All in Perspective
This story is part of a series of articles about “museum-speak,” or the lingo of those who work in museums, as well as museum-related knowledge. It is intended to deepen your understanding of the behind-the-scenes workings of a museum, and in particular the operations of the Harvard Art Museums.
There’s an invisible force at work inside the museums. It keeps curators and staff on their toes and visitors circulating around the galleries. It provides visual intrigue as well as continuity throughout the building. It’s the power of sight lines.
Sight lines—the fields of vision extending from any given spot—are essential to the design and layout of galleries and exhibitions at the Harvard Art Museums. Curators, art handlers, and exhibition designers carefully consider visitors’ sight lines as they install works of art; the intention is to ensure that every possible point of view enriches the visitor experience. Sight lines fulfill a number of important purposes, including indicating the subject of a gallery as well as attracting visitors to take a closer look at a work of art.
“Sight lines really matter in terms of getting visitors excited about what they’re going to see,” said A. Cassandra Albinson, the Margaret S. Winthrop Curator of European Art. “Our first job as curators is getting people into the museums and drawing them into the galleries; sight lines help us do that. Once visitors are in the galleries, they can enjoy not only the piece of art [that was in their sight line], but also everything around it.”
Indeed, the redesigned Harvard Art Museums were built with sight lines in mind. Whether you’re standing in the courtyard, underneath the arcades surrounding it, inside the galleries, or even outside the building, you can glimpse at least one work of art, and usually many at once—a purposeful result of architect Renzo Piano’s focus on transparency and interconnectedness throughout the building.
For instance, if you stand inside the museums’ Quincy Street entrance and face the Calderwood Courtyard, you can view multiple works of modern and contemporary art without taking another step. Turning to the right, you can see straight into a gallery from which Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors (1941–42) compels closer investigation. Turning to your left, you’ll see another key work, Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Double Rubber Plinth) (1996). And if you look straight ahead, even more objects beckon, including Carlos Amorales’s gleaming Triangle Constellation (2015), which hangs above the courtyard.
Strategic Sight Lines
“We’ve done a lot of thinking about how the courtyard arches frame the galleries and the works of art in the arcades,” said Miriam Stewart, curator of the collection for the Division of European and American Art. Determining where to place individual objects, particularly when it comes to prominent sight lines such as those in and around the courtyard, is “not always easy.”
Art handlers, curators, and exhibition designers worked together to install art around the courtyard before the museums’ 2014 reopening. Mock-ups of objects, made to scale, were used to test out sight lines before anyone committed to a permanent installation. Then, “curators walked around the perimeter of the courtyard, and sometimes even the perimeter of other floors, to understand the sight lines from all directions,” said Karen Gausch, manager of exhibition production and collections care. Only after adjustments were made and sight lines deemed ideal were the actual objects installed.
The same process is often repeated as works are rotated into and out of galleries. It usually goes without saying that objects being considered for key sight lines, such as across from entryways, must be visually exciting; often, they need to be large enough and have enough of an impact to communicate from a distance. Corrado Giaquinto’s The Presentation in the Temple (c. 1764–65) is a good example: with its strong composition, large size, and bright gold frame, the work is perfect for a prominent sight line. It hangs across from the entrance of a European and American art gallery in the middle of Level 2, where it is potentially the first thing visitors see after exiting the elevator or stairs.
Objects in highly visible spaces assume extra responsibility. From a curatorial standpoint, these objects must provide an interesting angle on or even serve as a representative of the topic(s) being explored within the gallery.
In this way, sight lines also help visitors navigate. Visitors who don’t have a preconceived idea of how to explore the galleries can use the visual cues from their own perspectives to make on-the-spot decisions about where to go next. For instance, a visitor who is walking underneath the Level 2 arcades (which are filled with European and American paintings) might look up to the arcades on Level 3, where they will see examples of Classical sculptures, such as the Roman Youthful Hero or God (1st or 2nd century CE). The sculptures hint to the visitor what is on display in the surrounding galleries.
With sight lines serving so many essential functions, it makes sense that such careful consideration goes into their planning. And yet there’s no practical need for visitors to ever think about the concept. After all, their attention is probably (and hopefully) captured by the many works of art in front of them—visible from nearly every possible perspective.