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Museums on the Syllabus

It didn’t take long for Melissa McCormick, Harvard College Professor and Professor of Japanese Art and Culture, to incorporate the Harvard Art Museums collections into her teaching. Just one day after the new museums’ official opening, McCormick brought 25 students to Japanese Genre Painting, an installation organized for her Introduction to Japanese Art course.

“Everything we’ve been talking about all semester is on display right now,” McCormick said. “It’s fantastic.”

McCormick is among the professors currently using the museums’ University Galleries, designed to support curricular goals and to encourage curatorial experimentation. These 1,000-square-foot spaces on Level 3—the University Teaching Gallery, University Study Gallery, and University Research Gallery—advance innovative teaching and learning from original works of art. The exhibitions in these flexible areas could be on view for a week, a semester, or longer, depending on course needs. A fourth space, the 250-square-foot University Collections Gallery on Level 2, provides a setting for art from other university collections; the first display features African objects from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography.

Japanese Genre Painting will be shown until the end of the spring semester. McCormick and Professor Yukio Lippit, who teaches history of art and architecture, collaborated with Melissa Moy, the museums’ Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art, to organize the installation. Lippit will refer his students to the exhibition for two of his spring courses, The Japanese Woodblock Print and Japanese Genre Painting.

The exhibition showcases seven works—five folding screens and two hanging scrolls—from the recently promised collection of Robert and Betsy Feinberg. These objects show the influence of Western perspectives on Japanese art of the Edo period (1600–1868)—a time when European explorers introduced new principles in composition, such as the use of a horizon line.

“I’ve been priming the students all semester for this moment,” McCormick said, noting that her class will also study objects in the Asian galleries on Level 2, and may visit the Art Study Center to view even more works. “It’s wonderful that we have that option,” she said.

Sharing the other half of the space in the University Teaching Gallery is World’s Fairs, an exhibition organized by Suzanne Blier, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Chair of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies. Featuring photographs, prints, etchings, and other objects drawn from the museums’ collections, the installation supports her course of the same name. The multimedia display is “another form of engaging with knowledge; it really offers critical insight,” said Blier.

The nearby University Study Gallery serves multiple professors and students and includes smaller displays that may change frequently. The inaugural configuration supports 10 courses in disciplines as diverse as music, ethics, and physics. Participating professors may ask students to examine individual works in the gallery as part of “looking assignments.”

Peter Burgard, a professor of German, is using the space to display four works that relate to topics in his spring course on Repression and Expression: Sexuality, Gender, and Language in Fin-de-siècle Literature and Art. The works include Untitled (1918), a watercolor by Wassily Kandinsky, and Edvard Munch’s arresting 1901 lithograph The Sin. Burgard plans to bring his class to both the University Study Gallery and the Art Study Center during the semester. “I’ve taught with art before, but it’s never been this integrated,” he said. “I’m pretty excited.”

The enthusiasm is contagious. Visiting the museums during an opening event for faculty, a number of other professors shared hopes of using the collections in new ways. Naomi Weiss, assistant professor of the classics, said she would like to create a display in the University Galleries for her courses Music and the Musical Imaginary in Archaic and Classical Greece and The Construction of Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece. “I quite regularly show images of Greek vases depicting musicality,” Weiss said, “but to be able to give access to the actual objects would be amazing.”


  • 01 Edvard Munch, The Sin, 1901. Print. Harvard Art Museums//Fogg Museum, Gift of Lynn G. Straus in memory of Philip A. Straus, 2012.270. © The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
  • 02 Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled, 1918. Watercolor, black ink, and graphite traces on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Anonymous gift in memory of Curt Valentin, BR56.50. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
  • 03 Harvard faculty gather in the University Study Gallery during an opening event last month.