Campus & Community

Students first

5 min read

Renovated Harvard Art Museums’ doors open to hundreds of young guests

In keeping with its teaching and learning mission, the renovated Harvard Art Museums welcomed their first visitors: hundreds of appreciative University students.

“This is so exciting,” said Danielle Frostig ’18 as she paused with friends Thursday evening in one of the Fogg Museum’s second-floor galleries.

Frostig, who attended an arts high school, said she’d heard much about the museums during her Visitas session last spring. “And then I walk in here, and the very first painting I see is a really famous Monet, and it’s mind-blowing. And I’ve only been in two rooms so far.”

Frostig was one of the many undergraduate and graduate students eager to get a look at the expanded and enhanced museums. The students snapped up tickets for the opening party that included sparkling non-alcoholic drinks, hors d’oeuvres, dueling D.J.s clad in matching plaid suits, and, of course, access to the eclectic galleries.
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“This is amazing. I can’t wait to be here in the daytime,” one student told a friend in the Lightbox Gallery on the top floor, a multimedia presentation space that offers expansive views into the conservation labs, as well as of architect Renzo Piano’s glass roof above and the iconic Calderwood Courtyard below.

A few floors down, in an ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern art gallery in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, sophomore Yusuph Mkangara marveled at sections of an ancient sarcophagus depicting scenes of men battling Amazon warriors.

“There’s so much to see here,” said Mkangara, an African studies and sociology concentrator and Quincy House resident. “I feel bad for anybody who’s here for just a weekend.”

“It’s a really beautiful space that we can come to every day,” echoed his classmate Janice Jia ’17.

Earlier in the evening, a smaller group of students who helped ready the museums and will serve as guides when the building officially opens to the public on Nov. 16 were encouraged by chief curator Deborah Kao to make the evocative space their “laboratory of experimentation.”

“Create here, and meet self-set challenges,” said Kao. “Allow for your failures as a means to gain mastery. Be a producer of your own propositions.”

By welcoming students in the doors first, museums officials were delivering an important message, said sophomore Jess Clay, a Cabot House resident training to be a student guide. “It shows the emphasis is very much on the students” and that the museums are not “the ivory tower,” he said.

As the party got under way, some visitors transformed the courtyard into an impromptu disco, dancing to Pharrell Williams’ infectious “Happy.” The song matched the mood of the evening as students from across the University reveled in the reimagined museum spaces. In a gallery featuring a number of studies and works on paper by abstract artist Mark Rothko, senior Nick Mendez shot a quick text to his dad, Ken Mendez ’82.

“He said ‘the museum was my former home,’” said Mendez of his father, a history of art and architecture concentrator. The elder Mendez said he was happy to see his son enjoying the space, which took years to recreate.

“We were here as freshmen, and this was never an opportunity for us,” added Nick Mendez. “That we get to be here now and get to experience it and be included as part of the community … it’s really wonderful.”

Later, members of the Harvard Dance Project entertained the crowd with a sneak peek at its performance of “Look Up” in the Calderwood Courtyard this weekend. The dancers grooved on the bluestone floor as their performance was projected behind them on a video screen with help from artists E.S.P. TV, who helped produce the high-energy event. The show’s title proved fitting. Many of the students who streamed through the building’s Quincy Street entrance immediately gazed skyward, taking in the revamped courtyard, the arcades, and Piano’s “glass lantern.”

Encouraged to wear festive dress, many guests arrived decked out in suits, strappy sandals, and sequins. Those looking to add an extra flourish clipped on paper bow ties that were handed out as they entered.

Smartphones were ubiquitous and welcomed. Visitors took selfies with friends on the second level, with the courtyard and the adjacent terraces as their backdrop. No flash was allowed, but visitors could snap shots of their favorite artworks, with a few exceptions in restricted pieces.

Near the Prescott Street entrance, visitors took in the sprawling, site-specific work by German artist Rebecca Horn. Commissioned for the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Horn’s “Flying Books Under Black Rain Painting” blends performance and kinetic sculpture.

The day before, a small group of students watched as Horn directed her “painting machine” to splash black ink on a double-story wall as well as on three opening-and-closing books: Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet,” Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The pages of the paint-splattered books will continue to flutter periodically as viewers pass, activated by motion detectors.