An Atypical Night at the Museum


The excitement and splendor of the Harvard Art Museums Student Opening

HAM exterior_09.18.14_Photo Nic Lehoux_605.014


Thursday, November 6th, was an atypical night for the many curious Harvard students who patiently waited in line for tickets to the Harvard Art Museum student opening. The newly renovated building assembled three pre-existing museums, namely the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. According to the Museums’ website, the collection as a whole includes a staggering 250,000 objects from every era since ancient times and objects from the Americas, Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Asia. It also includes objects of a wide variety of media, from film to decorative objects to shelves with potatoes.
However, the collection was not the only art we saw; the building itself was just as astonishing. Drew Faust was certainly on point when she remarked that “Renzo Piano has designed a building that is as beautiful as the works of art it will house and as thoughtful as the people who will work and learn within it,” as quoted in a press release on the museum’s website. The first floor resembles a vibrant Italian plaza, which, on the night of the opening, buzzed with energy.

While DJ duo AndrewAndrew filled the tall space with house music, bartenders made virgin cocktails on the spot and waiters served bruschetta and macaroons. After several short speeches from members of the Museums’ Student Board, museum director Thomas Lentz, and Dean Khurana, attendees had the opportunity to mingle and explore the six floors of the museum before a dance show from the Harvard Dance Project.

Walking through the museum was simultaneously exciting and overwhelming, I felt torn between my desire to see everything on display at once and that to take my time on each and every individual work of art. The first encounter was certainly a very special one. It challenged the way I had previously thought of museums, shifting them from a space to silently and reverentially appreciate and learn about art to a social space as well, fostering discussion and interaction. One exciting feature of the galleries is the drawers underneath some of the vitrines. When presented with a sleek handle directly under a case containing art objects, viewers are encouraged to pull out the drawer and see what surprising work of art lurks inside. This feature didn’t just provide a satisfying tactile experience to the mostly visual act of observing the art. It also made me want to call over friends and strangers to make sure they didn’t miss treasures like the intricately-carved vessels hidden under the cabinet of silvers, or the playful nesting boxes in a drawer of the contemporary gallery.

The architecture itself also seems to encourage social interaction and new types of observation. Standing in one area around the central hall of the building, it was very easy to spot others walking through the arcades on the other levels, almost removing intimacy from the experience. Standing on the upper levels during the event, it was interesting to look down onto the ground floor and see so many people mingling and enjoying the music below. However, the drive to stare at the people present and to inspect the geometry of the building is submerged the second you stand in front of one of the paintings, photographs, or sculptures of the galleries surrounding the central area of the building. The collection is certainly awe-inspiring and what struck me most were the Mark Rothko murals, supplemented by digital projections. You could notice the evolution in Rothko’s work from the figurative to the abstract. And the spirituality related to the colors he uses was also very evident. It is such a privilege to be able to engage with paintings we have only ever learned about in art classes or seen online.

Throughout the night, everyone seemed at ease. We were struck by how “grown-up” it felt to be there while looking at contemporary art, Middle-Eastern art, photographs and sculptures. “It is incredible to have a world-class art collection right on campus that all of us can visit easily,” Anna Lea Albright ’17 happily remarked to me. We all certainly felt that way. Not only do we now have free access to a remarkable art collection — both in the galleries and in the study centers, where students can make appointments to see objects up close — but we also have a space in which to share our own experiences while learning from our friends’.

Herda Xhaferaj ’17 (hxhaferaj@college) knows she’ll be back in the museum as soon as it opens to the public on November 16th.