They recently renovated / rebuilt Harvard’s Fogg Museum to the tune of $350,000,000 (you read that right!). It was closed from 2008-2014, and six years is along time to be without one’s local art museum.
My first thought was, oh no, they’re going to get rid of those cool bathrooms! Typical Liz worry. It was worse, though.
I work at Harvard, and one of the many perks of the job was to be able to visit the Fogg/Busch-Reisinger Museum for free whenever I felt like it. The Fogg was the original brick building, built in the 19th century, and the Busch-Reisinger, which formerly had been in a much cooler building across campus, was physically attached to the Fogg in the 80s. This “new” building had a lot of issues – water leaks, bad airflow, and many similar bad building qualities you really don’t want in a museum. The old building had issues too, and as a result, the museum found it difficult to borrow art from other institutions.
When I started at Harvard, I was working for the Fine Arts Library, which was in the lower level of the Busch-Reisinger, and I had a museum ID in addition to my Harvard ID. I was invited to the art museum’s annual Xmas party, which was held in the courtyard, and was the best Xmas party on campus (I do try to attend as many holiday parties as possible, so I’m a good judge; I think my record is 6 in one month). It was a great privilege.
Due to the building issues, they clearly needed to get rid of the 80s addition and rebuild something for the Busch-Reisinger to occupy. I had no problem with that – the “new” building was uninspired and problematic. However, they decided to also gut and rebuild the Fogg, which was an aesthetic tragedy as far as I was concerned.
When the museum was closed, I really missed it. There were a few rooms and works of art I would stop in and visit when I had a moment in the old days. This Max Beckmann self-portrait in the Busch-Reisinger is one of them.
Max, along with some other important works, was moved over to the Sackler for the duration, but it wasn’t the same. He didn’t seem as at home there – quite out of his element without all of his usual German neighbors at the Busch-Reisinger. I would stop by and see him now and then, but it was like visiting a friend in the hospital.
The new art museum, which combined again the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger and now also the Sackler under the new moniker Harvard Art Museums – HAM (!) re-opened in 2014, and I was horrified to discover the best room in the Fogg was gone.
Warburg Hall, something I took for granted would be reproduced in the new building, since it seemed like the second most important space there after the courtyard, is no more. Along with Max, this is a spot I visited over and over. It was like walking into a Renaissance palace; it had a balcony that allowed you to get close to the 16th century carved wooden ceiling and look over the room below, which was full of European renaissance treasures. It was most atmospheric and inspirational. Before I had ever been to Italy, I felt like I had been allowed a glimpse into the Uffizi or something. The paintings remain on display, but the ceiling is nowhere to be found. The paintings are now mixed into a typical modern gallery setting, one with lower ceilings, different lighting, and ho-hum atmosphere.
Did I mention the old Fogg was designed with some obvious inspiration from North Africa? I always felt a bit like I was in the Casbah when I climbed the stairs outside the Warburg room to its balcony. The light fixture in the photo above is no longer in the museum – it hangs over a door in the museum’s archives in Somerville, and now the doorways are properly square and boring.
Happily, the Naumburg Room was saved, but I haven’t been there in years.
I’m really surprised that none of the critical reviews I read of the new renovation included anything about how the art is displayed. They were all only about the architectural layout and the new glass pyramid that rises ridiculously through the roof, like a sci-fi prop. Does nobody care about the art museum as home for art?
Yes, yes, now the museum has a glassy new roof and a bigger gift shop (of course it does, this is the 21st century!), but it has lost a lot of its charm. A museum is not just a place to see art – it is a home for art. The building matters. Renzo Piano may be the hottest name in museum building these days, but his buildings lack heart. Plenty of light, many new, blank walls, but no mystery, just blank slate. The new building is a house but not a home.
Museums that are only about the art on the walls really pale in comparison with museums that are also about the building itself, the atmosphere of the galleries, and the display of the works. I feel like modern curators aspire to make their galleries as exciting as a website. When was the last time you felt inspired by a website? I truly want to know.
Another great room has disappeared – although its greatness was purely curatorial. I think it was called the Winthrop room, and it gathered together into one gallery paintings that I found both ridiculous and wonderful. They were from the extensive Winthrop Collection, and most are still on display, but they have lost their intoxicating power now that they’ve been mixed in with unlike works.
How to describe these? The paintings included some goofy romantic Pre-Raphaelite stuff, classics of 19th century Middle East exoticism, illustrative works of myths and legends, and other art that celebrated sex in a fetishistic way – think harems and maidens in distress and scantily-clad slaves.
It was probably this “Art and Sensuality of the 19th Century” exhibit. Included in the exhibition were Moreau’s THE APPARITION (1877), Winslow Homer’s PITCHING QUOITS, an Eastern-looking document of the American Civil War, A number by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Including 1863’s MY LADY GREENSLEEVES, and my favorite, Hunt’s garishly colored THE MIRACLE OF THE SACRED FIRE, CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE (1899).
All told, it was somewhat embarrassing for near-WASPs like myself. It’s the kind of stuff that makes one feel a bit mortified if you identify as/with the white upper class. A silly chapter in art history, but certainly not a boring one!
The new layout of the museum brings you back in time. You start on the ground floor with contemporary art and move back as you ascend. Or perhaps you start at the top in ancient times and exit through the Now. The collection of the Sackler Museum has been incorporated into the museum, and I don’t like it. Combining the Fogg with the Busch-Reisinger seemed to make sense – most of it is art of Europe and the US (which most people, I think, consider a child of Europe when it comes to art). Adding in the ancient art of the East seems like a push. To me, it’s a startling clash to move from the pre-war avant-garde of Germany into the ancient art of China. Not that there isn’t nice stuff in the ancient Chinese section (like this adorable fellow, below), but it just made more sense when it was in a physically different museum. It feels forced, like the curators are like, well if you like art you are being racist by not visiting the Sackler or something. Art is art! Decide for yourself, I guess.
The new courtyard lacks the old-timey-ness of the previous one, so of course I am not a big fan. I’m happy it is still there, and it’s not terrible. There is now a café on the ground floor, and you can go there and hang out in the glass-topped courtyard without buying a ticket to the museum, which is nice. Sometimes I go there for coffee with my co-workers because we work next door in the Carpenter Center. The coffee is good!
But I was right, they wrecked the nice old bathrooms.