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Gathering the Galleries

The Harvard Museums of Science and Culture seeks to promote collaboration among Harvard's diverse collections

An exhibit on birds in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
An exhibit on birds in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. By Katherine L Borrazzo
By Ha D.H. Le, Crimson Staff Writer

Weaving through the various exhibitions at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Jane Pickering makes a brief detour toward the newly installed hive frame—a temporary exhibit created in collaboration with the Harvard Undergraduate Beekeepers—to check on the bees. Apparently, the queen had not laid any eggs recently, scaring personnel in the museum. For Pickering, the bees’ well-being is one of many responsibilities that come with her job. The others extend farther, across a multitude of exhibits and past museum boundaries themselves.

Pickering is the first executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Established in 2012, the consortium acts as an umbrella organization for six Harvard museums operated under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences: the Harvard Museum of Natural History (which unifies the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum), the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and the Harvard Semitic Museum. Assisting the associated museums with programming and outreach, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture seeks to streamline public relations. “[FAS] formed this alliance because there are certain things that we wanted to do together, but also to more efficiently coordinate the outward facing part—the parts involved with the communities—of the museums,” says Peter L. Galison, faculty director at the Collection for Historical Scientific Instruments.

At the same time that the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture clarifies the divide between public relations and private operations of the museums, it assists in blurring the lines between different disciplines at Harvard. The formation of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture ushers in a new era for six museums that have existed for the most part independently for years. As the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture continues to launch its programs, it presents a case study of the unique and collaborative interdisciplinary culture at Harvard.


The museums included in the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture are diverse not only in discipline but also in scope. Each museum houses a considerably large collection in a different field, from Near Eastern archaeology, history, and culture in the Semitic Museum to minerals and zoological artifacts in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Yet, while the museums are externally different, they all share a common goal: a commitment to educating Harvard affiliates.

“Today, we still see the [Semitic Museum] as a center to teach about culture and to house the teaching collection,” says Peter Der Manuelian, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum. As an organization under the FAS and led by faculty members within Harvard, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture devotes considerable time to maintaining its collections for academic purposes.

“What we do with the collection is really [provide] a place for research and teaching,” says Jean-Francois Gauvin, director of administration for the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. “We’re open for the public, but we’re not meant to have 100,000 visitors a year. Our main audience is the Harvard community.”

Such sentiments present a dilemma for the museums, however. While the staffs of the individual museums care about academia, they also have public exhibitions to maintain. In this sense, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture functions to allow the museums to balance their public and private faces. “HMSC has been working hard with us to help reach that [public] audience and make collections...better known to the Harvard community,” says Jeffrey Quilter, director of the Peabody Museum. “Now that we no longer have [to administer] the education program and public events...[we can focus on] taking good care of our collections and working to get those collections viewed by Harvard students and faculty.”

Sara Schechner, staff curator for the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, says that, for the collection, curatorial operations have not changed; what is different is its publicity and the new coordination among the members in the consortium concerning programs and event dates. In that way, within each museum’s inner framework, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture does little except to streamline the marketing and outreach process. The effects of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, however, are far from limited.


Donald H. Pfister, curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany, sits in the Earth and Planetary Sciences gallery of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, a large space filled with a collection of rocks and minerals. Situated on the third floor of the building, the room, like all others on the floor, allows access to the Peabody. But as Pfister reflects on the relationship between the museums in the past, he notes the imperfections of the museums’ relationships before the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. “There were never physical barriers. This floor pretty much had always been interconnected,” he says. “There was a sense of subtle intellectual barriers that are probably still there to some extent, but the idea is now we’re looking across the museums to make the experience and the possibilities greater.”

While collaboration is not a novel concept for museums—for instance, Schechner says that the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments always borrows from other collections for their exhibitions—the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture allows for different forms of cooperation. The consortium specifically plans to curate some exhibitions within each museum and to pull from the expertise of other Harvard professors. This plan has already manifested in “Finding Our Way: An Exploration of Human Navigation” in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Curated by physics professor John Huth, the exhibit was planned by staff at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture from beginning to end. “HMSC helps to operationalize things like exhibits and public programs, but what they like to call content knowledge has to come from us and from faculty,” Quilter says. “We help the HMSC identify what faculty members to contribute to the public programs in the exhibits and provide that kind of expertise ourselves.”

Pickering says that, practically, such collaboration is useful; for instance, publicity is easier if there are more partners involved working to get the word out. “More philosophically, the world is a complicated place and the challenges involve some interdisciplinary work,” she says, adding that measures like the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture allow for such integrative studies to occur.

Through such efforts, a thriving community flourishes among the museums. “[The collaboration] never was organic in the way that it is now,” Pfister says. “I think that everybody is thinking about the museum as a whole, less units within FAS.”


A brief walk away from the Harvard Museum of Natural History rests the Harvard Art Museums. Comprised of the Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the recently renovated building unites the once-physically separate museums under one roof—a move similar to how the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture publicly connects its six museums. This character of collaboration is consistent throughout the Harvard Art Museums’ programming, both within the art museums themselves and across the campus. “We see our role at the Art Museums as, first and foremost, showcasing and exploring our own collections,” says David R. Odo, the museums’ director of student programs and research curator of university collections initiatives. “But we really want to have a broad conversation across the history, meaning, and role of art.”

For Odo, such conversations can occur by means of Harvard’s rich, interdisciplinary collections. Already the Harvard Art Museums has a University Collections gallery, a room to exhibit artifacts from other museums at Harvard; the current display is an installation of African art. Additionally, the Harvard Art Museums has various programming planned in collaboration with other museums, such as the ongoing “What’s Light Got to Do With It?” lecture series which draws on expertise and work from the Harvard Art Museums, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and the Harvard Brain Science Initiative. “We’re just very interested in creating a dialogue between our art collections and other collections on campus,” Odo says.

One such dialogue is currently in the works between Ethan W. Lasser, curator and newly named head of the division of European and American Art, and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Lasser is curating an exhibit on the Philosophy Chamber, a historical collection that includes scientific instruments and other extraordinary materials. Set to open in 2017, the exhibit seeks to reassemble the portraits, prints, books, and non-Western artifacts in Harvard Hall from mid-18th to the beginning of the 19th century. According to Gauvin, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments has loaned various instruments, including an 18th-century orrery designed by Joseph Pope, for Lasser’s exhibit. Gauvin adds that this give and take is mutual: the Art Museums will be providing the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments with a portrait of John Winthrop by John Singleton Copley that features Winthrop’s observation of the transit of Venus.

According to Lasser, this combination of art and artifacts from different collections allows the museums to tell a fuller story. “Both HMSC and the Art Museums are really enthusiastic about doing collaborative programming because we all believe in [pairing] objects in our collections to affect people’s ways of thinking,” Pickering says.

As the curators and directors mention, these affected ways of thinking range from a novel way of observing an object or image to a consideration of the intersection between art and science. Gauvin notes that many of the older scientific instruments, constructed out of rich materials like glass and bronze, are actually quite beautiful—echoing sentiments made by Jim Hankin, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, about the scientific sketches of organisms, such as Jacques Burkhardt’s watercolors of fish. “People often think about arts and sciences as being very distinct disciplines, but I think that’s a misunderstanding, that there are a lot of commonalities between art and science,” Hankin says. “By doing collaborative activities, we’re helping to restore a more realistic picture between the two areas.”


Last spring, graduate and undergraduate students and scholars convened on Harvard’s campus for the Harvard Curatorial Innovations Series. Organized by both the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, the series was comprised of a lecture and two days of in-depth conversations with internationally renowned curators. The curators for last spring were Leah A. Dickerman ’86 from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Thomas C. Rockwell from the Exploratorium in San Francisco. According to Galison, the conversation dealt with curating new kinds of shows as well as the relationship between exhibiting the arts and exhibiting the sciences. While the previous year’s series had featured only Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curator of contemporary art exhibit dOCUMENTA (13), iterations to come plan to bring in two curators from different fields. “Our new model is to have someone from the art world and someone from the science museum world,” Galison says. “They have much to teach each other. It’s a really interesting combination.”

The curatorial innovation series reflects not only the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture and the Harvard Art Museums’ joint commitment to educating through the combination of disciplines but also to the similarities between the museums’ operations. For instance, Gauvin says that the Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies has been helpful in allowing his staff to understand and categorize their collection; in particular, he cites the use of X-ray analysis for metals and carbon-dating. This focus resembles that of the Harvard Art Museums on using the Strauss Center to preserve and study their own objects.

In not only programming and interests but also in curation, the differences between the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture have become more minute. “At the end of the day, we’re doing the same thing: [We’re] trying to understand these materials objects and display them in space,” Lasser says. “We speak a similar language even as our specialities are very different.”


Three years after its formation, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture has found direction in its pursuits. While on paper it coordinates the public activities and the face of its affiliated museums, in practice the consortium strives to eradicate the fragile boundaries between Harvard’s museums. In a community where sharing collections was already a norm, the creation of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture has only added to a legacy of collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking. It is a legacy reflected by the physical merger of the Harvard Art Museums, by the combination of collections across three museums in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and even by Harvard’s commitment to a liberal arts education. “There’s a real push these days at Harvard to integrate activities across disciplines, and that applies to the museums as well,” Hankin says.

Schechner agrees. “The move on campus is to encourage students to look more closely at material culture, to mingle things from different collections, and to realize the value of them is not simply restricted to their discipline,” she says.

To that end, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture and its affiliates seek to approach museums and their supposed genres in different ways by emphasizing the importance of museums in merging disciplines. “The museums have such a huge potential role to play in the Harvard community and sometimes that role can be overlooked,” Manuelian says. “We’re hoping to raise that profile…[to] get more access and improve the undergraduate experience, the graduate students’ experience, and the visitor’s experience.”

—Staff writer Ha D.H. Le can be reached at

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