Activating the Museums

May 15, 2014
Index Magazine

Activating the Museums

René-Michel Slodtz’s Portrait of a Man, c. 1750, awaits installation.

While most are busy making summer plans, we at the Harvard Art Museums are already thinking about the fall, when we will finally open the doors to our new facility. After closing the building nearly six years ago, it’s hard to believe that we are in the midst of installing galleries and preparing for the opening this November.

Even though we’re set to open so soon, there is much still to do. The installation of the museums’ storied art collections in 50 new galleries is a huge undertaking. Collections Management staff developed a multifaceted strategy for the logistical implementation of the installation, working in tandem with curators, conservators, senior administrators, and our facilities and security departments. Skilled art handlers must carefully remove thousands of objects from purpose-built shipping containers, and they are working closely with the curators, who determine the exact placement of each work of art within each gallery. Many objects are being installed in custom state-of-the-art cases, and both (objects and cases) must be securely mounted. Gallery labels and text panels that provide historical context, detailed descriptions, and interpretation of the works on display need to be optimally placed as well. Gallery lights must be carefully adjusted for ideal viewing and, with guidance from conservators, set to the proper light levels for each object. This is a sizable task for a single gallery; now imagine how long it must take to install 43,000 square feet of gallery space across three levels of our new facility, not to mention some of the other public spaces where many of the larger, more complex objects will be installed.

In addition to this major project, we’re working on the development of print and digital materials designed to guide visitors and to provide a richer learning experience for all. We are introducing a Student Guide Program, with Harvard undergraduates leading tours in the galleries. We’re also developing a new public website that will increase access to our collections, as well as collections data, and will enhance the ways that users can interact with the Harvard Art Museums. You may already have noticed that we have expanded our outreach efforts, using traditional methods but also social media and Index to encourage two-way communication.

We want you to be part of this exciting time in our history. To that end, we’re planning a series of opening events for Harvard students, faculty, and staff; Cambridge residents; donors and members of the museums; those who were involved with or supported the project; and others prior to our public opening on November 16. Look for more details in the coming months.

On a recent visit, as he stood in the beautifully restored Calderwood Courtyard, architect Renzo Piano described how his design for the piazza-like courtyard aims to activate the museums. With visitors streaming through from all sides, and with incredible new sight lines that offer glimpses into galleries and other active work spaces from above and below, the courtyard becomes “like a city.” Indeed the museums are already bustling; but once we welcome visitors this fall, they will become truly activated.