Campus & Community

Art museums reach out to local community

4 min read

The Harvard Art Museums (HUAM) are eager to help local schools plan curricula, arrange student visits, and generally make their superb collections available to the Cambridge community.

That was the message museum officials conveyed Aug. 22 when they hosted a group of 70 Cambridge school administrators for a morning of talks and gallery tours. Later, the administrators met for lunch at the Faculty Club, where they were welcomed by President Neil L. Rudenstine and heard a talk on current educational issues by Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll.

In a talk describing the range of artistic treasures contained in the University’s collections, HUAM Assistant Director for Finance and Administration Richard Benefield said that, starting in mid-September, anyone with a Cambridge library card will be admitted free to any of Harvard’s art museums — the Fogg, the Sackler, and the Busch-Reisinger.

“Not only are we happy that we can extend this courtesy to the citizens of Cambridge,” Benefield said, “but by aligning ourselves with the Library, we emphasize our mission of teaching and research, and we emphasize the value that we place on our collections for their ability to teach us about the history, culture, values, and aesthetics of our past.”

Benefield also affirmed the Museums’ willingness to work with teachers in planning museum visits for their classes and in developing lesson plans in art, history, social studies, and other subjects.

“We want to work with the teachers of Cambridge, who know that great works of art can often teach more than any book or lecture,” said Benefield.

Corinne Zimmermann, HUAM coordinator of public education, also emphasized the Museums’ eagerness to serve local schools.

“We are very interested in becoming a resource for teachers and students,” she said. “We want the administrators to know that we’ll be supportive in bringing kids to the museums and in making our educational resources available to teachers. We want this to be the beginning of a much longer dialogue.”

The administrators, who were at Harvard as part of a series of professional development workshops kicking off the school year, responded enthusiastically to the announcement.

“Teachers are so creative. Once they see that resources are available, they usually find ways of using them,” said Frances Cooper-Berry, a staff developer at the Cambridge Schools’ Professional Development Center.

“Field trips to museums and other institutions are a vital and memorable part of education,” said Wendell Bourne, Cambridge Public Schools multicultural curriculum coordinator. “Any piece of culture can be shared — one’s own or that of others. It adds another dimension to textbook learning.”

Mary Eirich of the Cambridge Public Schools’ central administration was struck by the message the Harvard Art Museums sent by making themselves more open to the community.

“To have Harvard come forth and say, ‘We will make our art available,’ is wonderful,” she said. “It puts art in a higher priority than it ordinarily would have.”

After a morning of talks by Benefield and others, the school administrators split up into groups for tours of the collections led by museum docents. For one administrator, visiting the Harvard Art Museums triggered thoughts about the impact art has had on his own life.

“I grew up in a housing project in Cambridge, and I never went to a museum until a teacher in high school took me on a field trip to the Fogg,” said Al Ferreira, visual arts curriculum coordinator for the Cambridge Public Schools.

The trip changed his life. As a marginalized gay youth, he found that the arts offered him acceptance. “In the arts, diversity is embraced and celebrated,” Ferreira said.

Later, as a teacher and administrator, he has worked to bring students the message that art can play an important and life-enhancing part in their lives.

“There’s a perception that museums are beyond the reach of young people. We have to break down those perceived barriers. Young people need guidance in how to use museums.”

Ferreira is currently developing a program to acquaint students with conservation, exhibition design, and other occupations that contribute in important but less obvious ways to the art world. He believes that visiting art museums and galleries provides an educational experience for which there is no substitute.

“Nothing takes the place of standing in front of a great work of art, of seeing the real thing,” he said.