When Harvard history professor Dan Smail wanted to bring the Middle Ages to life, he turned to the Harvard Art Museums to help his students touch the past.

In the fall, Smail introduced the General Education course “Culture and Belief 51” to undergraduates, and for the first time used items in Harvard’s vast collections to offer his students an intimate look at the period.

“What we really wanted to do was get the students kind of behind the scenes … to touch and handle things and engage with them in a way that they could do much, much better in person than they could just standing in a gallery,” said Smail.

The class made a field trip to a seminar room in the museums’ Somerville facility to pore over items that included a late fifth century pilgrim’s flask used for carrying holy water. Back in Cambridge, the students visited the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, where they inspected the head of a statue of a medieval king.

The object-driven nature of the course, said Smail, “gave everything a kind of tangibility” and led to “incredibly bubbling, flourishing conversations.” He said his students couldn’t get enough of the experience. “They loved everything about it. It got the highest evaluation of any course I’ve ever taught.”

Harvard is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to help students, faculty, and the public better understand and engage with myriad fields, from fine art to physics to philosophy, by encouraging the close examination of material things, like the great works of art and ephemera contained in its rich and robust collections.

When the Harvard Art Museums, made up of the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, opens in fall 2014 in its renovated and expanded home at 32 Quincy St., a vastly expanded art study center and a series of new teaching galleries will drive that mission forward.

As part of the renovation project’s final phase, the Sackler galleries, which have remained open since the renovation began, will close on June 1. Those spaces will be needed to prepare for the packing and moving of the museums’ collections into the new galleries.

A central feature of the updated facility is an enhanced and expanded art study center that will make thousands of little-seen works from the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler museums available for hands-on study. Occupying most of the fourth floor, the center will include three study rooms, two seminar rooms that can accommodate smaller groups of students, and a large reception area.

Officials from the museums worked closely with members of Harvard’s Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) on a vision for the new center, one based on extensive feedback and research, including interviews with the museums’ staff, observations and interviews in the previous museum study centers, and interviews with faculty from Harvard and beyond.

The results, said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums, prove that the study center experience not only offers visitors a way to engage with art, but also acts as a driver of innovation.

“We know from experience, and from a number of studies we conducted, that in a study center people tend to look differently, they linger, and they look more deeply,” said Lentz. “The study center is one of the powerful engines of this new facility because it will create new kinds of teaching and learning experiences and foster collaborations and connections across different fields and disciplines at Harvard.”

Other new features that are intended to invite visitors to look more deeply and to foster fresh areas of inquiry and cross-disciplinary connections include three teaching galleries on the third floor. The galleries, which will be open to the public, will devote 3,000 square feet to support student coursework, curatorial studies, and the work of the new art study center.

In imagining these gallery spaces, “We wanted to think about physical parts of our facility that had been very effective for us in the past and bring those things forward and think anew about some exciting kinds of spaces,” said Debi Kao, chief curator of the museums.

As part of the new configuration, one gallery, as it was in the past, will be dedicated to the course goals of Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture program. The second gallery will link directly to the mission of the new art study center and will offer faculty and students a space in which to study and linger over particular works of art. The third gallery will act as a type of curatorial laboratory where students can study in close detail the “art of installation,” developing their own exhibitions and learning how to “visualize” an argument with works of art.

“This is a space where curators can work with faculty and students to essentially teach them how constructing an argument with real objects in real space is very different than constructing an argument with words on paper, and yet they are equally powerful,” said Kao. “All those choices of juxtapositions, whether two works are right next to each other or across the room, change how any person is going to interpret the visual thing.”

One person familiar with the transformative nature of working directly with art objects is Jennifer Roberts, a professor of history of art and architecture. Last year Roberts developed a course that led to a student-curated show on contemporary master Jasper Johns that was displayed at the Sackler.

“One of the first lessons that you need to teach in art history is that looking in a textbook is very, very different from looking at the actual object,” said Roberts, who often has her students look at a work of art on a computer screen before seeing the original in a gallery. “For many of them, the entire meaning or their interpretation of the image changes completely when they see the real thing.”

Working with students to help them develop and curate the Johns show “involved a totally different kind of thinking and a different way of articulating ideas. I think that type of experience will be really exciting and productive for future generations of students,” said Roberts.

But the new galleries and art study center are just part of the vision for the facility. In planning the renovation, museum officials arranged works to ensure that each newly configured space could accommodate a faculty member and a cohort of 15 students.

“It’s our hope,” said Kao, “that every installed space can be used for teaching and learning and new discoveries.”

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