Expert Guidance

February 20, 2018
Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, discusses works of photography with student guides during a workshop in the Art Study Center.

As ambassadors for the museums’ collection of a quarter million objects, our student guides are trained in sharing stories and interacting with visitors of all ages and backgrounds. But that’s just one aspect of how they prepare for their role.

While public speaking is a key component of their training, equally important is the process of learning about specific objects and their history. Through weekly private workshops, exhibition and gallery tours, and even hands-on making sessions, the student guides access deep wells of information about our collections and knowledge from our staff—greatly enhancing their ability to weave engaging narratives about everything from ancient Islamic ceramics to contemporary Mexican sculpture.

The 28 undergraduate guides—whose backgrounds are in such diverse fields as comparative literature, anthropology, and computer science—design and lead 50-minute tours for visitors (free with admission) geared toward objects and themes of their choosing. The mix of topics has included problem-solving, archetypes in art, invisibility, and spirituality. 

Student guides like Isabella Beroutsos ’19 have found the intensive sessions with experts to be critical in developing one-of-a-kind tours. “They teach us to think not only about the academic side of the art, but also the role of the museums and how to communicate about art,” said Beroutsos, who serves as one of the program’s two senior guides (along with Mahnoor Ali ’19), and whose concentration is in the history of art and architecture, with a secondary in economics.

  • of Elizabeth Wiener, who graduated in December 2017, was a student guide for three years while at Harvard. She found that the workshops that were part of her training were invaluable to developing her tours.
  • of In his tour, student guide Jack Dent discusses Claude Monet’s The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train (1877) and the artist’s shift from painting rural landscapes to industrial scenes.
  • of Student guide Richard Dunn talks about Mervin Jules’s The Art Lover (1937) in the social realism gallery.

David Odo, the museums’ director of student programs and research curator of university collections initiatives, who oversees the program, described the student guides as a crucial connection between the collections and public audiences. “They help visitors experience the building as a physical space, but they also guide people through the collections in ways that allow them to make meaning and create a sense of place,” Odo said. The student guides rely on their training sessions as “opportunities for study and reflection to assist them in developing memorable, engaging experiences for the public.”

Curatorial Expertise

During one recent training session, student guides were treated to an overview of the museums’ extensive photography collection. Led by Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, the Art Study Center session gave guides the opportunity to view close-up dozens of important works created over the past two centuries. These included everything from anonymous daguerreotypes of the mid-19th century to contemporary digital pigment prints.

As Best explained to the group, she hoped to impart “a vocabulary with which to talk about photography.”

Best walked the group through some highlights, offering insights that might not find their way into wall labels. “The history of photography is really one of how photographers worked with and around limitations,” she said. She pointed out minor details that early photographers might have hoped viewers would overlook. “The hands could be a problem,” she said, drawing attention to one individual’s awkwardly posed hands in a Civil War–era portrait. Any sort of movement in the hands (or other body parts) would have created less than ideal photographs, she said, so photographers would pose the sitters strategically.

The students eagerly asked questions along the way, such as how the photographer would have developed the image and what types of patrons might have sat for such portraits. The rest of the session proceeded similarly, with ample conversation.

“These experiences give us a greater picture of the world behind a piece of art. Being able to offer so many different aspects of an artwork’s story to visitors can broaden the way they think about art.”

Later, Elizabeth Wiener, who graduated in December 2017, reflected on the value of the workshop—one of many she participated in after becoming a guide in 2014. “I always learn something new,” she said. “It’s useful every time.”

Wiener incorporated daguerreotypes into her tour, which focused on materiality. “The photography collection is really unique for what it can tell us about different movements and moments,” she said, “and so much of what Makeda has shown us focuses on the power of photography to describe social conditions and maybe also effect change.”

Behind-the-Scenes Experiences

A number of curators have also recently spoken with the group. Lynette Roth, the Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and head of the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, led the guides in a tour of her exhibition Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943–55; and Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, introduced the special exhibition Fernando Bryce: The Book of Needs.

Tours of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies have exposed students to the analysis and conservation of objects. Materials Lab workshops, in which students have a chance to learn techniques of art making, such as screenprinting and painting, have served as hands-on training sessions.

Local field trips provide yet another dimension to guides’ training and education. Last fall, the group traveled to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art for a tour of the exhibition Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. They also visited John Wang’s installation 100+ Years at 73 Brattle, in Radcliffe Yard’s Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden. Wang, a 2016 Harvard College graduate and former student guide, as well as a current architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, won the Radcliffe Institute’s 2016 Public Art Competition for his installation.

John Wang, a 2016 Harvard College graduate and former student guide, discusses his installation 100+ Years at 73 Brattle with current student guides.

Wang spoke to the group about the genesis of his installation, including the historical research he carried out and how it helped him conceive the idea for the work. He also described how his vision for the installation changed as he began to construct it, with important considerations such as accessibility coming to the fore.

Such insights about the creative process are among the lessons that student guides can glean through their intensive training program. Even when sessions don’t directly correspond with individual tours, the experiences help the guides develop and hone important skills that they can draw upon while interacting with visitors. As Beroutsos said: “These experiences give us a greater picture of the world behind a piece of art. Being able to offer so many different aspects of an artwork’s story to visitors can broaden the way they think about art.”