that Gen Ed wants to bring the [aesthetic] disciplines into students’ lives, and we want to bring collections into students’ lives,” Martinez said. “When you go in, there is this wonderful juxtaposition of works that you wouldn’t typically see in other galleries, because it is the selection of professors from this range of classes.”

This gallery also functions in tandem with the Art Study Center, a space on the Museums’ fourth floor that offers students the chance to engage with works of art firsthand. Students can request to view works in person in natural light, without glass in between them and the art, according to the Museums’ deputy director, Maureen I. Donovan, who led a tour of the new facilities at the press opening.

The Art Study Center seems to take everything a student might need into account. Before interacting with the art, students can stash away their backpacks in individual lockers with built-in locks. Researchers can convene without disturbing others and take breaks from their work in a hallway off the center.

The second undergraduate-based gallery, the University Teaching Gallery, is devoted to History of Art and Architecture classes. Three HAA classes will use this gallery in the spring: Suzanne P. Blier’s HAA 194w: “Worlds Fairs,” Yukio Lippit’s HAA 18p: “The Japanese Woodblock Print,” and Melissa M. McCormick’s HAA 18k: “Introduction to Japanese Art.”

Blier said she hopes her exhibition will help students see the importance of viewing images in person, rather than on a screen, which she said often misrepresents artistic features including scale, three-dimensionality, and texture.

“[The University Teaching Gallery] will be really important in having students begin to look really closely at works of art and works of visual culture more generally,” Blier said. “You’re able to look closely at these images and in essence discover the world anew.”

For now, HAA professors will curate installations for their classes in the gallery, but in the future, students may have a chance to test their hands at selecting which pieces go on display, Martinez said.

The Museums’ other facilities were also built with teaching students in mind. In the Materials Lab, on the lower level of the building, visiting artists and conservators will lead workshops with students to demonstrate how the galleries’ various works were created, according to Kao.

“[It’s] the place for exploring materials that art is made with—so just a different kind of classroom,” Donovan said.


For students who take the initiative to participate behind the scenes, administrators hope that the Harvard Art Museums can go even further as teaching tools.

Through their participation in an advisory board, convened last spring, 19 students have already played a part in rolling out events at the renovated Museums. These board members, 15 undergraduates and four graduate students, were instrumental in planning the student opening event earlier this month. Now that the building has opened its doors, Martinez and the advisory board still want to keep students in mind.

“The question really is: how do we include students in the thinking and the development of this project?” Martinez asked. “How might they push our thinking? And how might they—in every way—give us different access?”

Beyond the students who sit on the existing advisory board, another group of 18 students will serve as liaisons between the Museums and greater Cambridge through leading tours of the collections. In this way, there is a role reversal: Administrators hope that these students can act as teachers to advance the educational mission of the Museums, rather than just receive it.

These students, called student guides, will lead the public tours starting in February. The guides are now trying their hands at curating as they brainstorm how best to engage visitors.

“We’re not coming up with a script for them,” said David R. Odo, the Museums’ director of student programs. “We are working with them as a group to think of a structure and a framework [for the tours], and each individual guide creates his or her own tour.”

Because guides can cater their tours to their own interests, each one will highlight different paintings, sculptures, and other works of art in the building. There are thousands of pieces each tour could highlight, and there are many arguments and presentations each tour could make, according to Krystle M.C. Leung ’15, a senior student guide.

“What we’re all trying to do is to balance the media [featured on each tour],” Leung said. “[The style] depends on what each of the guides is interested in.”

Edwin L. Whitman ’15 and Dylan F. Perese ’16, also student guides, are taking still another step to get involved with the Museums: They have been working on an app, called Sightlines, that guides visitors through the Museums with exercises, podcasts, and videos that feature Harvard affiliates discussing their favorite pieces in the collections.

The app aims to break down the preconceived idea that “you have to be a History of Art and Architecture concentrator” to feel at home in a museum, Perese said.

Through work like this, Museum administrators hope that undergraduates will benefit educationally from the renovated space, whether students visit the Museums with a professor or choose to ramp up their own involvement.

“We want every inch of this museum to feel like a classroom space, but we also hope that students... understand that this is a place where they can come for a moment in between,” Martinez said. “Maybe it’s the seven minutes in between Harvard classes—that might be enough for a student to move away from the hustle and bustle of their very busy lives.”

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