Thinking with Collections

June 18, 2015
Index Magazine

Thinking with Collections

Jesse Aron Green, Still from Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, 2008. HD video, 80 minutes. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise Haskell Daly Fund, 2014.123. © Jesse Aron Green.

Just weeks after the installation of two new exhibitions in the Harvard Art Museums’ University Galleries—The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States and Jesse Aron Green: Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik—another new display went on view in the museums’ Lightbox Gallery: an interactive collection of six short, object-based audiovisual presentations by Harvard students.

The presentations, on view through July, are the students’ final projects from the Spring 2015 anthropology seminar Thinking with Collections, taught by anthropology lecturer David Odo, who is also the director of student programs in the museums’ Division of Academic and Public Programs. They were the culmination of a semester-long exploration of broad issues in material anthropology, including the making of objects in a variety of artistic, cultural, and historical contexts. Taking cues from a key theme of the museums’ Jesse Aron Green exhibition, the seminar also focused on the human body, and how examples of the body and bodily representations have been collected at Harvard.

Showly Nicholson ’16, a pre-med student and East Asian studies concentrator, focused his project on an ancient Maya incensario (incense holder), made from a human skull around 1100 BCE. The object is part of the collections of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnography.

Through researching how and why the object was created, as well as its significance in today’s world, Nicholson said he began to understand how “an object, like a human, has many different contexts by which it exists.” This new perspective, he said, helped him see how a curator might view an object. It will also help inform his summer internship at the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Japan.

One of his classmates, Chloe Reichel ’15, a social studies concentrator with a secondary in the history of art and architecture, focused on two films in the Harvard Art Museums collections: Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68), and Jesse Aron Green’s Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik (2008). She examined commonalities between the works, including responses to minimalism, the body as subject, and bodily control.

The six undergraduates in the seminar had the chance to hear directly from Harvard Art Museums’ curators and meet with four visiting artists over the course of the semester. “It was a rare opportunity for students to have direct engagement with those who create art and curate exhibitions,” said Odo.

The visiting artists—Jesse Aron Green, Shuddhabrata Sengupta (of the Raqs Media Collective), Fernanda Fragateiro, and Renée Green—shared insights into their creative processes, revealing how extensive research (including archival work) influences the creation and presentation of their art. With these perspectives as inspiration, students conducted their own investigations into objects they chose from Harvard’s many collections.

In addition to writing papers about their chosen object(s), students recorded two- to three-minute audio notes about their research process. The recordings were then paired with a slideshow of images of the object(s) to create the presentations for the Lightbox Gallery. Visitors can use a remote control to activate each of the six LCD screens displaying the presentations.

Having the project be accessible to museum visitors is “really exciting, and a great way to finish the class,” said Reichel, who is headed to a curatorial internship in painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Part of the reason I took the class is because it was a really unique opportunity to explore the Harvard collections. The experience of being able to deeply look at and engage with different objects is so special.”