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The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’s Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage recommended updating portraits in Annenberg Hall and expanding Harvard’s tour program using digital content in a final report issued Monday after more than a year of work.
The 29-page report is the product of research and discussion among faculty and undergraduate students since fall 2020 on creating a more “dynamic, welcoming, and inclusive” visual culture on campus. FAS Dean Claudine Gay commissioned the group as one of Harvard’s steps to “advance racial justice” in the FAS, according to an email she sent to affiliates Monday.
“It was an extraordinary group, extremely dedicated, with active participation on the part of every single member,” Dean of the Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey — who also chaired the task force — said in an interview.
“It was one of the highlights of an otherwise very difficult academic year last year, to meet regularly with this group and to pursue this very important work,” he added.
The report is organized into seven sections that include information on the history of FAS visual culture and signage, recommendations for updating it, and guidelines for doing so. According to Kelsey, “signage” refers to things that help people orient, or “wayfind,” themselves around campus.
“By and large, Harvard has done so much to protect a certain pastoral ideal for the campus that signage has been kept to a minimum,” Kelsey said.
“We don’t want Harvard to be a place where you have to be someone from a particular part of society with a particular background in order to feel comfortable walking around on our campus, and I think we can do much more to make this a campus truly accessible to all of our community members and our visitors as well,” he added.
In that vein, the report recommends expanding Harvard’s tour program using digital content. It suggests a model of providing smartphone access to text, audio and video content on the FAS’s “history, architecture, and important community members.”
“The campus of the FAS is a destination for many visitors and tourists every academic year,” Kelsey said.
“The task force regarded the experience that we give those visitors to be under-curated,” he added. “We could do much more to introduce visitors to the campus to the mission of our school.”
Another of the recommendations put forth by the report is to refresh the visual culture of spaces that are particularly important to campus culture, including the FAS Faculty Room, Annenberg Hall, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Student Center in Lehman Hall.
It calls for the redecoration of walls of Annenberg, the freshman dining hall, which currently display 23 portraits, of which none include women and all but three depict white men. One portrait, installed in 2010, depicts Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American student to graduate from Harvard in 1665.
The redecoration will be organized by a newly-established FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage and a new position of FAS Campus Curator, according to Gay’s email.
“So many undergraduates in particular named Annenberg Hall as a space that very much affects them and their sense of belonging at the institution, that it seemed worthwhile for us to select that as one of the spaces that we would direct our resources and energies to,” Kelsey said.
In addition to refreshing spaces, among the report’s recommendations are a program of public art that aims to support living artists and display art created by students and faculty. The report also calls for Harvard’s campus to be made more accessible to people with disabilities.
The new Standing Committee will be chaired by Dan I. Byers, the director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, and will be tasked with overseeing next steps in implementation of the report, according to Gay’s email. Kelsey said the future work in this realm will depend on Harvard’s openness for self-evaluation and adaptation.
“There will be undoubtedly some missteps,” he said. “There will be some moments where we decide to change direction.”
“We want to ensure that we remain nimble enough, and self-critical enough, to revise and constantly update and improve our visual culture,” he added.
—Staff writer Felicia He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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