Five Months Later: A Visit to the Renovated Harvard Art Museums

Nearly five months after the opening of the renovated Harvard Art Museums, Chief Curator Deborah Kao and Director of the Division of Academic and Public Programming Jessica Martinez are thinking about light and sound.
By Maia R. Silber

On a slow, gray Friday afternoon, the feet shuffling across the concrete tiles of the museum’s courtyard match the muffled rhythm of the rain falling outside. They move in concentric circles, in and out of the arched columns that border the room. Two clipboard-holding tour guides mark the center; around them, murmurs rise and fall in shallow waves. Light—somehow, on this sunless day—shines through the museum’s glass ceiling, forming narrow prisms over visitors seated at the metal tables of the café.

Nearly five months after the opening of the renovated Harvard Art Museums, Chief Curator Deborah Kao and Director of the Division of Academic and Public Programming Jessica Martinez are thinking about light and sound.

“Now that the building is open and people are in it, I think about the way that the architecture creates a centripetal force of ideas,” says Kao. “You can feel it—the light coming through becomes more than that, it becomes a kind of energy.”

According to Martinez, that energy ideally should break the barrier between visitors and the art displayed on the walls. “I like it when I go into the galleries and it’s really loud,” she says. “Some of the students are like, is it alright to talk in this space? And I’m like, no, raise your voices!”

When Kao first worked on design plans with architect Renzo Piano—who oversaw the renovation and combination of the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler Museums in one space—she hoped that the building’s physical spaces would suggest openness and transparency.

Now, the museums, which often serve as workspaces, classrooms, and research labs for Harvard students and faculty, have become a hub of social and academic activity across disciplines. Six months after its opening, the Harvard Art Museums have become a central location on campus; their leadership has also reimagined its pedagogical role within the University.

Today, Martinez pats down her curly hair as she pulls out a seat from one of the museum café’s metal tables. It’s been a busy day for her, and she hasn’t yet gotten lunch. Before sitting down, she waves to a few friends and colleagues. Martinez says that she’s been surprised by how much of a social space the courtyard has become—and how that’s bled into the museums’ larger atmosphere.

“It’s a crossroads,” she says. “One of the things we saw at the opening that we didn’t expect was students coming out of galleries and meeting old friends.”

This afternoon, the café has been filled to capacity. Some of the patrons merely sip coffee before the start of a tour, but most look ready to settle down for the afternoon with laptops and books. Like Martinez, many greet friends weaving through tables or stepping out of the gallery’s archways.

“It’s a very social building,” says Kau. “Wherever you are, you’re not far from being able to reorient yourself back into the courtyard, so you see people gathering and engaging.” The courtyard sits between the collections of the three combined museums; on our right, visitors stroll into the Fogg Museum’s Wertheim Collection, containing 43 works by Monet, Renoir, Seurat, and van Gogh. To our left, porcelain vases from ancient Korea mark the entrance to the Sackler Museum. The courtyard, Kau believes, has become a place where the once-separate museums intersect in thought and dialogue.

This intersection is not merely architectural. It comes as part of a larger vision of the Museums as an interdisciplinary space, one that emerged alongside programs like Harvard Thinks Big and the recent effort to increase interschool collaboration. Kao says that now, it feels strange to think about the old museums. “There are so many intervening years, and an intervening administration,” she says. “The past feels like a different country. It was such a different moment in the history of the institution [of Harvard].” The museums closed for renovation in 2008, at the start of University President Drew G. Faust’s tenure.

“[The interdisciplinary focus] is certainly a trend on this campus,” says Martinez. She waves her hand up at the high, glass-paneled ceiling, and the balconys of the Museum’s fourth floor. “In our Lightbox Gallery on the fourth floor, we’re starting a conversation with faculty in astrophysics. We’re asking how they think of deep space and the role of light.”

While projects like the Lightbox Gallery start as conversations between faculty and museum staff, other interdisciplinary collaborations launched in the past six months began in the classroom. We take the elevator to the third floor, and enter a room with wood-paneled floors and white walls. Behind glass cases, pieces of art seem unconnected by time or place; Japanese woodblocks sit below gold-bordered Renaissance panels, a Greek bust next to a large, wooden chair (once the seat of Harvard’s presidents, Martinez explains).

Next to the entrance, a sign provides explanation by way of a course list: “Adam and Eve,” the “Humanities Colloquium,” “Tangible Things,” and the “Einstein Revolution;” mostly Gen Ed courses, and a few art history seminars.

In this space, the University Research Gallery, professors pull pieces from the museums as classroom sources, and students can curate their own exhibitions as final projects. Now, glass barriers demarcate wall space for different classes, but Martinez says that she hopes that by the end of the semester, the boundaries of art—and discipline—will become less clear. The Rothko exhibit is just down the hall.

In a room next door, light reflects off of glass-ceilings on to a shiny white rectangular table. Windows look out over the brown façade of the Carpenter Center, and a Mac rests in the room’s corner. Besides the computer, the room is empty, but that’s not usually the case. The museum uses this room, and a few others on the third floor, for seminars and sections; here, students can view (and sometimes touch) works of art that have been taken off of the walls.

It’s a quiet space, one of the few in the Museums. Martinez wraps her arms around her chest. “It’s great to have time alone with works of art,” she says. “You get the sense of the work as an object, a material presence, and a life that started way before it got to the museum.”

Since the Museums’ reopening, undergraduates have entered the space not only as students and visitors, but as tour guides and board members. The Museums run a program through which 15 undergraduates lead regular tours of the museums, interpreting collections through the lens of their own disciplines.

“We really wanted students to understand that they have ownership of this museum,” says Kau. “We wanted to put students in the position of being interpreters, and being ambassadors.”

We end the tour where the museums began, in front of an extended “word portrait” by contemporary artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The work—words in light blue that span across the balcony, over a row of bronze, marble, and clay busts—was the first displayed in the museums.

Gonzalez asks museums who display his work to add to the portrait (most list donors’ names, Martinez says); the Harvard Art Museums had nine tour guides contribute to the piece. As we walk away from the piece, the words fade into tiny blue dots. Outside, the rain lets up, and light plays across the white walls.

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