Student Voices: Exploring Boundaries in Art Museums
From January through December 2013, I worked as a research associate with Jessica Martinez, the Harvard Art Museums’ Director of Academic and Public Programs. In that role, I helped develop innovative programs meant to engage visitors at the new Renzo Piano facility opening this fall; created a tour that explores how architecture affects the way we encounter art; and contributed ideas about how some of the spaces in the building may be used. Working with Jessica greatly informed my own masters’ thesis, which I will present this month at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
My thesis, titled “Digital Jerusalem: Architectures of Post-Conflict Liminality,” is a proposal for an art museum situated in the historic, diverse, and contested city of Jerusalem. Unlike other museums, this “digital” museum features art comprised entirely of projections. When paintings and archaeological artifacts, such as temple remains, are projected they lose their mythic aura. Enlarged to an immersive scale, these artifacts are defamiliarized and become available for multiple interpretations. For example, a projected facsimile of a painting of Christ encourages new readings—not only about Christ’s historical status but also about the time and place in which the painting was created.
My experience at the Harvard Art Museums taught me that art is a medium of social discourse and that the museum is a site in which perceptual boundaries are crossed. For example, the museums’ curators are tasked with presenting a story or argument through the juxtaposition of art—and in some cases, art from different time periods and genres. Taking this proposition one step further, my thesis posits the museum as a site where stories themselves are juxtaposed to reveal overlapping and contesting subjectivities in an increasingly nuanced world.
My design of the museum building in Jerusalem challenges the idea of museum as monument. The building appears to float above a terrace on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City. From the perspective of the Old City, it looks like an ephemeral object, a tower that has been turned on its side, with many perforated screens or thresholds that visitors cross on bridges. This tenuous way of moving through a seemingly monolithic building creates a constant sense of being in between places.
As monuments, museums canonize collective memory into concrete form; in doing so, they cure a sense of longing by providing a sense of belonging. Yet, no matter how profound their effect, monuments can alienate those who do not identify with them. The goal of my thesis project is to imagine a monument that is in flux, constantly reconstructing itself to accommodate diverse audiences.
For this reason I arranged two distinct sets of art galleries in linear sequence, known as enfilade—one on each side of the horizontal tower. These two enfilades, one presenting a thesis and the other an antithesis, interlock to frame a liminal space. This space houses the back-of-house program (such as conservation labs and staff offices). When you move through the building, you experience a montage of the three spaces. The building thus makes the institution’s work explicit and invites the visitor to participate in this construction.
In the same way, at the Harvard Art Museums, Renzo Piano created a “Light Machine” in the Calderwood Courtyard that visually connects exhibition galleries of all three museums. Piano’s thoughtful interventions—such as the “storefront” galleries and new entrance on Prescott Street, the glass walls of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and the Lightbox Gallery, which provides digital access to the collections—make the museums’ educational mission transparent.
The overarching goal, both in my work at the Harvard Art Museums and in my design thesis, was to find ways to make art more accessible to the general public and to further the art museum’s role as a social entity in the city—a place of learning and the creation of knowledge—where art is the raw material for rich interpretations. In the context of my research and design, it is inspiring to see how the new Renzo Piano facility advances Harvard Art Museums’ mission of inclusion, interdisciplinary research, and critical thinking by giving tangible form to these ideas.
Waqas Jawaid is an M.Arch I candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.