CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — One might think that all art museums are in the business of teaching, but the “teaching museum” is a particular sub-category of the form, and for the most part limited to academic campuses. A teaching museum self-consciously and forthrightly embraces the idea that everyone should know something about art and that knowledge of art is fundamental to knowledge of the world. And there may be a subtle nuance in the word “teaching” as opposed to “education.” Most museums have education departments, but a teaching museum conceives of the process more actively, led by authoritative experts who are comfortable with the structural inequities of the student-teacher dynamic.
At Harvard, three art museums have now been united in one new building, designed by Renzo Piano, and everything about the building (which opened in November), and the newly installed galleries, expresses its mission as a teaching museum. The museums are now united around the central courtyard of the original Fogg Museum, but with space added above and below for classrooms, auditoriums, conservation and study facilities. From the outside, it is not one of Piano’s more elegant structures, but from the inside, the Italian architect, who has built so many museum additions in the past decade, has managed a deft fusion of the institution’s myriad functions, in a structure that doesn’t feel cobbled together but organically conceived from the beginning.
For that, due credit should be given to the leaders of the Harvard Art Museums, who obviously had a clear sense of the role they wanted the facility to play in the broader academic life of the university. It’s easy to talk about “breaking down barriers” between disciplines and academic departments and to bemoan the silos and territoriality of academic life. And it’s relatively easy to blow up those silos and disrupt the embedded habits of an institution. Much more difficult is to do both in a way that coaxes a new coherence out of the resulting mess. The happy surprise of the new museum, which reopened after six years of partial or total closure, is how smartly it handles the presentation of art, how easy it makes it for the curious visitor to learn something in a meaningful, efficient way.
The collection now unites what were once three distinct entities — the Fogg, which was the oldest and most traditional collection, with a focus on Western painting, sculpture and decorative arts; the 1903 Busch-Reisinger Museum, which was particularly strong on northern European, and especially German, art; and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which has a world-class collection of Asian art. But while the collections are now joined, they have not been scrambled. Some galleries blend art from all three, as well as from other collections around Harvard. But the result is a careful, targeted juxtaposition of material, rather than an impressionist melange. Interspersed among ancient statues are a Rodin and a Louise Bourgeois, and in a case devoted to small sculpture, a Cycladic figure sits near a gem by French-born 19th-century artist Gaston Lachaise. These are surprising but intelligent confrontations, suggesting genuine rather than accidental affinities.
The challenge when teaching is to structure knowledge without doing violence to its complexity and heterogeneity. Classifications by period and national tradition are useful and yet always messy; good teachers know how to erect a framework for knowledge without losing sight of all the details and contradictions that can’t be contained within it. Several galleries are structured to offer a useful scaffolding, but again, in a targeted way. A room devoted to “Rome and Its Influence in the 17th Century” has some of the museum’s most stunning pieces yet also mixes in drawings and prints. Another is self-explanatory: “Ancient Near Eastern Art in the Service of Kings.” These thematic groupings are complemented by the occasional broad-stroke treatment of cross-cultural practices or ideas, including an array of busts and sculpted heads from different historical and geographical origins, and the grouping of three portraits of powerful leaders: George Washington (by Gilbert Stuart), Napoleon (by Jacques-Louis David) and Little Elk (by Charles Bird King).
The building, topped by a glass pyramidal form, is comfortably arrayed around the arches of the old courtyard. The basics of the collection’s broad divisions are maintained with separate galleries, including some of the most appealing, devoted to 20th-century and contemporary art, on the ground floor. Two small breakout spaces, one given over to Bernini, another a meditative space with work by Chinese artist Zhan Wang, offer an internal escape from the museum itself, disconnecting the visitor from the larger program while introducing views to the outside.
The museum has been integrated with the university’s iconic building by Le Corbusier, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, by connecting to its dramatic flying walkway. Although clad in wood — a light-gray Alaskan yellow cedar — the boxy forms of the new addition feel more industrial, like a soft-textured concrete rather than organic material. But its relationship to the Carpenter Center — the only building by Corbusier in North America — feels as if it was determined from the inside out. From some galleries, windows frame picture-perfect views of the older, rigorously modernist structure. But from the outside, along Prescott Street, the Piano addition creates an awkward courtyard-like space between the two buildings that doesn’t feel particularly inviting or useful. Worse, along Broadway, the new addition puts a barricade wall to the city of Cambridge.
But inside, where gallery space has increased by 40 percent, the experience of the museum itself is entirely satisfying. On the ground floor, the museum connects in a more welcoming way to the world outside, through the east and west sides of the courtyard, which is public space and can be enjoyed without purchasing admission. The public also has access to the cafe and gift shop. But the essence of the experience is the collection itself, which is wonderfully rich and diverse, and presented in a way markedly different than most museums today. It puts one in the position of being a student of art, rather than simply an audience member or passive spectator.
It’s remarkable how that slight distinction — between an active and focused curiosity and the general, free-floating curiosity of the usual museum visitor — changes the entire sense of the institution. Museums educators from the larger world should take note. Teaching museums should be the norm, not the exception.