Summer School for Scholars in Training

June 7, 2018
Index Magazine

Summer School for Scholars in Training

The Summer Institute for Technical Studies in Art at the Harvard Art Museums is an opportunity for emerging art historians to investigate the making and subsequent lives of art objects. Here, Hannah Segrave paints a copy of a tulip following 17th-century artist manuals during a 2017 session on oil glazing. The Learning Lab of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning documented much of the workshop, as can be seen here in the filming setup.

Hannah Segrave, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Delaware, had never painted a single thing in her life.

“I’ve taken technical art history classes and worked with conservators,” she explained, “but I never connected to . . . the ‘layering’ of paintings to produce a final image.”

That was before she participated in the inaugural 2017 session of the Summer Institute for Technical Studies in Art (SITSA) at the Harvard Art Museums. As one of fifteen doctoral candidates in art history selected for the intensive two-week workshop, Segrave received a crash course in such practical art making skills as oil painting, clay modeling, and printmaking, along with other object-based experiences. In one session (shown above), for instance, Segrave painted a copy of a tulip following 17th-century artist manuals under the guidance of Erma Hermens, a technical art historian from the Rijksmuseum and University of Amsterdam who uses historical reconstructions of old master painting techniques in her research and teaching.

As a whole, the workshop eventually changed the way Segrave thought about art and her own practice as an art historian. “Now I can appreciate the process and will get even more out of looking,” she said.

SITSA is designed for emerging scholars and museum professionals exactly like Segrave, who believe their thinking will benefit from experience with art-technical investigations. Participants interact with conservators, conservation scientists, curators, art historians, artists, and craftspeople in the interdisciplinary, collaborative environment of the Harvard Art Museums, the neighboring Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, and other academic and cultural venues in the greater Boston area to acquire tools to help them investigate the complex lives of art objects. 

“SITSA provides us an opportunity to help new generations of curators and art historians learn how to engage with conservators and scientists in a more informed and nuanced way.”

This year will mark the second iteration of SITSA. The workshop builds on the Summer Institute for Technical Art History (SITAH), which was initially developed and led by New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, from 2012 to 2016. Both have been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which counts among its many aims the support of productive collaboration between practitioners of art history and art conservation at all stages of their careers. (SITAH was itself inspired by Yale University’s Summer Teachers’ Institute in Technical Art History, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.)

“SITSA provides us an opportunity to help new generations of curators and art historians learn how to engage with conservators and scientists in a more informed and nuanced way,” said Francesca Bewer, research curator for conservation and technical study programs at the Harvard Art Museums and director of the workshop. “These immersive two weeks give participants unusually close access to artworks, technical tools, and vocabulary—a modeling of the types of research methodologies that we believe are essential for emerging curators and museum professionals as well as university-based scholars.”

Collaboration is essential in this work, and thus team building is seen as an invaluable goal of SITSA. (To this end, participants also live together in Harvard housing for the full two weeks.) In addition, because participants are placed in conversation with individuals who are more established in their careers, it has an even broader benefit for the field.

Bewer draws heavily on the expertise of staff in the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies to develop and teach the curriculum. She also collaborates closely with curatorial staff and colleagues from across campus, as well as from other institutions.

Besides the Harvard Art Museums’ teaching team, SITSA project assistant Alexandra Gaydos and Jordan Koffman, a student assistant and intern for the museums’ Materials Lab, have been essential with preparations for the 2018 workshop.

Premier Training Ground

The Harvard Art Museums’ history—and innovative present-day character—make the institution an ideal home for SITSA. The Fogg Museum (one of the Harvard Art Museums’ three constituent institutions) was the first purpose-built structure for the specialized training of art scholars, conservators, and museum professionals in North America. As early as 1911, Edward W. Forbes, the museum’s director from 1909 to 1944, characterized the institution as a “laboratory for art” and a place to offer students exposure to inspiring teachers and genuine works of art. A pioneer of art conservation, Forbes also founded the country’s first scientific research and conservation laboratory at an art museum, a precursor of the Straus Center.

The 2014 renovation of the Harvard Art Museums brought Forbes’s vision and the Fogg’s institutional history into sharper focus, with the incorporation of in-house research centers and teaching spaces in which regular, collaborative conversations occur under the same roof. These include the Materials Lab, an environment for art making as a means of learning, and the Art Study Center, dedicated to the sustained viewing of original works of art. SITSA utilizes both of these spaces, as well as the Straus Center—and of course, the museums’ galleries—to expose participants to interdisciplinary engagement with art.

Multifaceted Experience

The theme of last year’s workshop—translation—focused on a range of interpretations, including the transfer of designs from concept to completed work, visual and verbal representations of artistic processes, and the analysis of technical and material evidence in physical objects. Students were invited to choose a work of art in the collections that would serve as inspiration for various hands-on translation exercises. Building on their greater technical understanding of materials and processes, students also took part in close technical examinations of these objects with conservation staff (aided by scientific equipment), and practiced peer-to-peer teaching in synthesizing what they learned. By translating their chosen works into different media, the students became more mindful of artistic choices and of the dynamic relationships between materials, tools, and makers.

In addition to staff in the Straus Center, instructors included three inspiring artists who also teach: Matt Saunders, a multimedia artist and assistant professor of visual and environmental studies at Harvard; ceramic artist Kathy King, director of education in Harvard’s Ceramics Program; and artist and printer Gary Schneider, whose work as a printer is the focus of the current exhibition Analog Culture: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1981–2001.

Harvard art historians, museums staff, and experts from other institutions led the group in theoretical discussions as well. For instance, Hanna Hölling, a conservator, art historian, and curator from University College London, exposed thorny issues around the preservation of score-based contemporary art; and Joseph Koerner, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, discussed the relationship between content and technique in Albrecht Dürer’s prints.

Other memorable sessions included those by Tony Sigel, senior conservator of objects and sculpture in the Straus Center, who guided participants in an examination of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bozzetti, or clay sketches; and by Jennifer Clarvoe, a professor of English at Kenyon College, who introduced students to the experience of writing ekphrastic poetry.

See the slideshow below for additional glimpses of last year’s many expert-led sessions.

SITSA helps facilitate a large amount of learning in a relatively short period, as session leaders attested.

“I am certain these two weeks will have an impact on the field that will play out—literally—over many years as these students metabolize such a key moment in their formation,” said Koerner. He added: “Artifacts, as made things, involved in their creation deep, complex, and sometimes esoteric understandings, by the makers, of processes and materials. So to understand what the makers have done . . . necessitates special analysis, research, and investigation.”

Jennifer Roberts, the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities in Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture, who shared with participants her object-focused Minding Making project (alongside Ethan Lasser, the Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Curator of American Art at the museums), said she benefited personally from participating: “It was very useful for me to prepare my presentation—it forced me to organize my thoughts on quite a few topics that had been just rattling around in my notebooks.”

Academic Takeaways

In daily written reflections and conversations through an online discussion board, last year’s participants revealed many “aha” moments.

Sarah Grandin, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of art and architecture at Harvard, said that the exercises “have unequivocally contributed to my understanding not only of art objects, but also of the kinds of histories I want to write about these objects.”

Nearly a year later, she reflected on the lasting impact of these lessons: “I will continue to incorporate artistic practice, technical analysis, and the close observation of objects into my own work as an art historian, and I hope to introduce these tools of investigation to my students one day.”

Even students with prior training in art found themselves reevaluating their scholarly approaches. “The experience [was] a wake-up call to look past self-imposed limitations and rescue the technical knowledge I gained as a student of an art academy into my practice as an art historian,” said Julian Serna, a Ph.D. student in art history at Boston University.

Time spent in the conservation labs examining artworks with the aid of scientific instruments was especially valuable in giving students new insights into the complex lives of objects. Cabelle Ahn, a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture program, reflected on this experience recently. “Since SITSA, I have striven in my own research to consider the circumstances of an object’s creation and its alterations over time,” she said. “Working with conservators taught me to never take anything for granted with a given work of art, and that the smallest and the most unassuming clues can offer new directions or overturn longstanding assumptions about an artist’s working process.”

Aisha Motlani, a Ph.D. student in art history at Northwestern University, said the workshop prompted her to acknowledge the transitional—and constantly changing—nature of objects. “I like the idea of presenting art objects in a way that leaves space for doubt, for contingency, for the evolving life of the object,” she said. “I also like the idea of acknowledging the involvement of the conservator as someone who often has a real hand and a real stake in the life of the object, causing waves in its history.”

Promising Next Session

The 15 participants in the 2018 session hail from doctoral programs across North America including those at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Princeton University, UCLA, and Harvard. Their research interests are diverse, including Roman visual culture, Aztec codices, medieval Buddhist sculpture, Renaissance painting workshops, 18th-century drawing schools in the Amazon, 20th-century Chinese painter Zhang Daqian, Byzantine diagrams, and Fluxus art.

Together, the students will explore various forms of replication that may occur as part of the artistic process, as research methodology, and as a tool for preservation. Among the questions to be considered are: how do we gain a more nuanced understanding of the possible range of relationships between different iterations of an object? In what ways does hands-on experimentation with artists’ materials and techniques, such as reverse-engineering of an artwork, present new avenues of inquiry? And if we consider that all physical objects alter with time, or that not all works of art are contained in fixed physical form, where do the authenticities or boundaries of a work of art reside? Conservation issues, too, promise to spark illuminating conversations, especially as they relate to ephemeral artworks or objects undergoing some level of deterioration.

Participants will try their hand at such diverse reproductive art making techniques as bronze-casting and printmaking. To complement the Harvard Art Museums’ Analog Culture exhibition, the workshop will also introduce darkroom photography and analog printing techniques. And paintings conservators are preparing reverse-engineering exercises related to technical research currently underway on two paintings in the museums’ collections.

Wide-Reaching Impact

In designing this year’s program, Bewer took inspiration from past participants’ reflections. Among other changes, the schedule will include more time for in-depth examination of objects in the conservation labs with various experts, and the opportunity to explore writing about process and technical insights.

“Since SITSA, I have striven in my own research to consider the circumstances of an object’s creation and its alterations over time.”

This latter change was sparked by a comment by Rachel Vogel, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of art and architecture at Harvard, about the ekphrastic poetry session: “As art historians, we are writers—our material is the word. I thus found [the process of writing] not only illuminating, but critical to understand[ing] the materiality of our medium. How can we manipulate language? How can we build up and break down words, the way a masterful artist shapes her paints or inks or clay?”

Though SITSA is an experience accessible to only a select few, its effects will be felt over many years and among myriad individuals as participants embark upon diverse careers. SITSA leaders and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation hope the workshop fosters associations beyond participants’ usual specializations and helps strengthen intergenerational and cross-disciplinary professional networks. Indeed, many of the 2017 participants have maintained close contact. And just as the program builds upon experimentation that has taken place in other museum settings, SITSA organizers will continue to explore ways to share some of the especially meaningful workshop experiences with broader audiences at the museums and beyond.

For Bewer, organizing SITSA has been a powerful opportunity to see the museums through newcomers’ eyes. “I’ve been reminded of what a special place this is, and how lucky we are to have the mission, history, and resources that we do,” she said. “It is incredible how much more we end up seeing when several people bring their different perspectives to bear on an artwork.”


Francesca Bewer, research curator for conservation and technical study programs at the Harvard Art Museums, made substantial contributions to this article.

SITSA participants reflect on their transformative experiences in the program.