♦ The Transformation of Harvard University Art Museums

Sabrina McGill

Image 1, Proposed design for the new Harvard Art Museums building, View from Broadway and Prescott Street, "Harvard Art Museums/Transformation." 2009. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/about/transformation.dot.

Harvard University’s Art Museums are located on the college’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They consist of three buildings: the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museums. The Fogg Museum was built in 1895, making it the oldest art museum at Harvard. The Busch-Reisinger Museum was technically created in 1903 as the Germanic Museum, but was later renamed and moved to its present location on Quincy Street. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum building located at 485 Broadway was completed in 1985. Currently the museums are undergoing a large transformation aimed at bringing together the three spaces into one large facility branching from the Fogg building that will “broaden the scope of [the museum’s] role on campus and in the community.”[1] The new facility is expected to open in 2013.

When construction began in 2008, a selection of the finest works from the collections of all three buildings was put on display in the Sackler Museum where visitors are now directed. The other two museums have closed. In order to envision the future culmination of these museums into the new unified facility, it is important to understand the identities of each museum prior to 2008.[2]

Fogg Museum

The Fogg Museum was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and built in 1895. The original building was located at present day Canaday Hall in Harvard Yard. Mrs. William Hayes Fogg funded the first construction of the building in honor of her husband. It originally housed both Harvard’s Division of Fine Arts and the school’s collection of art. Connecting the two in one building was thought to best utilize the collection for its intended purpose of education. At the time, the collection consisted of casts, photographs, and a small selection of original drawings. A donation of a number of early paintings came to the museum from its director Edward W. Forbes, its associate director Professor Paul J. Sachs, and others, only a few years after its opening. Because of these new acquisitions, plans for a larger more adequate museum space started in 1906. After almost twenty years of planning, fund raising, and construction, a new structure was opened at 32 Quincy Street in 1927.

            The newly expanded Fogg Museum was expected to maintain its bond between a practical and beautiful place to display works of art and a well-equipped setting for class instruction and studio space for students. The galleries, lecture halls, and studio spaces were arranged so it was necessary to pass through the galleries to get to the class spaces, almost forcing the viewing of art upon students. The new space allowed its impressive collection more room to breathe on the walls, as well as boasted a revolutionary viewing space with natural light and sliding screens for students to closely examine works not on display. The Fogg Museum also proved to have a liberal policy towards contemporary art, as it created a department of the motion picture and committed itself to preserving the best films of each year as works of art. This institution established itself as a vital contribution to America’s art discussion then, and continues to maintain this prestige now.[3]

            Currently the nation’s premier teaching museum, the Fogg’s collection holds works of art from the Middle Ages to present day. Western paintings, photographs, prints, drawings, sculpture, and decorative arts make up this renowned collection. Its most notable strengths are early Italian Renaissance, British Pre-Raphaelite, and nineteenth-century French art, as well as nineteenth and twentieth-century American paintings and drawings.[4]

Busch-Reisinger Museum

In 1903, The Busch-Reisinger Museum opened as The Germanic Museum in a former gymnasium, Rodgers Hall, and has since transformed quite a bit. The Germanic Museum moved to a new home in Adolphus Busch Hall in 1921 and given its current name in 1950. The Busch-Reisinger Museum relocated once more to Werner Otto Hall in 1991 at 32 Quincy Street where it stands today.

An exhibit on the Museum's history is now on view, as well as the founding collection of plaster casts of medieval art and its famous Flentrop pipe organ. The museum is known for being the only museum in North America focusing on the study of the Central and Northern European German-speaking countries. The strengths of its collection are Austrian Secession art, German expressionism, 1920s abstraction, Bauhaus related material, late medieval sculpture, and eighteenth-century art.[5]

Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Unlike the other two Harvard Art Museums, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum was built in 1985 and has remained in its original location ever since. Harvard’s collection of Asian, Islamic, ancient, and Indian art had grown so large it was in need of its own space, which sparked the planning of its 485 Broadway location in 1977.

Today the Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s world-renowned collection consists of archaic Chinese jades and Japanese surimono, Chinese and Korean ceramics, and Japanese woodblock prints. The collection also includes Buddhist cave-temple sculptures, calligraphy, narrative paintings, and lacquer boxes. Greek vases, small bronzes and coins from throughout the ancient Mediterranean world are another exciting addition to the Sackler Museum. Rounding out the collection are stunning works on paper from Islamic lands and India, and eighth through nineteenth-century Islamic ceramics.[6]


Harvard’s website uses the word “transformation” to describe the renovation, construction, and moving, estimated to cost between $350 to $400 million,[7] that is taking place during this “essential turning point” for the school’s art museums. World-renowned architect Renzo Piano was hired to design this state-of-the-art facility that aims to provide more space to display works, and to expand places to study. Harvard also aims to achieve “seamless integration” between the old Fogg building with its iconic courtyard, and the new wings added onto the existing structure that will house the other two museums’ collections. Harvard Art Museum Director Thomas W. Lentz said in an interview in 2010 that “what we like about this idea is that it allows us to have a much greater dialogue between those three collections.”[8]  But throughout the transformation, possibly the most important goal the school must consider is its historical dedication to teaching and research within the arts.

            The new planned research and study centers will provide students, scholars, faculty, and members of the public with access to the thousands of art objects in storage within their collection of over 250,000 objects. The study centers are said to become a “hallmark” of the new museum that allow for learning through close inspection of precious works of art. The Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler will each have their own unique study space catering to their specific needs. Students will have the ability to choose objects to view based on their studies, but there will also be the option of participating in faculty-guided group learning that will take place in the facility’s seminar rooms.

For the museum visitor, an online learning resource will be available to help educate them on methods to further explore fine art. The visitor will also have access to an easy to use database of each artwork in the Harvard Museums for individual investigation. Once the visitor chooses a work to study, curators and study center staff will deliver the work to the space. Analysis of the works’ details, craftsmanship, and other physical properties is made possible through encouraged handling of the work with supervision from museum staff. All of this observation will take place in an expansive area with ample table space and more than adequate lighting derived from mostly natural sunlight.[9]


With three large, historically significant buildings already in place for art museums on Harvard’s campus, questions about use of space are undoubtedly linked to this transformation. Little information can be found about what Harvard will use the Busch-Reisinger and Sackler structures for once construction of the new museum space is complete. Was this expansion really necessary? Are the other buildings no longer being used for art museums going to be put to good use? Will the new space combining the three museums accomplish the goal of keeping communication open through the collections? Will the students of Harvard feel inspired to learn amongst an estimated increase in tourists and outside visitors? Will interaction with the art feel as intimate in such a large complex? Not knowing the answer to these questions is a risk Harvard was willing to take.

            Space is a concern, but even more questions can be raised about Harvard’s motives. The new Harvard Art Museum seems to be stepping fast away from the canon of a university art museum and moving into the discussion of a monumental institution soon to be compared with the most significant non-university museums in the country. These types of museums generate larger amounts of revenue, receive larger amounts of funding, and attract a much greater amount of foot traffic. Aside from expanding education to its students, is Harvard interested in the commercial tourist attraction potential this new museum holds? Are they excited by the dominance they will hold over university art museums around, not just the country, but also the globe, with their state-of-the-art facility and their title as the number one most sought after academic university? The answer is most likely-- yes.

Even though there might be gray areas surrounding the potential of the Harvard Art Museum, its dedication to supporting and sharing knowledge of the arts is an admirable endeavor. Attention that any form of fine art can garner is attention well deserved. Having institutions like Harvard to provide art programs of the highest caliber, exhibition spaces designed with art’s importance at the forefront, and teaching facilities that accomplish excellence in every way, are invaluable resources to the student, the artist, the public, the professional, the community, the country, and the global art conversation.


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Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin 2, no. 2 (1993): 5-23.

Dudley, Laura H. "The Fogg Museum of Harvard University." Museum of Fine Art

Bulletin 11, no. 64 (1913): 35-41. 

Kumar, Gautam S.. "Fogg Museum Renewal Continues The Harvard Crimson". (2011),

1, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/3/11/fogg-art-museum-harvard.

(accessed May 11, 2011).

Siple, Ella S. "The Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard." The Burlington

Magazine for Connoisseurs 50, no. 291 (1927): 309-307.

"The Art Museums and Undergraduate Education at Harvard." Director's Report

(Harvard University Art Museums) no. 1987/1988 (1987): 54-58. 

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http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/about/history/ (accessed May 10,2011).

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[1] "Harvard Art Museums/Transformation." 2009. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/about/transformation.dot.

[2] "Harvard University Construction Mitigation." 2009. http://www.construction.harvard.edu/32quincyst/index.html

[3] Siple, Ella S. "The Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 50, no. 291 (1927): 309-307.

[4] "Harvard Art Museums/History." 2009. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/about/history.

[5] "Harvard Art Museums/History." 2009. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/about/history.

[6] "Harvard Art Museums/History." 2009. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/about/history.

[7] Kumar, Gautam S.. "Fogg Museum Renewal Continues The Harvard Crimson". (2011), 1,


[8] Kumar, Gautam S.. "Fogg Museum Renewal Continues The Harvard Crimson". (2011), 1,


[9] "Harvard University Art Museums/ Study Centers." 2009. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/study-and-research/studycenters.dot