I was recently one of the lucky few invited to preview the renovated Harvard Art Museums, where I worked prior to coming to Skinner in 2013. In 2008 the doors of the historic Fogg Art Museum, built in 1927, closed. Since then, the museum staff and their many collaborators have worked tirelessly to re-conceptualize the museums’ role for the future both on campus and across the globe, and to create with the architect Renzo Piano a new building that will fully serve its mission of teaching through works of art. The results are truly spectacular!
The renovation project essentially gutted the old Fogg and created a new building that fits seamlessly with the old one. The site also houses the Arthur M. Sackler and the Busch-Reisinger Museums, and now the collections of all three can be studied and exhibited in dialogue with one another for the first time. The curatorial staff reviewed and reconsidered approximately 250,000 objects from across the world — spanning thousands of years and all media — in developing a program for the permanent collection. The reinstallation begins with modern and contemporary art on the first floor, and descends in time as visitors ascend upward through the beautiful new galleries.
One of the most innovative aspects of the Harvard Art Museums’ reinstallation is the integration of light-sensitive materials such as works on paper and textiles into the permanent collection displays. As a curator in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, I worked on identifying photographs for inclusion in various spaces designated for rotations of light-sensitive objects. Some of the works on view for the reopening are early abstractions from 1916 by Paul Strand shown in a case that straddles the early modern and Surrealism galleries and works by Diane Arbus from her 1970 portfolio “A Box of Ten Photographs” in a gallery devoted to art of the 1960s. And be sure not to miss two striking diptychs juxtaposing portraits of Lorraine O’Grady’s sister Devonia with busts of Nefertiti from the artist’s Miscegenated Family Album (1980-1994) series in the Egyptian gallery! As I wandered through the galleries, it was fun to stumble upon object labels that I had written during my tenure as a curator.
One of my favorite contemporary works on display is Flying Books under Black Rain Painting, a kinetic sculpture by German artist Rebecca Horn that was specially commissioned for the museums’ reopening. Also known as a “painting machine,” the sculpture was “activated” before an audience of Harvard students, who watched intently as black paint was sprayed across the installation wall and protruding books over the course of eight minutes. The work is on view in conjunction with a complementary exhibition of “Works in Progress” by Horn in the temporary galleries.
One of the design signatures of Renzo Piano’s buildings is the use of natural light. The Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies is housed under the impressive glass lantern with its vast glass-enclosed spaces. Here, works of art can be examined and treated in an environment with extensive, but controlled, natural light (a much better way to see). The glass walls also offer visitors a sneak peek at the fascinating preservation and restoration work being done in the conservation labs. In fact, the special exhibition “Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals” highlights an important and innovative project focusing on a series of paintings by Rothko from the early 1960s that quickly faded from light exposure. A non-invasive technique developed by the Harvard Art Museums and the MIT Media Lab uses digital projection to “restore” the murals’ original color.
The much expanded Art Study Center, including a number of general study and seminar rooms, is the epicenter of the museums’ mission to foster and promote meaningful encounters with works of art. Here visitors can engage with objects not currently on display in the galleries, and professors can use art to enhance their students’ critical thinking. Between the study centers, permanent collection galleries, temporary exhibitions, and dynamic programming, the “new” Harvard Art Museums are the perfect foundation for realizing the institution’s goal of creating transformative teaching and learning experiences for students, faculty, and the public.