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For the Harvard Art Museums, a Top-to-Bottom Renovation and Rethinking

The exterior of the new Harvard Art Museums on opening date
The exterior of the new Harvard Art Museums on opening date (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a warm day in June six years ago, the front doors of the Fogg Museum closed quietly. There was no banner reading “Closing Day” on Quincy Street at the edge of Harvard Yard, no ceremony, no press, no speech. At five o’clock, museum visitors shuffled out the exit in droves, toting travel books and the last discounted souvenirs.

Once the doors had shut, more than 250,000 works of art began to be packed up and the building completely emptied to ready it for destruction — the first step in a massive renovation that was completed last month. Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the plan called for the joining of the three Harvard Art Museums collections — among the six largest art collections in the country — under a single roof on the site of the Fogg’s historic footprint.

And so the Busch-Reisinger Museum closed that day as well. The Arthur M. Sackler remained open for a time with a selection of highlights from the collections, but for six years, Harvard University was essentially without access to its art objects — ones that had played a critical role not just in its teaching, but in the invention of art history itself.

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The courtyard of the new Harvard Art Museums
The courtyard of the new Harvard Art Museums

In 1891, the year the Fogg was founded, American museums weren’t what we know today. The Fogg’s holdings, considered impressive for the time, were not original artworks; instead, “secondary evidence,” including plaster casts of classical sculptures, photographs of artworks, slides, and books for a fledgling fine arts library, made up what would look to contemporary viewers like the archive of a museum rather than the real thing. That all changed under Fogg director Edward Forbes, who claimed the museum couldn’t train students properly without primary sources.

By 1919 Greek vases, ancient coins, medieval paintings, Japanese prints, Chinese bronzes and jades, and terracotta figurines had taken up residence among the plaster casts, and the museum had initiated, according to art historian Donald Preziosi, the first art history survey course, which summarized the “entire history of the arts of the world in a single year.” Paul J. Sachs, an alumnus who donated prints and drawings from his own collection, eventually became the museum’s assistant director and a professor of Fine Arts at Harvard. Coming from a family of investors (the founders of Goldman Sachs), Sachs saw the value of a renovation of the Fogg, outlining bluntly in a 1922 annual report the needs of the museum: “(a) New Building, (b) Endowment.”

Forbes and Sachs came up against the resistance of Harvard and its alumni, who showed little interest in art. The subject was considered an unserious academic pursuit compared to math and science. To draw funding for a new facility and the acquisition of expensive original artworks, the museum had to appeal to the values of the university.

American silver and wampum side by side
American silver and wampum side by side in a new display (click to enlarge)

Together the two wrote a pamphlet on the worth of museum scholarship, calling it The Fine Arts in a Laboratory. They used the syntax of scientific breakthroughs and experimentation, with an underlying promise of prestige: that by providing hands-on interaction with original works of art Harvard would train the next generation of American museum professionals. Though appealing to conservative notions of success, Forbes and Sachs were actually introducing progressive ideas to the field of art history. In their “fine arts laboratory,” conservation and the chemistry of art, including the unprecedented study of pigments, X-ray technology, and archaeological excavations, were championed as museum work equally important to display. The pitch was a success: reviews of the opening of the new Fogg building in 1927 called it “a working institution,” a “veritable laboratory,” and “a supreme example of its type” that would usher in a new era in the teaching of art at American universities. 

It was in this setting that Sachs taught his Museum Course, the first curatorial studies curriculum in the country, which gave birth to a legacy: “the Fogg Method.” A formalist workforce of students was trained in this new form of scholarship. Their project was to catalogue the collection by placing each object in a linear discourse of art history. Delivered back to the university in the form of academic art history, this work was disseminated across the country as hundreds of Sachs’s students headed to careers as directors and curators at top museums. The Fogg Method was writing the lasting tenets of art history. And it was deeply flawed.

Claiming an impossible objectivity and neatly tying up disparate works of art in the pristine package of “collection,” the Fogg Method became a self-fulfilling prophecy: it created a fixed, insular canon. In his essay “The Question of Art History,” Preziosi points to the Fogg Method’s reverence for the object as the central issue. In this “scientific” system, the work of art was considered evidence and the art historian a detective uncovering the inherent meaning, hidden from the uninformed eye. What resulted was a view of art history that was inaccessible and illegible unless seen from a specific, entitled position.

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Students playing trumpets on opening day
Students playing trumpets on opening day

It’s taken a long time for the discipline to undo these one-sided systems, and almost 90 years later, the legacy of the early Fogg is still being celebrated. I arrived at the museum last month greeted by trumpets: two students dressed in crimson were playing on the front steps to honor opening day. From behind a podium, Thomas Lentz, the current director of the Harvard Art Museums and spearheader of the renovation, proudly welcomed visitors to the “21st-century laboratory for the arts.” Alan Garber, Harvard’s Provost, used the same phrase in his speech. Their audience filled the Calderwood Courtyard, the Renaissance arcade that, aside from the landmarked brick façade, is the only architectural element preserved from the 1927 building. Everything else was demolished to make way for more than 50 new galleries and public spaces, an upscale shop and café, state-of-the-art conservation labs, a 300-seat auditorium, and a gleaming glass roof, pointed to throughout the day as a literal metaphor for the clarity and transparency defining the museum’s new identity.

A view of the new building's courtyard, with the glass roof above (click to enlarge)
A view of the new building’s courtyard, with the glass roof above (click to enlarge)

After the ceremony, as visitors entered the galleries for the first time, I spoke with Lentz about the changes, which are not just physical but ideological. “People think this has just been a building project, but in reality it’s been much more than that,” he explained. “We took everything apart here, physically, structurally, operationally, even conceptually, and put it back together again.”

For the displays in the new space, the old curatorial departments, which Lentz called “separate kingdoms,” were forced to collaborate. Curator of modern and contemporary art Mary Schneider Enriquez led me through her galleries, excitedly showing off the overlaps with other collections. “Doing a whole museum from scratch is an enormous task,” she said. “I had to make a case for every single object.” For legal reasons the museums had to preserve the identities of the three separate collections, and the ground-floor galleries establish the separate strengths of each: in the Busch-Reisinger space, Max Beckmann greets visitors, looking sharp in his tuxedo; the Sackler gleams with a case of individually spot lit ancient jades; the Fogg’s parade of masterpieces begins with the clanging trains of Monet’s “Gare Saint-Lazare.” But as the visitor ascends, the collections start to intermingle, showing that this institution is no longer interested in tying arbitrary knots for the sake of tidiness.

As he described the last six years, Lentz drew his finger along his palm, tracing a zigzag. It was much like the path that visitors to the new museum take on the second floor when passing from Renaissance altarpieces to Persian miniature painting, Chola bronzes, and Japanese screens. Reflecting recent trends in academic art history, there are no separate American art galleries; John Singleton Copley portraits hang beside works by Ingres and Canaletto. Curators filled gaps in the story of colonialism with works from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, displaying American silver beside wampum. Works on paper have been integrated according to chronology rather than medium, a longstanding and ridiculous distinction still upheld by most museums. Being light sensitive, these pieces lend flexibility to the gallery installations, as they will rotate every four months. A large space is given over to contemporary art, and the accession numbers on the wall labels serve as a quiet testament to the collecting efforts of the last six years. I was told that each gallery is based on a proposition, but no wall text poses didactic questions; instead, the installations teach in subtler ways — sculptures are often displayed huddled in the middle of a gallery, as if defending some unsaid cause that visitors are left to figure out.

A group of sculptures from the collection of the Fogg Museum
A group of sculptures from the collection of the Fogg Museum

“I remember talking early on with Renzo [Piano], and he said, ‘You have such great collections, you do such great work — why is it all hidden away?’,” Lentz said. Piano will find any excuse to use glass, but it’s the right choice here: his clear panes directly oppose the Fogg Method’s opaqueness. The public can now peer into pristine conservation labs, and new study centers allow anyone to arrange a one-on-one appointment with works not on display in the galleries. “University Galleries” display works selected by professors for class lessons, which at the time of my visit drew people interested in seeing the choices made for music and physics courses.

For an institution that grew out of pressure to be purpose- and goal-oriented, it’s significant that the new building is all about flexibility and choice. But it may be the simple occasion of the reopening that sends the most radical message. On that day, impressed visitors chatted with museum guards, curious to know about all the planning and thought that led to this moment. The new installation, meanwhile, could be seen as one enormous special exhibition, and from what I observed, drew the kind of excited response from visitors not typically sparked by a permanent collection. These changes send a message that’s stronger than any wall text or speech: museums are not fixed systems; art is up for interpretation.

When I asked Francesca Bewer, a member of the renamed Division of Academic and Public Programs (the museums have abolished the Education Department), how people were responding to the new space, she raised her eyebrows at my need for answers, saying, “It’s an experimental time. We’re reopening, we have ideas, and we’re testing the waters and trying things out. I think that it is a laboratory in which we’ll learn as we go along.”

Inside the Fogg galleries on the first floor
Inside the Fogg galleries on the first floor
Artworks grouped by the theme of the female form
Artworks grouped by the theme of the female form
A new study center
A new study center
A new visible conservation lab
A new visible conservation lab
Looking down at the courtyard
Looking down at the courtyard

The Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) are open to the public seven days a week, 10am–5pm.

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