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Harvard University Art Museums

Description of the Museum

Harvard University Art Museums
Institutional Profile

Although Harvard had acquired two large collections of prints earlier in the nineteenth century, the history of the Art Museums at Harvard began in 1891, when Harvard University received an unexpected bequest of $220,000 from Mrs. William Hayes Fogg. When the original Fogg Art Museum opened in 1895, it housed mostly reproductions. Its collections, its role in the University, and its relationship to the world at large had yet to evolve.

The spiritual founders of the Art Museums were Edward Forbes (director, 1909-1944) and Paul Sachs (assistant director/associate director/professor of Fine Arts, 1915-1944), who enunciated the ideal of the Fogg as a "laboratory for the Fine Arts" and advocated using "original art works of the highest quality" for teaching the young about art. The three-part focus of their program was to train professionals in the burgeoning new field of art museum administration, to provide resources for the teaching of college and university teachers in art history, and to expose undergraduates of all kinds to the importance of art in all human cultures. The application of science to the study of art and art conservation also began under Forbes when he established what has become the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. During this period, the role of the Harvard University Art Museums as catalysts, as generators of ideas and information for the art world, and as training centers for professionals in art history and for public museums was established.

The Busch-Reisinger Museum, originally the Germanic Museum and a branch of the Germanic Languages Department, became affiliated with the Fogg after Charles Kuhn became curator in 1930. Kuhn began actively collecting original works of art and, by the time of his retirement in 1968, had assembled one of the finest collections of German Expressionist art in the world. His active and highly original exhibition program brought many new artists to Boston and had a lasting effect on the understanding of German modern art both locally and nationally.

After plans for the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (opened in 1985) to house ancient, Asian, and Islamic art and related programs were made in the early 1980s, the Museums adopted the name "Harvard University Art Museums" to reflect their unified administration. Werner Otto Hall opened in 1991 to house parts of the Fine Arts Library and to provide a new home for the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which moved from Adolphus Busch Hall in 1987. Adolphus Busch Hall is presently open for the display of casts of medieval sculpture. Plans are underway for the renovation of Busch Hall as a fully functioning gallery of medieval art. In April 1994 the Mongan Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs opened to house all works of Western art on paper.

The Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, established in 1928 by Edward W. Forbes and residing in the Fogg Art Museum, is the oldest fine arts conservation treatment, research, and training facility in the United States. Currently under renovation and due to open in 1996 in state-of-the-art facilities, the Center specializes in the conservation of works of art on paper, paintings, sculpture, decorative objects, and historic and archaeological artifacts. While the Center provides services for the Harvard University Art Museums and other Harvard departments, its clients encompass a broad range of institutions -- including historical societies, regional or specialized museums, archives, libraries, and historical sites.

The Center is a pioneer in the use of sophisticated techniques to analyze the structural and chemical nature of works of art and historical objects. As a research institution, the Center specializes in performing integrated technical and art historical studies of works of art. Its fully equipped facilities support a comprehensive range of analytical services, including pigment, stone, ceramic, and metal identification; spectroscopic analyses of organic materials, including pigments, paint binding media, and surface treatments and coatings. Much of the analytical staff's time is devoted to providing support for students, faculty, and curatorial research.

The Sardis Expedition, established in 1958 by George M.A. Hanfmann, then curator of ancient art, and jointly sponsored by the Art Museums, Cornell, and the University of California, Berkeley, continues the Museums' tradition of active research and practical training in archaeology in a major dig in Turkey.

The Forbes-Sachs vision inspired many, some of whom became founders or directors of major museums or leading professors in the field while others became major collectors who donated works of art to Harvard and to museums in their own community. There are 46 Harvard-educated directors and curators currently working at other major art museums in the United States. There are 18 Directors, 1 Director-CEO, 1 Associate Director-Chief Curator, 1 President-CEO, 1 Assistant Director, 2 Chairmen, 3 Chief Curators, 18 Curators, and 1 Associate Curator.

The Harvard University Art Museum's collections comprise over 150,000 objects and form one of the most extensive and important art holdings in the world. The collections are especially strong in Asian, ancient, and European art, with a good representation of North American art from the colonial period to the present. The Drawings Collection is one of the finest and most comprehensive of its kind in the United States, ranking in importance with those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library. The Busch-Reisinger is the only museum of Central and Northern European art in North America. The collection of ancient Chinese jades is the largest single collection in the world, the Korean ceramics collection is one of the most comprehensive of its kind and contains the greatest holdings of archaeological materials outside of Korea, and the collection of Japanese surimono is regarded among finest in the world.

The collections of pre-Raphaelite, Italian early Renaissance and 19th c. French paintings rank among the most important in the world, with the largest holdings of Ingres and Moreau outside of France. The collections of Persian and Mughal Indian paintings and drawings rank in terms of quality with those of the British Library, the British Museum, and the Bibliotheque Nationale.

The Art Museums' original and traditional audience consisted of undergraduate and graduate students of Harvard University studying the Fine Arts. Over time, the collections have grown in depth, breadth, and significance and our scholarly publications and exhibitions have grown in ambition and importance. The Art Museums developed a local, national, and international audience. Over 85,000 people visit the galleries every year.

Because of the tradition of service to students, the collections, including those not on public display, are extraordinarily accessible to the public and widely used by faculty in other parts of the University; by students and faculty of other colleges, universities, and art schools in New England; by visiting scholars; and by the general public. Any interested member of the public may make an appointment with the appropriate curatorial department to view any work in the collections that is not currently on exhibition. Several departments maintain regular open hours, including some on weekends, during which students and any other interested persons can visit to view works of art normally in storage. Special seminars open to the public provide an opportunity for people outside the University to work closely with important original works of art in the collections. An active publications program further enhances exposure of the collections and related research to a broad audience. In addition to publishing exhibition catalogues, the Art Museums also regularly produce publications on the permanent collections aimed primarily at a general audience and students but also valuable to scholars.

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Last Modified: Tuesday, 13-Aug-1996 18:39:07 EDT